Highly prized for making reproduction Chinese furniture, Siamese Rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis) is being poached to extinction in the eastern forests of Thailand. Heavily armed gangs of poachers are invading the forests, where poorly armed, under-resourced rangers are fighting a battle to protect the few trees that remain.
To address this problem SOS – Save Our Species has provided a Rapid Action Grant to the FREELAND Foundation. FREELAND works with Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation to increase the capacity of the frontline staff to stop rosewood poaching.
In this story Ann and Steve Toon, award-winning wildlife journalists, who have just returned from Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex in Thailand, document FREELAND Foundation's anti-poaching work and write about experiencing the precious forest as a dengerous, conflict zone.
“A red mud track cuts a single thin line between two impenetrable walls of dizzyingly tall, dark forest. We're penned in on each side by a twisted, tangle of damp undergrowth. Huge trees, fighting to break free from the stranglehold of snaking vines, reach skyward. Way up in the canopy their leaves greedily steal our daylight.
Down here at ground level it's sticky, oppressively hot and claustrophobic. Thousands of tiny, prickly grass seeds like small, sharp spears have planted themselves in our socks and trousers while ravenous mosquitoes have begun feasting on our arms. The maddening buzz of cicadas in our ears is broken by strange hoots, screams and ear-piercing screeches.
We're told they're the calls of gibbons and forest birds, but we can't see anything. Handfuls of butterflies, some the size of small birds, dance around the forest edges, their wings edged with neon blues and acid yellows. This richly-green, densely-vegetated, seemingly endless forest landscape is awe inspiring and beautiful, but it's also eerily forbidding and alien.
We're deep in the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising five national parks and more than 6,000 sq km of rugged tropical forest in the east of Thailand, stretching to the Cambodian border. It's an internationally important biodiversity hotspot, home to many threatened and endangered species.
Eric Ash of the Thai-based anti-wildlife trafficking organisation Freeland Foundation has invited us along to check some of the camera traps he's placed along the forest trails.
In recent months these camera traps have shed light on sinister and deadly forest secret. It's the reason we're accompanied everywhere by an armed forest guard. For these forests have become a war zone. Gangs of armed criminals are laying siege to the forest in search of a natural commodity that fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars on the international black market. It's not the tiger they're hunting out, but a tree.
The tree in question is the Siam Rosewood, (Dalbergia cochinchinensis), a rare forest hardwood with a distinctive red-coloured timber that for centuries has been sought after for the manufacture of highly-prized furniture and religious statues in China. In recent years, as China's affluent middle class has rapidly increased, there's been a boom in demand for high status reproduction 'Hongmu' rosewood furniture. A single chair can sell for $1 million, and the price of Siam rosewood has correspondingly skyrocketed, reportedly fetching as much as $100,000 per cubic metre. In just a few years the forests of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have been virtually stripped of rosewood, and the poachers have turned their attention to Thailand.
Since 2008 Thai forest parks have seen a steady escalation in poaching, with the last two years reaching crisis proportions. Poaching gangs with as many as one hundred men, mainly Cambodians who cross the border illegally, often paying off border officials, are guided into the park by local Thais. They are armed with chainsaws, motorcycle wheels with which they improvise hand carts to carry out the wood, and weapons – anything from home-made shotguns to AK47s.
The felled timber is cut into rough planks, carried to the edge of the forest and loaded into vehicles, often adapted with hidden compartments, to be smuggled back across the border and ultimately to China.
'We saw from our camera traps that the number of poachers in the forest increased by about 950 per cent within the span of a three month period,' Eric tells us. 'The poachers are financed by large criminal organisations. They also poach local wildlife for food, and clear large areas for their camps: if we can't protect the Siamese rosewood, it's going to have significant implications for some of the other endangered species in the forest complex.'
Faced with these large, armed gangs, the park's anti-poaching rangers are outnumbered, out-gunned and out-resourced. In the past two years several rangers have been wounded in confrontations with poachers, and one has been killed.
To rebalance the odds, Freeland Foundation applied for and received a grant from SOS Save our Species, to build on the work they were already doing in training and equipping rangers. 'We reached out to SOS Save our Species for an emergency rapid response project to increase the capacity of the park to interdict some of these large poaching groups,' explains Eric. 'This included a training programme to improve the skills of the rangers, providing equipment and field provisions, and implementing park-based monitoring systems, so they can understand the problem a bit more and coordinate resources to go after the poaching groups more efficiently. We've also engaged with other government organisations so that they are brought in and they can exercise their mandates to go after poaching groups and criminal organisations.'
At a substation in Thap Lan national park, Sayan Raksachart, a long-serving ranger who now works for Freeland doing community outreach work, shows us the fruit of the anti-poaching units' recent endeavour. It's a ghostly timber yard of confiscated rosewood logs and rough hewn planks, marked with individual case numbers, heavily fenced with barbed wire.
There are hundreds of motorcycle wheels, a shed full of chainsaws and outboard motors (some poachers smuggle timber across a lake that adjoins the park), and a parking lot with two dozen confiscated vehicles: clapped out pick-up trucks, minibuses with tinted windows, even an old school bus. Sayan points out how the insides of vehicles have been completely stripped so the felled rosewood can be smuggled out.
Two cool boxes in an innocent-looking mobile grocery van have been customised to hide the illegal wood. The tons of timber represent seizures from only the last two years – and this is only one of several evidence stores that we see over the next few days. We start to appreciate the sheer scale of this poaching epidemic.
We're interrupted by the arrival of a truck, loaded with rangers, rosewood and three freshly apprehended poachers. They are bundled out and made to squat on the ground, humiliated, as we take photographs. Two are just teenagers and it's hard not to feel sorry for them.
These are the people taking the risks, but they're not the ones making big money. Rosewood poaching has close ties to the illegal drugs trade: many of the poachers are addicted to 'yaba',
methamphetamine/caffeine cocktail, and some are even paid in the drug. Taking it gives them the energy to work all night in the forest hauling the timber out.
At Thap Lan park headquarters we meet ranger team leader Chaloaw 'Doi' Kotud, who has worked in the park for 20 years. He's wearing a cool khaki photo-vest with Korean lettering that he snaffled from a poacher he arrested and a camouflage face mask he wears rolled up on his head. You wouldn't want to mess with him. 'The most important thing the rangers doing this job need to have is heart and passion and they need to be fully prepared to sacrifice themselves for the job,' he tells us.
During our time in the forest we speak to many rangers about the dangers they face and why they would do such a job. Quietly spoken, determined men, doing a dangerous job with limited resources and little thanks. Every one of them expresses their gratitude for the training and equipment provided through Freeland and SOS Save our Species: they talk of improved morale and self confidence, better patrol tactics for apprehending large gangs, the value of GPS and compass training, rangers' lives saved.
Most are optimistic that they will ultimately win this bloody war with the poachers. But will it be too late for the Siam rosewood?
Already the largest rosewood trees have all but vanished from the forests, and poachers are resorting to digging up roots. It will be fifty years or more before the saplings that survive will mature into the forest giants that are now so rare. Tougher sentences for poaching, some recent success in seizing the assets of criminals higher up the chain, a promise from Thailand's military government to clamp down on corruption, reinforcement from the army - these are all encouraging signs for the future. But the poachers are already turning to other rare hardwood species to meet the insatiable demand from China.
Before leaving Thap Lan, park superintendent Taywin Meesap tells us he has an important message for the Chinese. 'Many Chinese believe Siam Rosewood is a holy tree. That's why they want to have furniture made from it in their house, because they believe it will bring luck to them,' he says. 'I want to tell them this rosewood is not holy, it will not bring luck to their life, because this rosewood is obtained through the lives of rangers and criminals. It is wood that is stained through with blood.'”
The goal of the rosewood project is to immediately secure the safety of rangers and reduce the threat to TLNP's Thailand rosewood and biodiversity through the elimination of rosewood poaching. To learn more about this project please click here.
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