Blood Timber: The Global Demand for Precious Hardwoods Has Gobbled Up Most of Madagascar's Rare Rosewood Trees. but as Illegal Loggers Start to Plunder the Island's National Parks, Conservationists May Finally Be Gaining the Upper Hand

By Stone, Tuppence | Geographical, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Blood Timber: The Global Demand for Precious Hardwoods Has Gobbled Up Most of Madagascar's Rare Rosewood Trees. but as Illegal Loggers Start to Plunder the Island's National Parks, Conservationists May Finally Be Gaining the Upper Hand


Stone, Tuppence, Geographical


Madagascar is a curious ark of weird and wonderful animals and plants that have evolved in isolation for millions of years. Best known are the lemurs, of which more than 80 different species can be found living within the island's varied landscapes. But Madagascar is also a hotbed of tropical-plant evolution, with hundreds of species of ebony, orchids and palms found nowhere else on Earth.

Historically, slash-and-burn agriculture, poverty and a spiralling population have placed much of Madagascar's unique biodiversity in peril. In more recent years, the Indian Ocean island's descent into political turmoil has led to the plunder of rare hardwood species from the country's national parks. However, an investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Global Witness, together with legal proceedings in the USA, have given conservationists cause for hope.

LAWLESS LOGGERS

In March 2009, Madagascar experienced the latest in a series of coups d'etat. Lemur biologist Erik Patel saw the impact that the resulting security vacuum had on Marojejy National Park in the country's northeast. 'Thousands of armed loggers swarmed into the park, working in gangs organised by the timber mafia,' he says. 'When you see the forest through the eyes of money and greed, everything changes. Every time there's a coup, the national parks get raped.'

Having worked in the park for ten years, Patel knew what the loggers were after: rosewood and ebony. Rainforest specialists, these trees are found in low densities at elevations of between 400 and 1,000 metres above sea level. They grow extremely slowly, reaching maturity at between 100 and 300 years of age. The wood in the trees' cores is incredibly dense--1.5 times more dense than that of oak.

Rosewood's fine, strong grain and beautiful dark-pink wood, and the intense black of ebony, make both highly sought after by Asian furniture carvers. In China, Madagascan rosewood beds can sell for as much as US$1 million. Wood from both trees is also in demand for musical instruments; rosewood is used to make the bodies of guitars, among others, because of its exceptional tone, and ebony is thought to make the best fingerboards of various stringed instruments.

All of the ebony and rosewood trees found outside Madagascar's national parks have already been logged, so the loggers have now turned their attention to the parks. It has been illegal to cut either since 2006, but the few park rangers, each of whom guards an area of more than 100 square kilometres, cannot police the vast, rugged jungle.

Soon after the coup in 2009, British photographer Toby Smith travelled to Madagascar to work undercover in Masoala National Park, a remote, little-studied tract of rainforest on a mountainous peninsula that juts into the Indian Ocean. There he found local people, lured by the promise of generous wages, living in large logging camps set up along the park's rivers.

Using hand axes and thin plastic rope, the loggers extract the precious timber, before sending it on its journey to the depots of the six traders that control the region. After being felled, each tree is cut into 2.5-metre lengths and stripped back to the valuable core. Teams of between two and six men haul these logs through the thick jungle and along streams to deeper water. Rosewood and ebony are denser than water and sink, so, for each log, six lighter trees are cut down to make a raft, which is then floated downstream.

Along the way, teams of young men wait at the worst rapids to help extract the rafts and logs that become trapped or destroyed. The work is extremely dangerous, and Smith saw evidence of serious injuries suffered by those involved, including crushed limbs.

When the river is deep enough, the logs are taken from their rafts and loaded onto pirogues for the final leg of their nine-hour journey Eventually, they are stockpiled in the timber town of Antalaha. …

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