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CITES Protects Rare Trees: Rosewood And Ebony Defended From Smugglers

Mar 12, 2013 06:28 PM EDT

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora conference has been making news all week, with decisions on how best to preserve the planet’s most threatened animals and plants.

The CITES conference, this week in Bangkok, has been the scene of a lot of talk about shark fins and elephant tusks, but the world’s endangered trees also made the agenda, receiving the kind of attention that is usually hard for plants to get. It’s the cute creatures that get all the attention, and it’s hard to classify a tree as cute.

But a tree’s wood can be beautiful, which is part of the problem.

The majority of the flora discussion at the meeting centered on two endangered woods: rosewood and ebony.

Rosewood is largely grown in Thailand, where it has been over-farmed to keep up with the massive and growing demand from the equally massive and growing middle class of people in neighboring China, mostly for furniture. The wood allegedly sells for around $50,000 per cubic yard.

The CITES group discussed increasing permit requirements to deal in the wood, which they hope will strengthen and cut down on the illegal trade that has sprung up around the expensive wood.

“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 and associated violence,” said Faith Doherty of the Environmental Investigation Agency to the BBC.

The ebony trade is even tougher.

Most of it comes out of Madagascar, where the government has actually banned the export of the dark wood in the hope of protecting it from the extinction it is rapidly approaching. And yet it is in such demand that there is always someone willing to put in the work and run the risk to take advantage of its rising price.

CITES decided to back these restrictions with its ability to impose trade sanctions, causing potentially dire consequences for any countries that refuse to enforce the rules.

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