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Singapore convicts rosewood trader in historic CITES seizure

  • Late last month a high court in Singapore found Wong Wee Keong guilty of importing rosewood from Madagascar in 2014 in violation of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).
  • Environmental groups are heralding the ruling, which reversed the decision of a lower court and sidestepped conflicting claims about the legality of the shipment by Malagasy authorities.
  • The outsized shipment to Singapore was larger than all of the other seizures of rosewood in the world, combined, over the past decade.

In a major reversal late last month, a high court in Singapore found Wong Wee Keong and his company, Kong Hoo, guilty of illegally importing rosewood from Madagascar, after a lower court had found them not guilty. Authorities seized Kong Hoo’s rosewood shipment at a Singapore port in early 2014, saying it violated the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. At nearly 30,000 logs, this was one of the largest wildlife seizures in the history of CITES.

Environmental groups were relieved to learn that the guilty party would be held accountable. “It’s so hard to get convictions,” said Mark Roberts, senior counsel at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit. “We’re really glad that the high court looked beyond the decision of the trial court,” he told Mongabay.

The outsized shipment to Singapore was larger than all of the other seizures of rosewood in the world, combined, over the past decade — and the dark red hardwood is the world’s most trafficked form of wildlife. This shipment, now being held in a Singapore storage facility the size of two football fields, was valued at more than $50 million, according to court documents.

The Singapore rosewood seizure in 2014 was the largest ever recorded.

Demand for rosewood comes mostly from China, where its beautiful inner trunk is used in high-end furniture. In Madagascar, the logging results do not look as pretty. Every kind of Malagasy rosewood (Dalbergia spp.) that the International Union for Conservation of Nature has assessed — some 40 species, so far — the group lists as Threatened. In addition to depleting rosewood populations, excessive logging has severely disrupted local habitats: it dries out forests, allows for the growth of invasive species, and leads to the consumption of bush meat, among other problems.

Madagascar has been quickly losing rosewood to traffickers since 2009, when a coup d’état created a regulatory vacuum that timber barons found easy to exploit. In 2010, Madagascar’s government issued a decree: no more rosewood exports. But trafficking continued, likely to the benefit of some government officials. In 2013, Madagascar formally agreed to a ban on the export of rosewood and ebony (Diospyros spp.) and an action plan that would increase forest protections. But the government did not follow through on its commitments, according to an EIA report from September.

Illegal rosewood stockpiles in Antalaha, Madagascar, in 2007. Photo by Anonymous (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Madagascar flip-flops

The recent ruling in Singapore was applauded by Madagascar’s president, who credited his own government with providing the evidence needed to convict. However, Malagasy authorities sent mixed messages over the three-year course of the case, which made it difficult to prosecute Wong, a Singaporean, and Kong Hoo, a Singapore-based export company.

Although no CITES documentation accompanied the shipment, the defense later produced documents from Madagascar that, it claimed, showed the export to be legal. In January 2015, following a trip to Singapore, Anthelme Ramparany, Madagascar’s Minister of Environment, Ecology, and Forests at the time, confirmed the authenticity of the documents, according to court records.

Later, Prime Minister Jean Ravelonarivo tried to override Ramparany, clarifying that the rosewood shipment had indeed been illegal. However, in April 2016 Madagascar’s president forced him to resign. Ravelonarivo’s tough-on-trafficking approach to the Singapore case was among the main reasons he was removed from office, according to a Malagasy person close to the case, who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak publicly.

For six months after Ravelonarivo’s departure, Malagasy officials declined to clarify the legal status of the shipment, which made prosecution difficult. The Singapore trial court judge who acquitted Wong and Kong Hoo explained in her ruling that the prosecution had “flipped-flopped” (sic).

“Madagascar needs to do more than it was doing for most of last year,” Hanta Rabetaliana, who served as Secretary General of the Ministry of Environment, Ecology, and Forests until February of this year, told Mongabay.

Madagascar’s government did begin working toward a conviction in October 2016, following an international CITES meeting in South Africa where the Singapore case was a priority. To apply pressure on Malagasy authorities, some parties at the CITES meeting pushed for a ban on export of all protected species from Madagascar. Currently, the only fully embargoed Malagasy species are rosewood and ebony.

The threat of such a ban spurred Malagasy officials into action. “Governments really hate to be sanctioned,” said Roberts, the EIA counsel. “The more severe the sanction, the more embarrassing it is.”

A full export ban would be CITES’s strongest punishment — no country in the world currently faces such an embargo, according to Roberts. When Madagascar was given a temporary reprieve, its representatives in South Africa expressed relief. In early 2017, Madagascar made good by sending documents to Singapore that showed that the 2014 rosewood shipment was illegal.

While this pleased the environmental community and allowed Madagascar’s government to trumpet its own prosecutorial efforts after the fact, it was not the deciding factor in the case. In fact, the high court judge declined to accept the new evidence, according to her written legal decision: “There was no explanation why there has been an apparent shift in the Madagascan Government’s position on certain aspects of evidence … In the absence of such explanation, the reliability of the documents sought to be tendered is questionable.”

In other words, if prior documents authenticated by Madagascar were of dubious authenticity, the court saw no reason to accept new documents from Madagascar as legitimate.

Nonetheless, the judge found Wong guilty. Because the legal status of the export from Madagascar was unclear, the case hinged on whether the rosewood had been imported to Singapore, a signatory to CITES. The defense argued that the shipment was always “in transit” to Hong Kong a hub for the illegal timber trade that did not require import permits for rosewood at the time. The high court judge concluded that there were no immediate plans to bring the wood to Hong Kong, as Wong had not yet found a buyer.

Stump of illegally cut rosewood tree in Marojejy National Park, Madagascar, in 2009. Photo by Anonymous (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Awaiting sentencing

The high court’s decision to convict Wong and Kong Hoo is final unless there is a plea in the public interest, which is unlikely in this case, according to Roberts, the EIA counsel. Upcoming hearings will decide on jail time for Wong and fines for Kong Hoo; the prosecution will seek at least 18 months and the maximum fine of $500,000.

Representatives of Kong Hoo did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The fate of the 30,000 logs will be decided in separate hearings. Although the state of Madagascar may be granted ownership, the logs are unlikely to return to the island nation, where they might well reenter the illegal timber trade. (In fact, some evidence suggests that some of the seized logs may previously have been in the Madagascar government’s possession as part of stockpiles of illegally harvested wood confiscated after the 2009 coup.)

Those who pushed for a conviction hope that now the rosewood can be sold and the profits used for the benefit of Malagasy communities. “Singapore has done its job,” said Rabetaliana, the former environment ministry official. “Now it’s time for Madagascar to be more active in protecting its forests.”

Diademed Sifaka (Propithecus diadema), a species threatened by the Madagascar rosewood trade. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

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