Document Type


Publication Date


Journal / Book Title

The Indian Economic & Social History Review


Between 1950 and 1970, on average over 480,000 Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) trees were harvested annually in the state of Karnataka in southern India. Then, in 1974, it was suddenly discovered that there were only approximately 350,000 standing trees left in the entire state. Overnight, India’s sandalwood industry ground to a halt. The species was on the brink of extinction. Harvesting and trade in Indian sandalwood, long considered the most precious wood in the world, was ineffectively banned. Smugglers could now make more money by felling sandal trees than by poaching elephants for ivory. This article uses the history of sandalwood to assess claims about the nature and impact of colonial and postcolonial forestry, arguing that at least when it came to Indian sandalwood, though European foresters did overexploit the species and also failed to conserve it, the real watershed moment for the species came not during the colonial period but rather in the independence period when industrialisation led to a major endangerment crisis for the tree.