- Rosewood, famed for its blood red hue, is the world's most trafficked wildlife product. It accounts for a third of all seizures recorded by the UNODC from 2005-2014.
- Most of the valuable Siamese rosewood has already been logged out in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, leaving Thailand's remaining stands prey to cross-border incursions by poaching gangs.
- Seven wildlife rangers died in 2015 in incidents related to the Siamese rosewood trade, along with an unknown number of poachers, but the trade continues unabated.
THAP LAN NATIONAL PARK, Thailand — One fresh chain for a saw, around fifty cans of sardines, a plastic bag full of garlic, and a few empty rice sacks. Wildlife ranger Salak Chairacha takes an inventory of the latest environmental crime scene in Thailand’s Thap Lan National Park.
“They must have been disturbed, the garlic is still fresh so they must have just been here during the rainy season,” he says. Salak is referring to the troops of loggers relentlessly making illegal incursions into Thailand’s eastern national parks to fell Siamese rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis). An endangered hardwood species famed for its blood red hue, most of the valuable Siamese rosewood has already been logged out of three of its Mekong range states: Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Thailand’s remaining stocks have been left prey to the bulk of the rampant continued targeted logging.
Transnational organized crime has rendered rosewood the world’s most trafficked wild product, according to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, accounting for over a third of all seizures by value between 2005-2014. In the first few years of the 21st century alone, approximately $2.4 billion dollars worth of “hongmu” (red wood) timber was exported to China from the Mekong Region, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Large groups of loggers are still making illegal incursions into Thap Lan, and the rest of Thailand’s eastern Dong Phayayen – Khao Yai Forest Complex (DPKY-FC, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005), often for weeks at a time to target the wood.
Illegal logging in Thailand’s forests peaked between 2012 -2014, but still thunders on, despite Thailand’s best efforts to curb the poaching. According to some, it’s become a game of cat and mouse.
“Are the cases decreasing?” Prawatsart Jantorntep, director of Thap Lan National Park, told Mongabay. “I don’t think so. I think we are just getting better at catching them. We have much better experience now, better equipment, we can protect the forest better now. But I don’t think it’s decreasing.”
A mix of enforcement tactics
Part of the solution in the fight against illegal logging has come from technological advances. Cutting-edge camera trap technologies are being introduced to Thap Lan to try to speed up the forest rangers’ ability to respond to poaching gangs heading into the forest. Reliant on cellular signals, and therefore only suitable for the outer edges of the park, new motion-sensor cameras can send photographs to Prawatsart’s email almost instantaneously, allowing forest rangers to have near real-time updates from remote locations without actually having to be there.
“The poachers are changing the way they come in and out of the park. They can adapt every time, so we have to change as well, adapt our routes or our focus areas,” Thap Lan’s head ranger Surat Monyupanao, who has guarded Thailand’s forests for 25 years, told Mongabay. “The new technologies will help us a lot for patrolling. With the new cameras, we can wait and see where it is most efficient for us to go and patrol. We can set the smart cameras on certain trails and see if they are being used or not.”
The best part is that it won’t require more park staff.
“We won’t lose manpower,” Monyupanao said. “We’ll have information to decide which areas to patrol and how the threats are happening.”
Rangers on patrol told Mongabay there has been no let-up in Siamese rosewood poaching across the entire DPKY-FC, one of mainland Southeast Asia’s last contiguous tracts of globally important tropical forest ecosystems. Evidence of the loggers is everywhere. Empty rice sacks lie at nearly every logging or makeshift camp site the rangers encounter. Once the loggers have finished the rice, the bags themselves serve as straps to wrap around the rosewood and walk it out of the forest. In November, a group of Cambodian loggers arrested in Pang Sida national park (also part of the DPKY-FC) were captured with thirty full rice bags — enough to last for weeks in the deep forest. And weeks is what they need now as the remaining stocks of Siamese rosewood are deep in the forest.
“The bad guys have invested so much in these operations. They send people in all the time,” Salak told Mongabay. “They have come to resent us rangers, the investors, because they have invested so much.” Salak is part of the “Hasadin” wildlife ranger team set up by Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Plants and Wildlife (DNP) in June 2015 as a rapid-response mobile team of rangers specifically trained in apprehending illegal Siamese rosewood loggers.
The loggers mostly come across the border with Cambodia, often assisted by either Thai or Cambodian guides or brokers. Sometimes they work with villagers who live on the outskirts of Thap Lan who help them enter the forest. But increasingly the loggers crossing the international border don’t need help from Thais.
“It used to be that we would catch Thai ’guides’ with the groups of Cambodian loggers, but now the Cambodians don’t need the Thais to come in, because they know already where the rosewood sites are, the routes to get in, and how to cut the rosewood,” Kasidis Janpradub, a law enforcement officer with the DNP based at Thap Lan, told Mongabay. “At the Poipet border, they just come across by truck, it is so easy to cross there with an illegal pass,” said Kasidis, alluding to the rampant corruption that aids this highly lucrative transnational trade.
Arrested rosewood poachers also allege they are helped cross Thailand’s international border with Cambodia by the Cambodian army. Just last week, four Cambodian soldiers based on the border were charged with facilitating the illegal timber trade, allegedly allowing loggers to cross to Thailand in return for bribes, the Phnom Penh Post reported.
Adding to the complexity of the situation, some loggers are allegedly trafficked into the illegal trade. The Cambodia Daily reported last year that 23 would-be loggers handed themselves over to Thai police, claiming they had been tricked into traveling to Thailand to log rosewood.
The illegal pursuit of the “blood” wood is also highly dangerous. In 2015, seven wildlife rangers died in incidents related to violent Siamese rosewood crime, along with an unknown number of loggers. But danger of death or fear of arrest don’t seem to be strong deterrents.
“The guys, they all know each other, they might know someone who died, or has been arrested, but they keep coming in,” Hasadin ranger Salak told Mongabay. The poachers can make more money on clandestine trips across the border to log rosewood than they can in Cambodia. For about ten days of work in the forest, they can make up to $300, law enforcement officer Kasidis told Mongabay – a huge sum compared to what they could earn in typical agricultural or construction work in Cambodia.
Demands and failures
Demand for Siamese rosewood comes mainly from China, where the timber is extremely valuable and used in making luxury “hongmu” furniture. Siamese rosewood is one of 300 species of rosewood, all placed under trade restrictions by the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It was listed in CITES Appendix II back in 2013, in response to massive over-harvesting and increasing illegal logging to feed the preoccupation for extravagant furniture. But a major loophole and systematic corruption have enabled the billion-dollar trade to continue relentlessly, driving the species to near extinction in the wild.
The key loophole that undermined Siamese rosewood’s protection was Annotation 5, which restricted CITES controls to “logs, sawn wood and veneer sheets,” allowing any other “semi-finished” products to be sold without the need for export permits. This allowed processing factories (particularly in Vietnam) to refine raw logs illegally cut from protected forests, and then sell the rosewood on legally. Conservationists have welcomed the removal of Annotation 5 from Siamese rosewood’s listing at the CITES CoP17 this year, but it comes as the last Siamese rosewood trees are already being logged out of Thailand’s forests.
Insatiable demand for Siamese rosewood, and the corruption epidemic that has enabled its massive illegal trade, continues to corrode the ecological integrity of Thailand’s protected forests, pushing the species to extinction and exposing others to risk. Thap Lan’s wildlife rangers constantly battle incursions into the protected area, and changes in Siamese rosewood’s listing, or even the increased scarcity of the timber itself has not deterred the loggers, who just move deeper into the park to seek out more.
“Our job is still as hard as ever, because in our forest we have Siamese rosewood that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Thap Lan National Park Director Prawatsart said. Rangers on patrol note that even in Thap Lan many of the large old growth Siamese rosewood trees are already gone.
Correction: an earlier version of this story inaccurately stated the value of timber exported from the Mekong region to China. The correct figure is $2.4 billion worth of hongmu timber, not $1.2 billion of Siamese rosewood. We regret the error.
Banner image: Salak Chairacha and his team of rangers on patrol in Thap Lan park. Photo by Demelza Stokes.