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Telling an illegal log from another is no easy feat. CIFOR/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

CSI trees: how forensic science is helping combat illegal logging

Forensic science has achieved infamy, thanks to television dramas like CSI. But it isn’t just about solving human crimes. Scientists are also using evidence from wood to help solve murders, but in this case the victims are the trees themselves, and the crime is illegal logging.

Illegal logging is a serious environmental and economic threat to forests. The value of the illegal timber trade is hard to calculate, but estimates range from US$30 billion to $100 billion, potentially involving 100 million cubic metres of wood.

But new scientific methods, highlighted in a recent study in Bioscience, are helping law enforcers identify tree victims and fight illegal logging.

Timber outlaws

Tropical regions such as Southeast Asia, Central Africa and Central and South America suffer disproportionately. Some 50-90% of timber produced from these regions is thought to be illegal, compared with 15-30% globally. Aside from the environmental destruction, countries that experience illegal logging lose out on tax revenue and have the value of their legitimate timber diminished.

Such large markets attract big players, with organised crime networks at the centre of much of the illegal trade.

Combating illegal logging is the moral responsibility of all countries, be they timber producers or consumers. Along with laws on how local timber can be harvested, an increasing number of laws are targeting the international illegal timber trade. These include Australia’s own Illegal Logging Prohibition Act, which prohibits the importation of timber that has been illegally harvested overseas.

At the international level, the CITES Convention provides a mechanism through which trade in certain species can be regulated in order to avoid driving them to extinction.

Smarter forensics

These laws are necessary and are already starting to have a positive effect through improved governance and procurement policies. But they rely on us knowing when a law has been broken.

Timber is notoriously hard to identify, even for experts. By looking at the structure of the wood alone, it is usually only possible to identify it to the genus level, rather than the species itself.

This is a problem because most timber laws protect individual species, and often only part of the range of that species. This means that law enforcement must rely on the paper trail that accompanies timber shipments, which is open to fraud.

Tracing illegal timber is a difficult process. Andy McIntyre @little_bones, Author provided

Science can help by focusing on new ways to identify timber. Looking at the anatomy of wood (despite its inability to reveal species or place of origin) still provides the fastest and cheapest way to get an initial identification.

However, new identification techniques including genetic and chemical fingerprinting can provide more detail and could deliver the detection capacity we sorely need. By combining several techniques, the type and source of timber can be determined with great accuracy.

Developing techniques in a lab is a far cry from applying them to the real world, however. A major problem is that although forensic methods have been proven to work in case studies, developing tools that distinguish between hundreds of species and geographic regions requires investment in research and development.

One of the major challenges is to collect reference material (wood and herbarium specimens of commercially important species, and their lookalikes, from across the globe).

A recent CITES meeting approved a raft of measures to help increase the collection and sharing of reference materials for timber. This will help to improve identification tests.

Enforcing the law

While we find new scientific ways to protect the world’s forests, it is equally important to make sure these tools are available at the front line. Law enforcers have a huge task.

Customs officers are already responsible for preventing trade in illegal drugs, firearms and wildlife products, as well as human trafficking. Identifying shipments of illegally harvested wood within a massive legitimate trade is a big ask, so we must find ways to make this possible.

The international community has recognised these problems. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has released a guide to timber identification and a decision-making tool to help law enforcers and the scientific and legal communities through the complex processes of dealing with illegal timber.

Ethical consumers

As a timber researcher and part of the international team driving most of these initiatives, it’s satisfying to see progress not only in the science of protecting our forests, but also in international cooperation to make sure we see concrete results.

Yet I can’t help feeling that it’s not enough. Real progress must come not just through enforcement (because of course, once a crime has been detected, it is too late) but through consumers making smarter choices.

We are all consumers of timber, from the furniture we sit on to the paper we write on. And as consumers, we can demand more accountability from suppliers, to support verified and certified products harvested from sustainable sources.

By doing so we can increase the incentives for legal logging and support those businesses that do the right thing. So next time you buy something made from a tree, give a thought to where it has come from and try to make an ethical choice.

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