This was a fascinating and disturbing topic to research.
I’d like to share my latest writing, published this week in Isthmus, Madison WI weekly newspaper.
The tree detective
Madison researcher leads charge against illegal logging
August 11, 2016
Alex Wiedenhoeft works on a mortar sample in his lab at the Center for Wood Anatomy Research.
In March 2014, Sri Lankan customs officials got a tip that valuable contraband was moving through the country’s port city of Colombo.
Authorities confiscated 28 containers of rosewood timber. Known for its even texture, high density and unique scent, rosewood is prized for making everything from furniture to musical instruments.
But many species of rosewood are endangered, and its logging and trading are heavily regulated. Sri Lanka’s location on a major shipping route between Asia, Africa and Europe makes it a hub of smuggled plants and animals.
The 3,669 logs authorities seized were valued at more than $7 million.
But there was just one problem: Sri Lankan officials weren’t quite sure if the wood they seized was an endangered variety or another that is legal for trade.
So they turned to Alex Wiedenhoeft in Madison, one of the world’s foremost forensic wood anatomists and a secret weapon in the fight against illegal logging.
Officials around the globe often seek out the help of Wiedenhoeft, who is the team leader of the Center for Wood Anatomy Research (CWAR) at the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory on the UW-Madison campus.
The Sri Lankan authorities asked Wiedenhoeft to determine what kind of wood they’d confiscated and where it came from. Soon after, specimens cut from the ends of two of the suspect logs arrived on Wiedenhoeft’s desk. “To ensure that the chain of custody had not been tampered with, they came with imprinted wax seals over the strings that were binding the packages shut,” Wiedenhoeft recalls.
Samples of endangered Madagascar rosewood complete with string and wax seals.
Wiedenhoeft sliced a cross-section of the sample, looked at it with a magnifying glass, then made a slide and examined it under a microscope. While making a definitive ID can take anywhere from a few minutes to several months, this rosewood was relatively easy to read.
“I looked at the wood’s anatomy, and it was consistent with known species of rosewood from Madagascar.”
The island of Madagascar is home to many rosewood species found nowhere else on earth. Although protected, The Guardian reports, “The wood is being smuggled out of Madagascar at an alarming rate.”
Armed with Wiedenhoeft’s expert opinion, Sri Lanka pulled the 420 metric tons of rosewood off the black market.
Wiedenhoeft still keeps the samples in his department’s lockup. “This wood is a dark, rich purple, streaked with black,” he says. “It really is magnificent, and it’s heartbreaking that these trees are being cut down so aggressively.”
An estimated $150 billion a year changes hands in the complex, global forest products industry that logs 32 million acres of forest every year, often illegally, leaving a trail of devastation to ecosystems and local economies around the world. Much of that timber makes its way to the United States, currently the largest wood products market in the world.
Read the rest HERE