Demand for red-colored woods in China is devastating Rosewood populations around the world, costing habitat and human lives.
Poaching of endangered species is mostly thought of in terms of animals – but that’s not the full story. As rich and diverse as the animal kingdom is, the vast plant kingdom is many times larger, holding even more opportunity for exploitation and illegal trade. And sadly, with the exception of a few animal species, illegal trade in these plants is even deadlier.
Some tropical hardwood trees have become such high commodities that they bring enormous rewards to those who will dare go after them. One group of such species is known as “Hongmu” in China, which drives the largest demand for these trees with red-colored wood. The 33 species of Hongmu are used to create red wooden furniture, which has become a status symbol for the newly rich in China. Rosewood, mahogany, ebony, sandalwood, blackwood and many more are considered Hongmu, and can fetch prices of $20,000 to $80,000 a ton.
Any Red Tree Will Do
Of the 33 species of Hongmu, 16 belong to the genus Dalbergia, or rosewoods, which are found in tropical rainforests around the world. There are more than 300 species of rosewood, but thanks to the demand of Chinese Hongmu markets, many more than just 16 of them are now endangered because of unsustainable logging. The problem is that traffickers don’t much care if the red-colored timber comes from one of the “official” Hongmu species; they go after any tree with the color, texture or density required to pass muster. As a result, tree poachers are targeting dozens and dozens of rosewood species in tropical countries in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The sheer scale of the illegal rosewood trade is immense, costing healthy trees, valuable wildlife habitat, and human lives. In the past decade, illegal exports of rosewood have skyrocketed, leaving behind decimated forests, and in some cases, total devastation.
Several countries have enacted complete bans on logging and export of their rosewood trees in an attempt to protect their forests, but it hasn’t always worked. In Belize, up to 90% of one species of rosewood was lost in just a few years. In Cambodia, legal and mostly illegal logging have driven their rosewood trees to near extinction, forcing illegal loggers to look for timber in neighboring countries, like Thailand.
A Human Cost
Thailand has strict regulations to protect their tropical trees, and doesn’t take kindly to foreign poachers coming in to log them. Yet protecting these valuable resources has had a terrible price in human life. In the past few years, more than 150 forest rangers, police, soldiers and illegal loggers have been killed. The high profits from timber trafficking have fostered corruption among government authorities, and in Cambodia the army itself supports and supplies illegal loggers. These tree poachers are now armed with AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles, as well as hand grenades.
On this side of the globe, the struggle is no less intense. In Mexico, crime syndicates control vast areas of tropical ecosystems where they decide what and where to log. They force local communities to illegally log rosewoods and all kinds of red-colored tree species for the Asian markets. Those who try to oppose are detained, beaten, robbed and warned not to try it again or else. The high price of Hongmu has also attracted even more dangerous criminals. In Nigeria, Senegal and Cote d’ Voire, Hongmu species are known as “blood timbers” because of their connection to the terrorist group Boko Haram.
A Step Towards Peace – and Protection
In an effort to control the illegal rosewood trade, countries have started to list their tree species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In 2013, working alongside the Species Survival Network, we helped get more than 50 species of Rosewood listed in Appendix II of CITES. That listing means much stricter rules around how these trees can be traded and what kind of documentation is required, making it much harder for timber smugglers to pass their wares off as legal, and equally difficult for Chinese customs officers to claim ignorance about whether or not a shipment is legal.
This year, we’re continuing the fight. There will be many proposals to list Hongmu species at the next CITES meeting in September. We’ve been working with CITES representatives in Guatemala to create a proposal that would list the whole genus of rosewoods (all 300 species) in the Appendix II – a huge gain towards protecting these trees. I’m happy to say that this proposal already has the support of many countries from Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Nevertheless, a proposal is only one part of the process. The hard part is getting enough votes from the more than 180 CITES member countries to get the proposals adopted. It won’t be easy. All kinds of economic interests (both legal and illegal stakeholders) will see these proposals as a threat, and most certainly try to derail them. But we overcame the same challenges at the last CITES meeting, and are already hard at work reaching out to representatives from other member countries to help them see how important it is – to wildlife, to forests, and to people – to take this step to prevent as much of this trade as possible. Hopefully, we’ll be successful once again.