Thailand's forest rangers step up training in violent 'blood wood' war

The forests of the Mekong region have become a battleground as rangers try to stop poachers from driving the Siamese rosewood tree to extinction
Demelza Stokes The Guardian 5 Jan 16;

It’s dawn in Thailand’s Eastern forest, and the sound of combat boots echoes through the jungle mist at Ta Phraya national park’s headquarters.

The stomping boots belong to forest rangers on a counter-poaching tactics course. They are training with Hasadin, a team of elite rangers formed in June 2015, whose mission is to stop the Siamese rosewood tree from being driven to extinction by poachers.

“The poachers don’t care if we’re rangers ... if they meet us and they have weapons in their hands, they shoot immediately without warning,” says Piroon Pilaphop, leader of Hasadin’s Dong Yai wildlife sanctuary team.

Siamese rosewood is a hardwood species confined to the remaining forested areas of just four countries in the Mekong region – Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Renowned for its blood-red colour, the highly coveted endangered species is illegally logged in Thailand and smuggled through mainland south-east Asia to luxury “hongmu” furniture markets in China.

Conservationists have warned that with rates of illegal logging increasing by 850% in recent years, Thailand’s Siamese rosewood trees could be extinct within a decade.

Large trees in protected forests have become so scarce that their plunder is more akin to wildlife poaching. Increasingly large groups of illegal loggers cross the Thai-Cambodian border with weapons and are willing to engage in firefights in order to get the highly valuable “blood wood”.

“Rosewood is becoming harder and harder to find. The last big rosewood trees are in the deep forest, so the smugglers are moving deeper and deeper into Thailand,” says Khajornsak Anantuk, a sergeant major with the Ta Phraya border police, who is helping to train the rangers.

In the war against rosewood poaching, rangers train in self defence, patrol, conducting raids, making arrests, weapons and explosives identification. In the classroom they study poachers’ rights, GPS mapping, forest law and species identification.

The poachers have increasing safety in numbers - vastly outnumbering the rangers - and in the deep forests the rosewood has to be carried out on foot. “If they want 60 pieces of wood, they have to bring more than 60 people because it’s one piece for one person. They also bring guards and front scouts,” says Booncherd Jaroensuk, head of Ta Phraya national park.

Seven forest rangers died in 2015 in relation to violent Siamese rosewood crime, according to the Freeland Foundation, an organisation based in Bangkok working to improve ranger training in Thailand.

Most loggers previously came from the border region with Cambodia, but some are now allegedly brought in from as far as the Cambodian-Vietnam border by traffickers.

“The people along the border have got wise to how dangerous it is, so the middlemen are bringing people from over on the Vietnam border who don’t know anything ... sometimes they don’t even know it’s a protected forest,” says Tim Redford, training coordinator at Freeland.

In September last year, 23 Cambodian would-be loggers fled their traffickers upon discovery that Siamese rosewood was their target, and handed themselves over to the Thai police, according to the Cambodia Daily. “It’s a form of human trafficking … they are being tricked into it ... there have been two cases recently where Cambodians have been taken into the forest and told that they were going to be working on legal timber projects or on construction work,” says Redford.

“I wish they would just arrest the big guys so the problem will finally stop,” says Hasadin ranger Piroon, referring to the catalogue of corrupt officials, businessmen, and brokers involved in the clandestine transnational trade that carves its murky way throughout south-east Asia.

The lucrative trade saw $1.2bn worth of Siamese rosewood imported to China between 2000 and 2014, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Sold for 200 baht (£3.60) a kilo on the forest floor, it currently fetches more than £30,000 per tonne (£30/kilo) in China’s wholesale markets. EIA reported a bed made from Siamese rosewood being sold for US$1m in Shanghai in 2011.

Siamese rosewood was listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in 2013 in an attempt to curb the decimation of south-east Asia’s remaining stocks. The listing should have prohibited the international trade in logs, sawn timber and veneers, but an annotation allowing for the legal trade in “semi-finished” products of Siamese rosewood has provided a catastrophic loophole.

“The biggest problem is the demand ... without that, there wouldn’t be the tsunami of cash entering these badly governed countries which then exacerbates corruption, undermines the rule of law, and provides incentives for loggers to risk their lives,” says Jago Wadley, senior forest campaigner at EIA.

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