Today, the demand for agarwood far exceeds supply. A recent study revealed that supply rates are only 40% of the demand and a litre of agarwood oil can be sold for around $US10,000 – 14,000 on the market (Vietnam Chemical Technology Institute, 2007). Indeed agarwood is reputed to be the most expensive wood in the world and it is estimated that specialized buyers are prepared to pay as much as ten times more for this product.
There are no obvious external signs that a tree may contain agarwood and, if it does, the quantity can only be fully determined after the tree has been felled and cut open. The search for the product therefore results in indiscriminate felling of trees and degradation of habitats, causing a loss of the ecological niche for agarwood producing species and a dramatic decline in wild Aquilaria species in the last few decades.
Populations of eight Aquilaria and 15 Gonystylus species have declined to the point at which they are categorized as threatened according to the 2007 IUCN Red List (IUCN, 2007). Out of four listed species of Wikstromia two are believed to be extinct. All species of Aquilaria, Gonystylus and Gyrinops are listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) requiring CITES Parties to issue export permits or reexport certificates in international agarwood trade.
Even though it is illegal to cut and harvest agarwood-producing species in most countries of Southeast Asia, the value of agarwood is so high that wild populations continue to be under threat in all countries where the taxa occur. Tracking down and documenting trade quantities is therefore challenging, and it is virtually impossible to determine which species are being traded, as all agarwood reported in trade is generally referred to as Aquilaria spp. or A. malaccensis.
Agarwood is exported in various forms (wood chips, powder, oil and as finished products such as perfumes, incense and medicines), and the main importers are countries in the Middle and Far East – in particular the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (where agarwood is known as oudh), as well as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.