Tree sleuths are using technology to crack timber crimes / wayra
Scientists are optimistic that innovative techniques can pinpoint the true origin of timber.
shot of forest with overlay of opaque squares and gridline / wayra
May 7, 2019
Category : Stories

By Aisling Irwin, Nature Magazine

When 420 tonnes of deep crimson logs arrived at a Sri Lankan port in April 2014, customs officers cast a suspicious eye over them. The wood was en route from Zanzibar in Tanzania to Hong Kong, where it would probably be crafted into expensive furniture for the Chinese market. However, a tip-off from international police organization Interpol alerted Sri Lankan officials to the fact that the 3,669 rosewood logs were from Madagascar, which had banned such exports in 2010.

To prove the origin of the rosewood, Sri Lankan authorities sent samples to a laboratory in Oregon that was testing a new weapon in the fight against illegal logging — a US$200,000 mass spectrometer. In mere seconds, scientists at the US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Lab in Ashland determined that the wood bore the distinct chemical signature of a Madagascan species of rosewood — and not one of wood legal to export.

After a drop in the early 2000s, the trade in illegally logged timber is rising again. Interpol estimates that between 15% and 30% of the global timber trade violates either national law or international treaty. In some tropical countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Laos and Papua New Guinea, illegal timber could account for more than 70% of the nation’s production. This market is worth between $10 billion and $100 billion a year, according to a 2016 report from the International Union of Forest Research Organizations in Vienna.

Some high-income countries — including the United States, South Korea and those in the European Union — have banned the import of illegally sourced wood and products made from it, and forced importers to prove their supplies are bona fide. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement signed by 183 countries, forbids or restricts trade in the most threatened species. In 2016, it added to the list all the rosewoods belonging to the genus Dalbergia.

shot of forest with overlay of opaque squares and gridline / wayra

Such efforts suggest that illegal timber imports are thriving — in part because the crime is so difficult to uncover. From Brazil and Madagascar to Europe’s Carpathian Mountains, trees move from forest to living room through serpentine routes, with twists and turns where illegal wood can be hidden. A single piece of plywood can contain 18 different tropical timbers. An illegally harvested oak tree from Russia can voyage to Vietnam to become a table, and by the time it reaches a US retailer, its origin has mysteriously changed.

The global paper trail that accompanies timber is notoriously easy to manipulate. So those tasked with fighting illegal trade — and the companies now compelled to crack down on it — are turning to technologies that can spot the signatures of illicit timber. Scientists are developing a suite of tools that can identify the species and the country, and even the region, it came from. Thanks to advances in chemical and genetic fingerprinting, it is now possible to determine where a tree grew — sometimes down to a particular patch of forest. Some of these tools are already being used to catch criminals.

A few formidable obstacles are keeping these techniques out of routine use, one of the biggest of which is a lack of reference samples against which to compare suspect timber. But there are signs of progress towards developing a library of the world’s forests. In February, the US government and various international partners said that they would plough resources into collecting and curating thousands of georeferenced tree samples.

“I’m convinced that in five, ten years — with any wood product — you’ll be able to know exactly where it came from,” says Phil Guillery, head of supply-chain integrity at the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a voluntary certification body in Bonn, Germany, and one of the forces behind the library effort. “You can’t fake the science.”

This story was originally published by Nature magazine. Read the full story here.

For more coverage about FSC’s role in this wood ID partnership see: