BANGKOK Thai rosewood, which fetches exorbitant prices on the international market, was granted protection under international law on Tuesday, with China the main target, but it was not immediately clear how much effect it will have.
A 1989 National Logging Ban already prohibits logging of all rosewood and other precious wood species in Thailand. But huge demand and weak law enforcement means Thai rosewood is smuggled into neighboring countries and shipped to end-users, principally China.
Member states at the annual Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to list Thai rosewood under Appendix II of the CITES which regulates trade of threatened species through logging permits and agreed quotas.
"This is a significant step forward for this desperately threatened species. Finally we have a legal tool to use in China, the main destination and where rosewood prices on the black market are spurring a flood of smuggling," said Faith Doherty, head of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) Forests Campaign.
Rising demand from China's wealthy elite led to a 40 percent increase in traditional rosewood furniture production by Chinese companies in 2010 with prices increasing by 15-40 percent annually, fuelled by speculative investments in "rare wood" products by rich Chinese, says the EIA.
Illegal rosewood logging is dogged by violence and corruption fuelled by its high market price. Thai rosewood can fetch up to $50,000 per cubic meter.
Even the smallest log is valuable. Last year, 45 Cambodian loggers were shot dead by Thai authorities while out searching for rosewood, according to the Cambodian government, although the Thai authorities dispute that figure.
The exploitation of rosewood has led to a 66 percent reduction in Thai rosewood trees between 2005 to 2011, according to the Plant Varieties Protection Division at the Department of Agriculture.
The listing of ramin, a tropical hardwood native to Indonesia, in CITES Appendix II has helped curb large-scale laundering of the timber from Indonesia through to Malaysia.
(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre in Bangkok and Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh; Editing by Alan Raybould and Nick Macfie)