Just back from our latest trip to the bush. This time we weren’t in our usual ‘comfort zone’ (Southern Africa’s more arid regions) but the dark, damp, steamy, stunning but, at times, pretty alien jungle of Thailand’s Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai eastern forest complex.
Wearing our brand new leech socks and a ton of super-strength insect repellent we were on assignment for leading French nature and photography magazine Terre Sauvage supported by a bursary from the IUCN awarded for our series of images on pioneering keyhole surgery on wild bull elephants in the bush.
To cut a long story short we found ourselves struggling with low light levels, swirling mist and fogging lenses in a tangle of cobra vines and strangler figs, dodging deadly bees and mozzies, at the heart of an important, untold story about the poaching of endangered Siamese rosewood trees. It’s a desperate situation that’s apparently been spiralling out of control in the last few years.
Scroll back a few months and we’d not even heard about the Siam rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis) problem. Everything else about the story, however, was depressingly familiar. The wood is reported to fetch prices of up to $100,000 per cubic metre on the black market. It’s turned into prized Hongmu carved furniture by the Chinese for the rising affluent middle-classes. Innocent wildlife rangers are being killed in this so-called ‘rosewood’ war, anti-poaching units patrolling the dense forests are lacking in manpower, weapons, ammunition and supplies. When poachers are caught the penalties are often way too lenient…
For around two and a half years now, we’ve tried to keep a focus on what’s happening with the poaching of African rhinos via our Project African Rhino awareness raising campaign. As a result we’ve become fairly well versed in the wide-ranging and complex issues of the international wildlife trade – the third largest illegal business in the world after drugs and arms.
What we hadn’t really got our heads round before this trip was just how widespread and far-ranging the problem was. That it wasn’t just iconic, headline-grabbing species – rhino for horn, elephant for ivory – but that a ton of other stuff – like these rare rosewood trees – is also being ruthlessly exploited to the point of extinction.
The fall-out is huge not just for the rosewood species concerned, but for other endangered species that this important forest complex and World Heritage Site supports. Rarely seen, the forest is home to a significant population of tigers for example. Poachers are already turning their attention to other hardwood trees as the Siam rosewood supplies diminish. National park chiefs are having to pour more and more of their scant resources into battling the poaching epidemic.
These are not just isolated incidents. It’s happening almost daily. During our short time in the forest several poaching incidents, and arrests, took place. On one occasion we were on the scene when rangers brought in three poachers caught red-handed with the wood they’d felled. Patrol units often find themselves confronting gangs of 50 to a 100 poachers at a time. Many are armed and hooked on methamphetamine (they’re even paid for the wood they poach in these drugs by criminals higher up the chain) to give them enough energy to work in the forest through the night.
During our visit to Thap Lan, Pang Sida and Khao Yai national parks we were shown several vast stockpiles of rosewood that had been confiscated, following confrontations with poachers in just the last two years, as well as dozens of impounded vehicles that had been cleverly adapted to smuggle the wood away.
It’s a critical situation, but the Thai forest rangers fighting in the frontline of these wars, just like the rhino anti-poaching patrols we have met in Africa, inspired us with their dedication. They’re not at all afraid to risk their lives doing this dangerous job and told us they felt passionately that the forest and its trees had to be protected for the future. Recent specialist training (organised as an emergency measure by the anti-wildlife trafficking NGO Freeland, which regularly works in this forest complex, and supported by the IUCN’s Save Our Species campaign) has given them greater confidence, better skills, and the ability to use more modern technology to tackle the problem, they said.
Taywin Meesap head of Thap Lan National Park is a proud man. ‘We try to help ourselves first, but we need more manpower, more rangers, more weapons and we need people like you guys spreading the message to the rest of the world.’ He told us he would like to tell the Chinese buyers of the poached rosewood that their furniture is stained with the blood of forest rangers.
We’re back home now and our muddy leech socks are in the wash. We’re preparing to head back to our usual stomping ground – the African bush – very soon. Other stories will take up our attention in the months ahead. But unlike the forest mud the experiences and memories of our Thailand trip will cling to us forever. The rosewood story, just like that of the rhinos, is on our radar now and we’ll certainly be doing our best to spread the word about it.
Our feature on the Siam rosewood problem will be published at the end of the year in a special issue of Terre Sauvage to mark the 50th anniversary of the IUCN Red List.