ANTANANARIVO Criminal gangs are stripping Madagascar's poorly-protected national parks every day of precious hardwood worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, two environmental campaign groups have said.
In a report issued this week, Global Witness and the Environmental Investigation Agency said between 100 and 200 rare rosewood trees were cut down each day with only a fraction, about 1,000 cubic meters, being exported each month.
Much of the wood was being stored until further export authorizations were granted for illegally cut timber, the report said.
"Timber traders have effectively bought the right to pillage the country's parks with impunity. They are extracting up to $800,000 a day worth of timber," said Reiner Tegtmeyer of Global Witness.
In September, the government authorized the export of 325 containers of timber. Conservation groups say the order legalized the sale of illegally cut wood and collected wood. The government denies legitimizing the plunder of the forests.
Conservationists say Madagascar's biodiversity is being wiped out at an alarming pace as gangs profit from a security vacuum to pillage rosewood and ebony from supposedly protected forests and trap exotic animals, mainly for Asia's pet market.
Eco-tourism has become the backbone of the Indian Ocean island's $390 million-a-year tourism industry, but months of political turmoil this year have devastated the sector.
The report accused members of the forestry administration, the police and the authorities of complicity with the traffickers.
Rosewood furniture sells for tens of thousands of dollars in Europe and Asia, with local communities seeing few benefits.
"Some of the world's unique forests, and the communities that rely on them, are being degraded beyond repair to feed our demand for luxury goods," said Andrea Johnson, director of Forest Campaigns at EIA.
Conservation groups last month accused the government of legalizing the sale of illegally cut timber and said it opened the door to the embezzlement of funds in the name of environmental protection.
The authorities have denied legitimizing the plundering of the forests. Decades of logging, mining and slash-and-burn farming have destroyed up to 90 percent of the ecology on the world's fourth largest island.
The report called on the government to place rosewood and ebony under the protection of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
(Editing by David Clarke)