From rhinos to rosewood – illegal trade is on the up

RCS37 Siam rosewood tree ordained by Buddhist monk, with forest

Thai armed guard protecting a precious Siam rosewood

For around two and a half years now, we’ve tried to keep a focus on what’s happening with the poaching of African rhinos via this awareness raising campaign.

As a result we’ve become fairly well versed in the wide-ranging and complex issues of the international wildlife trade – the third largest illegal business in the world after drugs and arms.

What we hadn’t completely got our heads round before was just how widespread and far-ranging the problem was. That it it’s not just iconic, headline-grabbing species like rhinos and elephants that are at risk of being poached to extinction.

RCS91 Khao Yai national park

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Last month we found ourselves in Thailand’s beautiful Dong Phoyayen-Khao Yai eastern forest complex visiting Thap Lan, Pang Sida and Kao Yai national parks. We were on assignment for leading French nature and photography magazine Terre Sauvage supported by a bursary from the IUCN awarded for our series of images on pioneering keyhole surgery in the bush on wild bull elephants.

We were there to cover the untold story of the poaching of endangered Siamese rosewood trees – a situation that’s been spiralling out of control in the last few years. Until our visit to Thailand we’d hadn’t even registered that there was an issue about Siam rosewood (Dalbergia cochinensis).

RCS95 Rhinoceros beetle, Chalcosoma atlas, Pang Sida

Not about rhinos this time – but we did see a rhino beetle!

Everything else about the story, however, was depressingly familiar and chimed with so much we’d learned from doing this rhino  project.

The wood is reported to fetch prices of up to $100,000 per cubic metre on the black market. It’s turned into prized Hongmu carved furniture by the Chinese for the rising affluent middle-classes. Innocent wildlife rangers are being killed in these so-called ‘rosewood’ wars, anti-poaching units patrolling the dense forests are lacking in manpower, weapons, ammunition and supplies. When poachers are caught the penalties have often been way too lenient…

RCS02  Preparing to take cast of tiger pugmark

Tiger prints photographed on our visit to the Thai forest parks

The fall-out is huge not just for the rosewood species concerned, but for other endangered species that this important forest complex and World Heritage Site supports. Rarely seen, the forest is home to a significant population of tigers for example. Poachers are already turning their attention to other hardwood trees as the Siam rosewood supplies diminish. National park chiefs are having to pour more and more of their scant resources into battling the poaching epidemic.

These are not just isolated incidents. It’s happening almost daily. During our short time in the forest several poaching incidents, and arrests, took place. On one occasion we were on the scene when rangers brought in three poachers caught red-handed with the wood they’d felled. Patrol units often find themselves confronting gangs of 50 to a 100 poachers at a time. Many are armed and hooked on methamphetamine (they’re even paid for the wood they poach in these drugs by criminals higher up the chain) to give them enough energy to work in the forest through the night.

RCS43 Sayan Raksachart of Freeland, showing vehicle used by Siam

Vehicle packed with poached wood at an evidence centre

During our visit we were shown several vast stockpiles of rosewood that had been confiscated, following confrontations with poachers in just the last two years, as well as dozens of impounded vehicles that had been cleverly adapted to smuggle the wood away.

It’s a critical situation, but the Thai forest rangers fighting in the frontline of these wars, just like the rhino anti-poaching patrols we have met in Africa, inspired us with their dedication. They’re not at all afraid to risk their lives doing this dangerous job and told us they felt passionately that the forest and its trees had to be protected for the future. Recent specialist training (organised as an emergency measure by the anti-wildlife trafficking NGO Freeland, which regularly works in this forest complex, and supported by the IUCN’s Save Our Species campaign) has given them greater confidence, better skills, and the ability to use more modern technology to tackle the problem, they said.

RCS36 Anti-poaching patrol, Thap Lan national park

Anti-poaching patrol at work in the Thai forest

Taywin Meesap head of Thap Lan National Park is a proud man. ‘We try to help ourselves first, but we need more manpower, more rangers, more weapons and we need people like you guys spreading the message to the rest of the world.’ He told us he would like to tell the Chinese buyers of the poached rosewood that their furniture is stained with the blood of forest rangers.

These posts are normally reserved for African rhinos, but today we’re making an exception and space for endangered Siam rosewood. Having seen the scale of the problem with our own eyes the issue is firmly on our radar now and, as with the rhinos, we’ll now be doing our best to get the word out.

Our feature on the Siam rosewood problem will be published in a special issue of Terre Sauvage to mark the 50th anniversary of the IUCN Red List which is out at the end of this year.
For more information on the IUCN ‘s Save our Species initiative http://www.sospecies.org and the Work of Freeland visit http://www.freeland.org

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One Comment on “From rhinos to rosewood – illegal trade is on the up”

  1. Andrew Wyatt September 16, 2014 at 3:59 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Last Word and commented:
    From elephants and ivory to rhino horn and rosewood, it is clear that Thailand, not the USA, is a major epicenter of illegal trade. Characterizing the USA as central to these issues is a self serving ploy by NGO’s invested in using high profile emotionally charged rhetoric as a fundraising platform at home. Clearly the USA has little to do with the poaching of rhinos and elephants– and the trade in new ivory and rhino horn.” ~Andrew Wyatt

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