The Chinese media have recently reported a seizure of two tonnes of rosewood at Shuikou customs in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region from two lorries that were stopped for routine inspection. Shuikou connects China with Vietnam, but the media did not specify which direction the shipment of rosewood was travelling in. Both China and Vietnam are consumers as well as producers of rosewood.
Species Victim Impact Statements Initiative (the SVIS-Initiative), have already made a SVIS for commonly trafficked rosewood species of the genus Dalbergia. Over 1,340 tonnes of rosewood have been seized in Hong Kong since 2014, to the value approaching 200 million Hong Kong dollars.
Videos and photographs released by the customs to the media show piles of thin rosewood logs, cut from young trees (judging by the girth of the logs) wrapped in paper and stacked up behind boxes of fruit. The smugglers clearly did not invest much effort into concealing their illegal cargo. The consignment was valued at 1,25 million yuan.
The media reported that the seized contraband belonged mainly to two species – Chinese redwood and Siamese redwood, explaining that, as both are CITES-II listed species, their import and transportation require permits for possession and transportation. The drivers of the trucks, who did not have such permits, have been detained, their trucks confiscated and the consignment of rosewood seized. An investigation is underway.
Rosewood, prized for its bright red colour and rich texture, is considered as possibly the most commonly traded illegal wildlife commodity in the world.
Freshly cut Laos rosewood logs are seeping distinctly - coloured sap
The demand is being driven by traders and consumers in China where rosewood furniture has been made for centuries, and is seen as a symbol of wealth. Rosewood carving and furniture-making factories are traditionally concentrated in Fujian Province.
An example of rosewood furniture carved in China
More than 200 species of rosewood have been listed in CITES Appendix II, but many are not, and this allows for easy laundering of the listed species that require permits, by passing them off as species that are not listed, with open trade. Telling the difference between some rosewood species is often impossible for non-experts, and even for experts, forensic methods, such as DNA analysis may be required.
The Conservation Forensics Laboratory at the University of Hong Kong, a partner of Species Victim Impact Statements Initiative (SVIS), have, in their plans, a long-term project to create a global database of rosewood species and made it available to law enforcement agencies around the world.
The confusion regarding the classification of different species is also evident in the case of this seizure. The Chinese media stated that the seized rosewood consisted mainly of Chinese redwood (Dalbergia odorifera -降香黄檀 in Chinese) and Siamese redwood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis - 交趾黄檀).
However, while Siamese redwood is found in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, Chinese redwood growls only in China. It is possible that the customs officials simply misidentified the species. In all likelihood, the contraband was being moved into China, with the rosewood coming from the forests of one of the neighbouring South East Asian countries.
Rosewood trees are widely distributed globally and are found in the tropical forests of Asia, Africa and South and Central America. Such has been the demand for rosewood furniture in China, that Asian forests have been largely stripped clean of large rosewood trees. Traders and smugglers then tapped into the African forests, and countries such as The Gambia have now lost their rosewood stock entirely.
Madagascan rosewoods are also being very heavily logged - 1,000 tonnes of rosewood from Madagascar, worth HK$40 million, were seized by Hong Kong customs in October 2015.
South and Central American rosewood is now also being extirpated fast. More and more rosewood seizures in Hong Kong have Honduras as the point of provenance. This Central American country is now on the verge of becoming a failed state as drug cartels are overpowering the weak government and the rule of law. The country is home to some of central America’s largest remaining primary forests, these are now being plundered, with impunity, for timber, including rosewood.
In Chinese rosewood carving and furniture-making industry, one needs to be an expert to know the way around different varieties, colours and textures. Prices vary greatly and many cheaper varieties, such as tulipwood (a grouping that includes several species and genera such as Dalbergia frutescens) are passed off as more precious than they are to trick wealthy, but inexpert buyers.
In the light of the ongoing crackdown in China on illegal wildlife trade, it remains to be seen what will happen to the thriving rosewood carving industry. The crackdown has already decimated the elephant ivory trade that also had millennia of tradition in the country.
This prominence given to a relatively small seizure of rosewood by the Chinese media (that is under tight state supervision) may be a signal to traffickers and dealers that there are bigger things to come.