Blood Timber in Thailand and the Fight to Save the World's Most Valuable Tree

Wildlife ranger Salak Chairacha heads into Thailand's Thap Lan national park in November 2016 to go on patrol searching for evidence of illegal Siamese rosewood loggers. Demelza Stokes

The photos were dark and grainy, but Kasidis Chanpradub, a senior officer with an elite paramilitary unit of the Thai park rangers, knew what he was looking at. "They are poachers, for sure," he told Newsweek. "Nobody else would be out there at that time of night."

After a morning briefing at the rangers' offices in a remote corner of Thailand's Khao Yai National Park, Chanpradub deployed five men dressed in camouflage and combat boots. Armed with assault rifles, they fanned out beneath the thick jungle canopy, looking for poachers. The area they protect is vast—2,375 square miles of forest across five national parks in eastern Thailand, which UNESCO has declared a World Heritage site. More than 800 species live here, including endangered animals such as the Asian tiger and Siamese crocodile.

These days, however, most poachers here aren't after rare animals. They are hunting what has quietly become the world's most valuable trafficked wildlife product: the Siamese rosewood tree. Seizures by customs officials of rosewood are worth twice that of the second most valuable item, elephant tusks, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. And over the past decade, poachers have chainsawed the trees into near extinction, threatening the ecosystem of Khao Yai, a popular tourist destination.

The booming demand is from China, where ornately carved, Ming imperial-style furniture known as hongmu is now a $5 billion industry, according to a 2014 estimate by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a London-based nongovernmental organization that monitors illegal wildlife trafficking. That industry relies heavily on the rosewood trees chopped down across the Mekong region in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

With so much money at stake, the loggers—day laborers and former and current Cambodian military officers —are willing to kill, and die, for the spoils. Loggers can make an estimated $4,000 to $6,000 on one mature tree. Last year, the loggers killed five rangers in the forest. (It's not known how many poachers the rangers have killed.) The combination of those deaths and the species's red-hued timber has led conservationists to call it "bloodwood."

The illegal logging operations are run by transnational crime syndicates and have long enjoyed an advantage over park staff because of superior numbers, funding and weaponry. But in 2015, Thailand's Department of National Parks created specialized paramilitary ranger units called hasadin ("elephant" in Sanskrit). Freeland, a Bangkok-based counter-trafficking NGO, has trained and helped fund the group, which is made up of 50 rangers in units across the five national parks. Now, with the help of new facial-recognition cameras, the hasadin are finally slowing the poachers down.

"It's a war that, perhaps, we can never win outright," says Chanpradub. "But if we stay strong, they won't win either."

A hidden camera trap captured rosewood poachers illegal logging at night. Freeland/DNP

There are many types of rosewood trees, but Dalbergia cochinchinensis, or Siamese rosewood, native to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, is the most prized by China's burgeoning middle classes. "Siamese rosewood…was traditionally the preserve of emperors and royalty," says Jago Wadley, the senior forests campaigner at the EIA.

As illegal logging has made the wood scarce, buyers have increasingly viewed it not just as a material for grandiose furniture but also as an investment. One wealthy consumer in Shanghai paid $1 million for a bed made of Siamese rosewood, according to an EIA investigation in 2014. "There is a helter-skelter rush to acquire some of the world's most expensive and finite resources before they are gone," says Tim Redford, director of Freeland's Surviving Together Program, which works with local communities to protect the environment. "Some buyers are banking on extinction to raise the value of their investments."

Illegal loggers have stripped Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam of almost all known Siamese rosewoods, taking advantage of lax and corrupt law enforcement in national parks. Now, they have turned to Thailand, where the forests have been better guarded, because it is a wealthier country, with a greater commitment to the environment, and because animist-Buddhist traditions have long protected the trees from local use. "Thailand historically did not use rosewood, so huge stands of trees once remained in the protected areas," says Redford, but due to recent poaching, "only a fraction still exists." As a result, the poachers have started to prey on the closely related Burmese rosewood, found in Thailand and Myanmar.

Thailand's Royal Forest Department is preparing to plant 8 million seedlings to replace the illegally logged adult trees in its national parks. Yet new trees can take 150 years to grow to maturity. In the short term, trying to defeat the poachers is the only way to save the species.

In recent months, Thai rangers have been using a high-tech new weapon: poacher cams, motion-sensor cameras camouflaged in green boxes that sit in trees some 12 feet above the forest floor, capture movement on the ground and transmit images by email to officers' phones in real time. The newest versions have facial-recognition technology smart enough to alert rangers to the presence of humans. These cameras allow rangers to monitor multiple remote locations simultaneously and head straight to where poachers are operating. Rangers move the cameras every few weeks to prevent the loggers tracking their locations.

Since the authorities introduced cameras in the five national parks nine months ago, officials tell Newsweek they have noticed fewer incursions from poachers. "They have a practical benefit but also a psychological effect on the poachers," says Chanpradub. "They don't know where the cameras are and when they are being watched. We believe it's already scaring off some of the large groups."

Salak Chairacha planning the trekking patrol route on the terrain map of Thap Lan National Park. Demelza Stokes

The cameras have also forced the poachers to adapt. Before, they would come from Cambodia in groups of up to 40, armed with chainsaws and AK-47s. They would set up logging camps inside the parks and stay for two to three weeks. When they finished logging, they would haul the timber out of the national parks, where smugglers in pickup trucks equipped with concealed chambers were waiting to carry the timber to Cambodia. That sort of large-scale operation has become less practical, thanks to the new cameras. Now, the poachers use less efficient "hit and run" missions, heading into the forest in smaller groups for shorter stays. They cut down trees, mark their location by GPS and dispatch porters to return at night, taking multiple trips to deliver the timber to the trucks.

The gangs are also fighting back less frequently, fearing more deadly clashes with the hasadin. If confronted, they now prefer to flee into the forests rather than stand and fight, says Redford.

To alert the rangers about the activities of poachers before they enter the park, Freeland wants help. It sends teams of Thai and Khmer park officials, along with local NGOs, to schools and communities near smuggling routes on the Thai-Cambodian border. There, they explain the importance of conserving the forest.

But the poachers have countered this tactic too. Before heading into the park, they now go to nearby villages and threaten to kill the locals if they report the poachers' presence.

Aside from their new cameras, however, the rangers now have allies across the globe. In January, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international treaty, closed a loophole that had allowed partially or fully finished rosewood furniture to be imported legally.

The treaty has given the defenders of Thailand's national parks some hope that they can save the tree from extinction. But for Chanpradub and his team, the war continues—one poacher at a time.