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Singapore acquits trader in world’s biggest rosewood bust, worth $50m

Ankarana sportive lemur (Lepilemur ankaranensis), an endangered species whose habitat is threatened by rosewood logging. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Ankarana sportive lemur (Lepilemur ankaranensis), an endangered species whose habitat is threatened by rosewood logging. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

  • On April 8, Singapore’s highest court acquitted a businessman who brought Malagasy rosewood valued at $50 million into the city-state in 2014, one of the largest wildlife seizures in the history of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).
  • The move reversed the ruling of a lower court that had sentenced the businessman to jail time and imposed $1 million in fines for importing protected wildlife.
  • The court ordered Singapore authorities to return the rosewood to the businessman and his firm “as soon as practicable.”
  • Environmental groups have been looking on anxiously as the case wound its way through Singapore’s courts for nearly five years, only to be disappointed by the final verdict.

Singapore’s highest court has acquitted a businessman who brought Malagasy rosewood valued at $50 million into the city-state. The verdict on April 8 reversed the ruling of a lower court that had sentenced him to jail time and imposed $1 million in fines for importing protected wildlife.

In 2014 Singapore authorities seized nearly 30,000 rosewood logs from Wong Wee Keong and his Singapore-based company, Kong Hoo. It was one of the largest wildlife seizures in the history of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).

Environmental groups followed the case anxiously as it wound its way through Singapore’s courts for nearly five years, only to be disappointed by the final verdict.

“It’s such a miscarriage of justice,” said Mark Roberts, a Massachusetts-based environmental lawyer and consultant who has helped coordinate international efforts to hold Kong Hoo responsible for rosewood trafficking. “And it will reduce confidence in CITES. If material is seized and then just given back to traders, that’s not going to bode well for CITES enforcement going forward.”

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

The fate of the logs

Lawyers affiliated with Malagasy and international environmental groups are scrambling for a last-minute solution as the defendants prepare to retake control of the 30,000 rosewood logs. The Court of Appeal, part of the Supreme Court, ordered Singapore authorities to return the rosewood to Wong and his firm “as soon as practicable” in the latest ruling. This could take weeks, as the Singapore government must first pay a large bill for storage costs — said to be in the millions of dollars — to the private port storage facility that’s been holding the wood for the past five years.

Wong will be required to export the rosewood out of Singapore, but he has a problem: he has no valid CITES documents from Madagascar, the original country of export. So no matter where the wood lands, it will be regarded as illegal and subject to seizure, as just about every country in the world is a signatory to CITES.

Observers expect the wood to be divided up, perhaps through transshipment on the open seas, and find its way onto the black market in a nearby Asian country. Most of the world’s rosewood logs end up in China, where they’re used in high-end traditional furniture.

Roberts, the lawyer, has been in touch with Chinese authorities, including at the Chinese Embassy in Madagascar, to encourage them to seize the 30,000 logs if and when they arrive on Chinese soil. He has also been in touch with Interpol and the World Bank to try to set up a system to track the logs, perhaps with tracking devices on the shipping containers, but it’s unclear if such measures will be taken, he said.

There is still a chance, however small, that the logs could remain in Singapore pending the result of another legal case. As a backstop to the criminal case, the government of Madagascar filed a civil suit against Wong in Singapore. However, the case does not look very promising, according to Roberts, and it’s moving too slowly to have any impact.

To prevent the rosewood being released to Wong in the next few weeks, Madagascar would need to show that it is willing to cover the wood’s storage costs from now until the end of the civil case, which could last for years. Madagascar’s government has given no indication that it is willing to make such a commitment, Wong Siew Hong, Madagascar’s lawyer in Singapore, told Mongabay. Wong, who has worked on both the criminal and civil cases, indicated that his own contact with Malagasy authorities has been limited and he has not been paid in some time.

Neither Madagascar’s environment ministry nor the prime minister’s office responded to a request for comment for this article.

Illegal logging in Madagascar’s Masoala Peninsula, a protected area where rosewood is commonly targeted. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Reversing the reversal

Last week’s ruling draws to a close a complicated case that dragged on for nearly five years. Ultimately, the prosecution of the case wasn’t successful because “Madagascar shot itself in the foot,” said Wong, the Singapore-based lawyer. The main problem was the lack of a clear message from Madagascar about the legal status of the rosewood.

“The real reason for this unsuccessful trial lies in Madagascar’s repeated failure to cooperate with Singapore’s prosecution and its refusal to effectively testify to the illegality of the logs,” Susanne Breitkopf, a forest policy manager at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that has been tracking the case and the wider illegal trade in Malagasy rosewood, wrote in an email to Mongabay.

In fact, the illegal nature of the shipment never should have been in doubt: CITES has banned the export of Malagasy rosewood (Dalbergia spp.) and ebony (Diospyros spp.) since 2013 and Madagascar law has banned exports of rosewood since 2010.

However, the defendants were able to muddy the legal waters with the help of a Malagasy official. The defendants presented no CITES documentation at the time of the logs’ seizure, but the defense later produced documents from Madagascar that ostensibly showed the export to be legal: In 2015, after a trip to Singapore, Anthelme Ramparany, Madagascar’s environment minister at the time, sent an email to Singapore authorities confirming the authenticity of the defense’s documents. (However, it’s unclear if Ramparany’s email was itself authentic, as it was sent via a commercial account, according to Wong, the lawyer in Singapore.)

It took Malagasy officials almost two years to correct the mistake and send documents to Singapore that showed the 2014 rosewood shipment was indeed illegal. By that time, the Singapore courts had effectively decided not to consider any documents coming out of Madagascar, court records show. This forced the prosecution to abandon what should have been an open-and-shut case — that the wood had been exported illegally from Madagascar — and instead focus on the legality of the import of the wood into Singapore, a CITES signatory.

The case ended up hinging on whether the wood had in fact been “imported” into Singapore or was merely “in transit” to Hong Kong, a hub for the illegal timber trade. Although import to Hong Kong would also have been illegal, that had no bearing on the law in Singapore.

In 2015, a Singapore trial court found the defendants not guilty, ruling that the wood was in transit. In 2017, another court reversed that ruling, arguing that no firm plan had been made to transport the wood to Hong Kong. It sentenced Wong to three months in jail and the maximum fine of $500,000, while also fining his company the same amount. But in its reversal of that decision last week, the Court of Appeal ruled that the wood was in transit, citing evidence that Wong’s company had already tentatively booked transport to Hong Kong for about one-fifth of the 30,000 logs.

Environmental groups insist that, despite the verdict, the logs are being moved illegally and should be treated as contraband. “The traffickers have been acquitted this time, but the logs, destined for China, are still illegal and traded in violation of CITES and Malagasy national law,” said Breitkopf, the EIA manager.

A Madagascan sunset moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus), a species that lives in Masoala National Park, which has been heavily logged for rosewood. Image by Bernard Dupont via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Banner image of an Ankarana sportive lemur (Lepilemur ankaranensis), an endangered species whose habitat is threatened by rosewood logging, by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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