Rosewood is the most trafficked wildlife commodity per weight in the world. It comes from trees of the genus Dalbergia, and has long been prized for its texture, durability, and rich red colour. The massive Chinese demand drives the illegal trade in rosewood and many species are now critically endangered. Even though the recent crackdown on wildlife trade in China put an end to the trade in ivory, the rosewood trade in the country is thriving in plain sight.
Freshly cut rosewood logs bleeding blood-red sap.
In China, rosewood has been used for centuries to make luxury furniture. Chinese rosewood carving is an art form in its own right, part of the nation’s cultural heritage. The demand, however, has decimated the native Chinese species of Dalbergia, as well as those in the neighbouring South East Asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Traffickers have since switched to more remote species, such as the rosewoods of Madagascar.
Madagascar is home to 47 endemic species of Dalbergia. In 2013, all Malagasy Dalbergia species were listed in CITES Appendix II.
The highly lucrative illegal rosewood trade, estimated at to be worth around a quarter of a billion dollars per year, is controlled by Madagascar’s politicians and big businessmen. They launder illegally-cut rosewood as pre-CITES stock or as trees felled by storms, allowing the logging of Madagascar’s forests to continue.
According to the World Bank, three quarters of Madagascar's population of over 25 million live below the poverty line, surviving on less than 1.9 US dollars a day and nearly half of the children under the age of 5 are malnourished.
A village in Madagascar. The country has unique biodiversity and plentiful natural resources but the majority of the people live in poverty.
All of the Malagasy rosewood is destined for the Chinese market, often shipped through East African ports, such as Mombasa in Kenya.
Hong Kong SAR is a transit point for illegal rosewood, from where it is taken to the Chinese Mainland. Between 2013 and 2018, almost 26 million US dollars-worth of rosewood have been seized by Hong Kong’s customs. These include large shipments coming from Madagascar, including Hong Kong’s largest ever rosewood seizure - over 1,000 tonnes and worth 6.4 million US dollars, in 2015, .
The Species Victim Impact Statements (SVIS) Initiative has produced Species Victim Impact Statements for the genus Dalbergia to be used by the judiciary of Jong Kong SAR to explain the harm done by the logging and the trade in rosewood.
Recently, the SVIS Initiative analysed public records of court cases in China involving Malagasy rose wood and did an online survey of rosewood on sale in Mainland China.
We found that in China, Malagasy rosewood is sold openly, with dealers advertising on Taobao. More than thirty rosewood importers, the majority based in the port cities of Suzhou, Zhangjiagang and Dongguan, appear on an on-line trading platform 1688.com, and about half of them have Malagasy rosewood in stock. Each trader’s profile includes photos and videos of rosewood logs piled up high in warehouses and timber yards.
It appears that import of rosewood into China continues unimpeded. Some dealers say that they will import Malagasy timber according to the customers’ requirements. Prices fluctuate around 100,000 yuan (approximately 15,400 US dollars) per tonne. None of the dealers mention the CITES listing of Dalbergia, indicate if their company has CITES permits, and none mention the need for the buyer to have such permits.
A rosewood dealer based in the port city of Zhangjiagang advertising two species of Malagasy rosewood on taobao - violet rosewood (Dalbergia luovelii) and bois-de-rose (Dalbergia maritima).The price is 100,000 yuan per tonne, with discount of 2,000 yuan if more than 5 tonnes are ordered.
There were very few publicly available Chinese legal cases that involve Malagasy rosewood – only 11 since 2013, but they offer a snapshot into the operations of smugglers. The locations were in exact parallel with operations of rosewood dealers – the cities of Suzhou, Zhangjiagang and Dongguan in the southern provinces of Jiangsu, Fujian and Guangdong.
Some of the cases dealt with incidents that pre-dated the 2013 listing by CITES of all Malagasy Dalbergia species. In such cases the defendants were charged with avoiding paying duty on imports rather than with smuggling of endangered species.
Two Malagasy Dalbergia species appeared in the cases. The largest amounts were of violet rosewood - Dalbergia luovelii. Usually referred to in Chinese as 卢氏黑黄檀 , meaning Luovel’s rosewood, it is also often called 大叶紫檀 - large-leaf violet rosewood.
The second species was bois-de-rose - Dalbergia maritima. In Chinese it is called black Malagasy rosewood - 马达加斯加黑黄檀. In cases, it appeared in smaller quantities than violet rosewood. However, many species of Malagasy Dalbergia can only be told apart using reproductive structures of the trees and are impossible to identify based on wood alone. It is, therefore likely that other Malagasy rosewood species were part of those shipments. Bois-de-rose and violet rosewood are also offered by Chinese traders.
In 2019, a shipment of almost 160 tonnes of violet rosewood to the value of almost one million US dollars, was seized by the customs in Jiangsu province. The contraband was travelling on a Chinese ship and was disguised as leadwood (Combretum imberbe), equipped with fake documents, including a fake certificate of origin. Leadwood grows in Southern Africa, from Tanzania to South Africa, and can be legally traded. The maximum sentence on the traffickers was 5 years’ imprisonment with a fine of 100, 000 yuan (over 15,000 US dollars).
Another case was also heard in 2019 in a court in Putian city - a notorious wildlife smuggling and trading hub in Fujian Province, implicated heavily in the ivory trade. That
case dealt with events that took place in 2013. A gang hired boats to sail from Fujian to Madagascar where they were loaded with rosewood logs that were then offloaded to smaller boats back in Chinese waters. Chinese border patrol intercepted the smaller boats, seizing 334 tonnes of bois-de-rose and 21 tonnes of violet rosewood. The total value of the contraband was almost 63 million yuan (close to ten million US dollars). The defendants received sentences ranging from 3 to 6 years, and fines of up to 6 million yuan.
Three further cases involved smuggling of rosewood from Hong Kong into Mainland China.
In a 2018 case dealing with events of 2015, over 55 tonnes of violet rosewood were smuggled on boats to the port of Dongguan. Rosewood was disguised as timber from tomboti (Spirostachys africana), a Southern African species that can be legally traded. The two timbers - one legal and one illegal, were mixed together in the shipment. Mixing legal and illegal species in shipments is a common ruse used by smugglers to thwart customs inspectors. The defendants were given a three-year suspended sentence.
In another case, 183 tonnes of violet rosewood were smuggled in vehicles from Hong Kong to Jinjang City in Fujian. The smugglers charged a standard rate of 18,000 yuan (2,780 US dollars) per tonne to deliver rosewood into China, a figure that included customs fees in Hong Kong. The smuggler received three year suspended sentence and a fine of 30,000 yuan (4,600 US dollars).
In a 2015 case dealing with events from 2009, charges were brought against an employee of a Hong Kong trading company who forged documents to bring in 300 tonnes of violet rosewood from Hong Kong into Zhangjiagang port on the Yangtze River, close to Shanghai. A suspended sentence of 3 years was ordered.
The cases show that China’s rosewood trade follows the same networks as the ivory trade – the contraband is shipped from East African ports to the southern Chinese ports, with the same locations, such as Putian in Fujian, identified as trading hubs. Fortunately for the threatened elephant, the recent crackdown on wildlife crime in China has decimated the ivory trade, with smugglers jailed and workshops raided and shut. Ivory is no longer sold on-line in China.
The trade in Malagasy rosewood in China, however, does not seem to have been affected by the crackdown on wildlife crime and continues in plain sight. In Madagascar, the exporters launder their rosewood by claiming it is sourced from a pre-CITES stockpile, or that their timber comes from trees felled by storms. However, there is no attempt by the Chinese sellers to claim that their stock of rosewood comes from these “legal” stockpiles.
The reason for the Chinese rosewood trade surviving the crackdown may be the reluctance of the authorities to act against a Chinese tradition and art form. Banning the trade may also put people in rural areas out of work and lead to social discontent.
Further, in the case of elephant ivory it is possible to appeal to people’s humanity to stop sacrificing sentient, intelligent animals for the sake of a traditional craft - ivory carving. It is much harder to make the case to ban an ancient art when an inanimate tree, not a living animal, is involved. The wider effects on biodiversity are more difficult for the man on the street to understand.
However, the rosewood trade is ultimately more vulnerable to a crackdown than ivory. It is much harder for dealers and owners to make the rosewood trade in China go di xia - underground. Ivory carvings might be stashed away in private collections, but rosewood is used to make large objects, such as furniture, that cannot be so easily kept away from the public eye. For many, the very purpose of owning rosewood items is to demonstrate the owner’s wealth.
For now, authorities are turning a blind eye, but changes are swift in China. If the illegal rosewood trade gets on the authorities’ radar, the trade will be dismantled very quickly, tradition or no tradition.