African rosewood (mukula) is the world’s most trafficked endangered timber, fuelling a US$26 billion market for Ming dynasty-styled furniture and décor for China’s elite. State-embedded networks facilitate the illegal movement of this wood from countries such as Madagascar, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia through the ports of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam to China.
African rosewood is a tropical timber found mainly in Madagascar, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is essential for local ecosystems and biodiversity and, when harvested sustainably, it supports local livelihoods. It is also used for traditional medicinal purposes. Over the years, demand for this rare wood in other countries has risen and now threatens its existence.
In December 2021, the Land and Environment Court in Mombasa ordered the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) to surrender 646 metric tonnes of rosewood worth US$13 million to alleged traffickers. The timber had been intercepted and seized at the Port of Mombasa while in transit from Madagascar through Zanzibar to Hong Kong.
The Kenyan court agreed with the alleged traffickers that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) regulation restricting trade in rosewood was not in effect in 2014 – the date the timber from Madagascar was seized by the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and KRA. This despite the fact that Madagascar’s own law had prohibited the trade in rosewood in 2010. Further, the transhipment of the rosewood through the Port of Mombasa violated Kenya’s Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, 2013.
A CITES advisory, presented as expert opinion during the proceedings, maintained that the rosewood seized in Kenya had been illegally exported from Madagascar and was being traded in contravention of Appendix II. However, the Kenyan court still released the trafficked rosewood to the Chinese company that had brought it from Madagascar.
The networks that facilitate the trafficking of this endangered species include high-level government officers. Investigative reports by civil society organisations in Madagascar indicate that state-embedded actors facilitate the harvesting of rosewood despite legal provisions in line with CITES that protect it.
Civil society actors such as the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in Madagascar believe that rosewood trafficking in the country is enabled through the state protection of traffickers. Malagasy environmental activist Armand Marozafy was jailed for defamation in 2015 for posting information about two local businessmen involved in the illegal harvesting of rosewood.
An EIA report reveals how rosewood logs marked with ‘paintings’ that indicate they came from government stockpiles were loaded onto vessels in Madagascar bound for Mombasa in 2014. However, the vessels docked in Zanzibar instead, where smugglers used offshore transit vessels to shuttle the rosewood into shipping containers. The containers were put on legitimate ships destined for Hong Kong, then transhipped to other destinations such as Mombasa to mask their place of origin.
The EIA also estimates that 50 40-foot containers of rosewood were exported from Zambia to China between June 2017 and May 2019. The harvesting, transportation and shipment of the timber in these 50 containers is estimated to have cost the traffickers $7.5 million in bribes and informal fees. The report says prominent people in the government of Edgar Lungu, the former president of Zambia, and his family members were part of this ‘mukula cartel’.
Enforcing existing laws and regulations banning the transport, transhipment and shipping of illicit rosewood through Mombasa, Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam’s ports could help curb its smuggling and trafficking from Zambia and Madagascar into Hong Kong and China. These include the East African Community Customs Management Act, which outlaws misdeclarations and falsification of documents at port and border points. Enforcement of this law is critical given that illegally shipped rosewood through East African ports is declared simply as ‘wood’, thereby enabling its smuggling to China.
Sixteen West African states have recently banned rosewood trading. Similar government bans in East and Southern Africa could help save this endangered species. A regional approach to stopping state-embedded actors’ involvement in rosewood trafficking from source countries such as Madagascar and Zambia through transit countries such as Kenya and Tanzania is critical for enabling an effective policy framework to protect the endangered rosewood in East and Southern Africa from smuggling.
A necessary first step would be to include amending the Protocol on Wildlife Conservation and Law Enforcement in Southern Africa to enable the establishment of specialised CITES units at land and sea ports in the region. These units would help identify rosewood. Properly classifying the timber as endangered would minimise opportunities for it to be smuggled.
Willis Okumu, Senior Researcher, Eastern Africa, ENACT Project, ISS