The most trafficked endangered-species product in the world is not elephant ivory, rhino horn, or anything derived from the photogenic megafauna that traditionally grace charity calendars and conservation campaigns. It’s the lumber of the rosewood tree.
Despite—or, perhaps more accurately, because of—various attempts by governments worldwide to stop the trade in rosewood (an umbrella term for a number of tropical hardwood species that have dark-red, fragrant wood), the tree’s value continues to skyrocket. It is now at the center of a multi-billion-dollar illegal-logging network whose tentacles spread from the mountains of Guatemala, through the jungles of Gambia, to the rain forests of Cambodia. It is a global crime, but its main customer is the Chinese nouveau riche.
Nothing says “I have arrived” in China better than rosewood—or hongmu—furniture. It first became the rage in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and, apart from a slight blip during the Cultural Revolution, during which it gained popularity as kindling, it has retained its reputation to this day. Last year, a giant rosewood table from the end of the Ming era sold in a Beijing auction for a record-breaking $18 million, while a pair of carved yokeback armchairs from the same era sold for a not inconsiderable $3.6 million.
With original hongmu furniture fetching such prices, an army of manufacturers has sprung up, offering new rosewood furniture to the increasingly wealthy Chinese middle class. Cities such as Xianyou and Dongyang have become rosewood hubs, where replicas are created of both the sleek and simple furniture of the Ming dynasty and of the intricate carvings of the Qing. With annual market sales of nearly $26 billion, it’s big business.
But this business needs trees, and China’s rosewood resources, in particular the much-prized huanghuali—a tree whose wood ranges from reddish brown to golden yellow—have been seriously depleted. A single Siamese rosewood tree can now cost as much as $300,000. So Chinese furniture-makers have begun to look elsewhere for their raw materials.
In Madagascar, Benin, Cambodia, Guatemala, and other weak or war-torn countries with porous, unguarded borders, illegal logging has flourished to provide wood for the Chinese market. For some countries, this has proved devastating. Only a small fraction of Mali’s land is forested, and much of it is being lost yearly to the tree poachers. As well as fostering ecological disaster, the high prices paid for rosewoods have led to political strife and ethnic unrest.
In Senegal, for instance, rosewood trafficking has financed the M.F.D.C. separatist group. Illegal loggers trek into uninhabited areas and decimate whole forests before governments even know what’s happening. That is, if the governments aren’t directly profiting from the crime themselves.
The tree’s value continues to skyrocket. It is now at the center of a multi-billion-dollar illegal-logging network.
The cast of characters involved in this trade runs from local villagers, who are paid pennies to chop down the trees, to middlemen, who are involved in smuggling the logs across borders to the nearest ports, all the way up to military officers and government officials, who take bribes to look the other way. In Cambodia, the mysterious tycoon Try Pheap allegedly made his fortune through illegal logging. He now helps bankroll the military, advises the tyrannical prime minister, Hun Sen, and has his own special economic zones that even the police have limited access to.
In Thailand, the retired senior air-force officer Air Vice-Marshal Surachai Khongthet was charged with smuggling thousands of endangered trees out of the country, but his ex-wife, a Chinese national known as “Mulan”—a quasi-racist nickname given to her by Thai police—is believed to continue in the trade to this day. Mulan has gone by the name Chalida Suphanthamat, but this may be a fake identity; some believe that she is a former Thailand’s Got Talent contestant named “Luxia” (who sang “My Heart Will Go On”). Whatever the case, it is rumored that Mulan/Chalida/Luxia was nearly caught when a warehouse of illegal logs was raided by Thai police, and escaped by pretending to be an interpreter and sidled out a side door.
The crackdown has not been terribly effective. In 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) placed trade restrictions on all 300 known species of rosewood. And African governments are doing everything from burying G.P.S. trackers in the trees (to try to trace them) to placing listening devices in forests in order to keep a digital ear open for chain saws. But they are seriously outmanned and outgunned.
What’s worse, the more its stocks are depleted, the more valuable rosewood becomes. According to a report issued by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a U.K.-based NGO, “the increasing rarity of the timbers involved has led to dramatic price rises, exacerbated by a flow of hot investment money.” You can forget gold or NFTs. In China, rosewood furniture is the speculative investment of the day. The buyers of this furniture, and the gangs who provide the stolen timber, are banking on the wood becoming extinct. It is perhaps unsurprising that there are no conservation groups in China dedicated to preserving the rosewood tree. Everyone has too much to lose.
If change is going to happen, it’s going to happen indirectly. Gifts of rosewood furniture used to be a common way to bribe Chinese party officials. However, President Xi Jinping’s recent anti-corruption drive has made this ostentatious practice less common. Perhaps more important are the changing tastes of the young Chinese generation, many of whom see rosewood furniture as something only old people like. They would rather buy their furniture at Ikea.
George Pendle is an Editor at Large for Air Mail. His book Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons became a television series for CBS All Access. He is also the author of Death: A Life and Happy Failure, among other books