A Life-or-Death Hunt for Tree Thieves

The rangers were slogging their way up the mud-slick mountainside in Thap Lan National Park when a hand signal brought our patrol to a sharp halt. A scout up ahead had found a letter “K” carved into the side of a tree. It was the signature of a timber poacher, rumored to be Cambodian, who had evaded capture for months, taunting them each time he pushed deeper into protected Thai territory.

Captain Morokot and his scout rushed forward hoping to catch the loggers by surprise, only to find a makeshift abandoned camp. Red Bull energy drink cans and cigarette butts littered the ground.

“The poachers have their own lookouts, so it’s getting harder to sneak up on them,” Morokot sighed. “We know some of them were soldiers [because] when we get close, they have no problem shooting at us.”

In the mountain jungles of eastern Thailand, a shadowy war is ramping up between poachers and the ill-equipped rangers tasked with stopping them. Surging Chinese demand for so-called “red timbers”—Tamalan, Padauk, Siamese rosewood—has fueled the destruction of forests across Southeast Asia’s backcountry and now threatens to drive some tree species to extinction.

Picture of a ranger in Cambodia examining a mark left on a tree


Captain Morokot, a ranger in Thailand’s Thap Lan National Park, hunts for signs of timber poachers. Many of them target valuable Siamese rosewood.PHOTOGRAPH BY JASON MOTLAGH

Thap Lan and adjoining parks—part of a complex that has UNESCO World Heritage status—are home to everything from black bears and crocodiles to elephants and tigers. Nearly 150 bird species have been documented in Thap Lan alone, including the green imperial pigeon and stork-billed kingfisher. By cutting down trees and hunting for bush meat, timber thieves are threatening one of the most biodiverse corners of Asia.

Linked to multinational criminal syndicates that have systematically clear-cut swathes of neighboring Cambodia, the logging gangs operating in Thailand are well armed, coordinated, and prepared to kill. In 2014, seven Thai rangers died in gun battles with illegal loggers. Two more were killed in a late-night ambush following a November raid on an illegal logging site.

“These trees belong to our people,” said Morokot, who first came to Thap Lan as a tourist and was so moved by the richness of the place that he applied for a job to protect it. Now he’s one of dozens of rangers who patrol the 860-square-mile (2,235 square kilometers) reserve, teams so ill-equipped that some men don’t even have guns, and bullets are always in short supply.

As timber elsewhere in Thailand runs out, loggers are making more brazen incursions deep into Thap Lan to steal the most prized timber of all: Siamese rosewood. With its darkly rich hues, density, and fine grain, rosewood has long been a favorite in China, where it’s carved into elaborate furniture and religious statues known as hongmu, an antique style that originated centuries ago.

Reproduction hongmu furniture has become a status symbol of China’s new rich. A 2011 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a U.K.-based NGO, says demand for Ming and Qing dynasty-era replica products soared in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and has stayed high. Prices hover around $20,000 a ton, with some varietiesspiking as high as $80,000.

A smaller, but significant, amount of illegally harvested rosewood makes its way from Southeast Asia via China to the U.S. These exports range from hongmu items sold in Asian furniture emporiums to name brand mail-order coffee tables.

Picture of a Thai ranger walking through a stream


Protecting trees is a dangerous job for ill-equipped Thai rangers, who lack sufficient guns and bullets to defend themselves against brazen poachers.PHOTOGRAPH BY JASON MOTLAGH

“For the last two or three years, it’s just grown out of control,” says Tim Redford, of the Freeland Foundation, an organization funded by the U.S. government that monitors wildlife and trains rangers to combat rosewood poachers. “They’re going in with AK-47s, M-16s, hand grenades detonators.” As rosewood becomes scarcer, he adds, the risks the timber thieves are willing to take are increasing.

“What most consumers don’t understand in America is that this wood came from an illegal source,” says Redford, who acknowledges the difficulty of tracing a product’s origins. “People have risked their lives for that timber.”

Poachers Without Borders

In Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar massive tracts of virgin forest have been razed to sustain the rosewood trade, but no country has lost more than Cambodia. By some estimates, more than a third of its forests disappeared during the past four decades, despite a moratorium on logging and a 2013 ban on the harvesting, sale, and export of Siamese rosewood.

In Cambodia, poverty drives many men to timber poaching. One veteran smuggler, who declined to give his name, said he logged rosewood on the Cambodian side for years until the trees ran out. (We were introduced by a local journalist, and he agreed to talk because he was frustrated over the lack of economic opportunities in Cambodia.) Then, under cover of darkness, he began making forays into Thailand, hacking down trunks and selling whatever planks he managed to haul out to army soldiers.

A land mine blew off half of his right leg, but with no other way to earn a living, he still crosses the border to search for rosewood, at times taking fire from Thai rangers. “Everybody knows it’s a dangerous job,” he said, “but there’s no choice.”

Although Thap Lan rangers haven’t taken any casualties, Wichai Pomleesansumon, the park’s superintendent, says Cambodian poachers operating inside Thailand have been helped out with arms and logistics support from members of the Cambodian military.

Picture of a man carving timber


Valuable “red timber” planks await export in a Cambodian warehouse. Soaring Chinese and U.S. demand for the wood feeds the illicit trade.

“A few years back, our rangers were finding Cambodian soldiers’ cards left in the jungle, which led us to believe they were the ones doing the logging,” he said. “Now it appears they’re hiring out labor to log for them.” (Cambodia’s military command didn’t respond to requests for comment, but authorities have arrested some soldiers for poaching.)

Freeland’s Redford says that stolen wood smuggled on the backs of amphetamine-addled workers or packed in secret truck compartments makes its way to private depots run by a politically connected timber mafia, where it’s mixed in with domestically harvested timber. Paperwork is then issued for export, mainly to China.

“Daylight Robbery”

Ouch Leng, an independent Cambodian investigator who tracks the illicit rosewood trade, says the Cambodian government has bent its own rules to accommodate timber tycoons who in turn provide hefty kickbacks. The first strategy is for officials to grant land concessions, nominally for agriculture purposes, that allow timber to be clear-cut and sold in the process.

The second is to convert state public property to private property under the pretext of using it for development. Here again, timber is razed and sold off by the companies. “The country is for sale,” Ouch Leng said.

According to Global Witness, a U.K.-based nonprofit that tracks resource exploitation, a timber tycoon named Try Pheap is “at the helm of an illegal logging network that relies on the complicity of officials from government, the military, police and customs to clear rare trees like Siamese Rosewood, traffic logs across the country and load them onto boats bound for Hong Kong” in what amounts to “daylight robbery.” This includes the exclusive right to buy timber seized by any enforcement agencies

Picture of rangers patrolling in Thailand


Rangers in Thap Lan National Park search for traces of illegal loggers, who’ve become increasingly organized.PHOTOGRAPH BY JASON MOTLAGH

A February 2015 report alleges that Pheap and his companies have grown rich with illicit logging profits thanks to close ties with Prime Minister Hun Sen, for whom he once served as a personal adviser. Pheap has donated tens of thousand of dollars to the ruling party and holds a royally conferred honorific title—oknha—as a result.  

Based on the findings of an unpublished 2012 investigation by an international environmental group, the Phnom Penh Post alleged thatPheap made some $220 million trafficking illegally logged rosewood during a recent three-year period.

Last month, Pheap was singled out again when a provincial governor told officials gathered at the first meeting of a new anti-logging task force that Pheap had been granted illegal concessions on property inside a wildlife sanctuary—land previously confiscated from companies that had violated the law.

Local journalists and investigators who cover logging say they face death threats and have lived in constant fear since the 2012 murder of Chut Wutty, a prominent activist who helped expose a government sell-off of national parkland. He was shot dead by military police. “No one can do anything against the timber mafia because it belongs to Try Pheap,” Ouch Leng said. “He’s the rosewood king.”

Prak Vuthy, a Try Pheap Group spokesman, dismissed the allegations.“Maybe all of these accusations are not true,” he said, adding that his boss has operated his businesses within the law, with official paperwork to back it up.

Picture of rosewood furniture


Workers in China’s Fujian Province craft furniture made from rosewood, long favored for its darkly rich hues, density, and fine grain.

Pheap is secretive and avoids interviews, but a museum he’s putting up on the outskirts of Phnom Penh offers a vivid illustration of his wealth and priorities. Made almost entirely out of wood, it rises several stories atop columns of giant rosewood trunks, with a vaulted tile roof and ornate hand-carved molding—a temple to an allegedly tainted fortune.

In a separate complex behind the museum, a large anteroom full of polished rosewood furniture—king-size beds, thrones, busts of Khmer kings—opens up to a warehouse stacked high with raw planks of red timber. At first Vuthy denied that any of it was rosewood, calling it “ordinary wood.” But when pressed, he conceded that some was rosewood, handing over documents with Cambodian forestry department stamps confirming its legal provenance.

The museum is supposed to open this year, but Try Pheap’s staff says it may be delayed by a shortage of large rosewood trunks.

“Buying More Time”

Some of the last virgin rosewood tracts lie just across the Cambodian border in Thailand. Park authorities in Thap Lan confirmed that poachers are coming across in unprecedented numbers, gauged by the volume of arrests and numbers of poachers recorded by camera traps.

On the third day of Morokot’s mountain patrol in Thap Lan park, slowed by driving monsoon rains, his scout spotted another “K” carved into a tree. The red hue of the cut indicated it was fresh. Their nemesis might be at hand.

Once again, the two men charged ahead in pursuit, with rifles at the ready. They slashed through thorny vines and razor-edged palm leaves the loggers had cut down to slow their advance until a river cut them off.

Had the poachers walked upstream, then doubled back in the direction the rangers had just come from? Or had they crossed to the opposite side? Perhaps just one poacher had crossed, as a diversion, while the others double backed up the river.

With the trail going cold, and unsure of which way to go, the rangers stuck to their planned route alongside the river, which eventually brought them to a dirt track: the end of another patrol. Dog tired and empty-handed, they were demoralized.

At this rate of destruction, Morokot reckoned, all the rosewood trees in Thap Lan would disappear. “Right now we’re just buying more time,” he said.

By Jason Motlagh

Wildlife watch

Jason Motlagh is a multimedia journalist and filmmaker. He has won a National Magazine Award for News Reporting and has been a finalist in the reporting category. Follow him on his website and on Twitter.

Leave a Reply