Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gyrinops walla (walla patta): Myths and reality in the Sri Lanka context

Gyrinops walla is a plant member of Family Thymalaeaceae which is known as the Agarwood family in the commercial world. Agarwood is a highly valuable fragrance compound produced as a result of a defense mechanism of certain members of the Agarwood Family. Some species of Aquilaria, Gonystylus, Aetoxylon and Gyrinops are capable of producing Agarwood inside their stems. Although Agarwood has been known to the world before about 2,000 years, commercial extraction in high scale started recently. In parallel to that scientific research has also been started in many countries to identify the plant distribution in the world, Agarwood resin extraction methods and induction methods. The best quality Agarwood is now produced in the countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand etc. The traditional market existed for the products in Middle East, China, Thailand etc and now it is becoming very popular in US and Europe.

Among the species mentioned above, Gyrinops walla locally known as Walla patta grows only in the Wet Zone of Sri Lanka as a medium high tree. Traditionally the bark of this species was used as a binding material and apart from that, the tree had no known value. However, knowing the Agarwood producing abilities of other members of this Family, Dr. Upul Subasinghe, a Senior Lecturer of the Department of Forestry and Environmental Science of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura of Sri Lanka thought about the Agarwood producing ability of Walla patta. He started researching on this species with his colleagues from late 2010 and was able to compare the compounds of Walla patta agarwood with other commercially available agarwood. Further to that, he managed to gather available research and market information of commercially available agarwood species.

However, it was amazing to know that Walla patta smuggling has been practiced in Sri Lanka for a long time. That may have happened even prior to the research started by Dr. Upul Subasinghe. This has then attracted the Sri Lanka media and many articles have been published in recent on the need of research, law and regulations. The following two links direct to such two articles published in Daily News and Sunday Times newspapers in Sri Lanka

In his interview, Dr. Upul Subasinghe has clearly stated to the Sunday Times that there are similar compounds between Gyrinops and commercially available Agarwood. He further mentioned that there is a need to conduct further research using high quality equipment. However, it has to be emphasised that the final value and the quality are decided by the buyers since the product is used for fragrance and perfume manufacturing.

It should be known that all Walla patta trees do not contain Agarwood which is formed due to a defense mechanism in stop entering the intruders in to the stems. Certain experts mentioned in recent newspaper articles that the defense mechanism and the Agarwood formation inducing microbial species should be identified via research. However, Dr. Subasinghe emphasised that the research are needed to identify the Agarwood formation methods and Agarwood resin qualities of Walla patta. In addition to that it must be emphasised that every Walla patta tree grows naturally does not produce Agarwood resins. Therefore just by knowing the per kilo value of Agarwood as USD 200.00 or above, it does not mean the entire Walla patta tree stem costs that much. In reality the Agarwood resin production is about 1% of the stem (w/w) or even below. Therefore the extractable Agarwood amount from a Walla patta tree which contains Agarwood is very low. According to a study conducted in 2006 at the Department of Forestry and Environmental Science of the University of Sri Jayewardenpura by Dr. Upul Subasinghe and Indunie Welivita, the dry weight of an average size Walla patta tree is about 36.43 kg. The reason is the very low timber density of this species, i.e., 345 kg per cubic metre.

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