When dreaded forest brigand Kuse Muniswamy Veerappan was gunned down seven years ago, many thought that the brutality of the encounter, which mirrored Veerappan's jungle justice, would scare his followers to death and rampant sandalwood smuggling would eventually come to an end.

But if the records available with the state forest department are any indicator, sandalwood smuggling has only increased over the years.

Now numerous small-time smugglers, many of who may not be as organised as Veerappan and his gang, have become active and are running the show in the sandalwood forests, apparently filling the void created by the death of the brigand.

While the small-time smugglers are doing brisk business by plundering and selling natural wealth worth crores of rupees with near impunity, the forest department has pleaded helplessness in taming these brigands as it does not have adequate manpower.

According to the data available with MiD DAY, the government has not only failed to protect the precious trees from smugglers, but it has also been unable to give a much needed  boost to sandalwood production.

While the state's production of sandalwood was 4,316 kg in 2007-08, the consignments seized from the smugglers was 5,224.75 kg.

In 2009-10, sandalwood production touched a new low, while the quantity seized from the smugglers was 21,108.78 kg, the highest in the last four years.  A highly-place source in the forest department said that the consignment being seized from smugglers are of small quantities.

A highly-placed official told MiD DAY that most of the smugglers operating in the state are from Tamil Nadu and work in small groups of four to six members. "It is very difficult to track these mini Veerappans as they  operate between 2 and 5 am.

And nowadays most of them use battery operated saws and hence can hack a tree, cut it into logs of portable pieces and have it bundled up and ready to be smuggled out of the state in a substantially short period of time," the official said.

In the black market, one kg of sandalwood is sold for around Rs 5,000. Each tree produces around 70 to 80 kg of wood. And of the most of the loot from the state is smuggled over to mainly Tamil Nadu and Kerala, said the official.

Even as the state is unable to meet the demand of sandalwood, 10,000 tonne of seized sandalwood, which have been laying in the godowns, cannot be auctioned off as the cases are still pending in the court.

The other side
I B Srivastav, Principle Chief Conservator of Forest, Karnataka forest department, said, "All our squads are equipped with the latest communication devices. But we don't have enough men to cover all the areas." Agreeing that the consignments seized from smugglers were only the tip of the iceberg, Srivastav added, "We are doing everything we can to protect it and we have initiated process to fill up the vacant posts. Besides, we also are recruiting people on contract basis to handle the crisis in a better way."

Fact file
In 2007, the State Forest Department had made a proposal to install a metal guard around trees and to deploy security personnel around the trees in the sandalwood forest (in pic). As a pilot project, it was even taken up in the Institute of Wood Science, Bangalore, however, within months it was scrapped owing to high cost factors.

Rs 5K
Cost of 1 kg sandalwood in black market