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‘These Forests Are the Lungs of the Country’: Thai Rangers Guard Precious Rosewood

TA PHRAYA NATIONAL PARK, Thailand — The rangers walked for hours in almost complete silence through the dense Thai forest, never speaking above a whisper. Even in the early morning, the leaves were dripping with wet heat.

The scout in front scanned the landscape for signs of a criminal presence in a protected park — a sneaker footprint in the moist dirt, an old whiskey bottle tossed aside, ammunition left behind. Even a cracked twig on the path could mean their quarry was dangerously close.

If they spotted a star-shaped symbol hacked into the side of a tree, then they could be sure: Poachers were nearby.

The jungles of Ta Phraya National Park in southeastern Thailand, part of a Unesco world heritage site, are home to sun bears, crocodiles and elephants. But these poachers are not after animal prey. They are hunting for the perfect tree, and when they do find it, they work quickly, chopping it down and slicing it into wooden planks in a matter of hours.

Their target, rosewood, can sell for tens of thousands in China and has earned an infamous nickname: “bloodwood.”

The poachers — who announce their presence to each other through the star-shaped symbol — are mostly Cambodians, said officials at the Freeland Foundation, a nongovernmental group that supports the rangers in their fight against poaching.

The Cambodians sneak across the porous jungle border into the park, sleeping among the trees and carrying little but a few sacks of rice, battery-powered band saws and, sometimes, rusty Chinese assault rifles.

On the other side are the rangers. Trained in woodland tracking, they scour the 230 square miles of the forest, looking for clues that could lead to an arrest.

It’s dangerous work. Dozens of rangers have lost their lives in Thailand since 2009, according to the International Rangers Federation; at least six were killed by poachers, the group says.

The Thai Army also helps, said Tim Redford, a training coordinator at the Freeland Foundation, which is funded in part by the United States government.

“The army is out in many of the parks,” he said. “They are conducting joint patrols with the rangers.”

Even with help, the 60 or so Thai rangers are outnumbered, underfunded and often outgunned. Some of the assault rifles and shotguns they carry are 60 years old. They often must buy their own food and supplies before each hike. But the rangers are still proud of the fight.

“These forests are the lungs of the country,” said Kaew Kornkam, an elite ranger trainer. “The army protects the country, the police protect the society, we protect the air that we breath.”

The fight to protect the rosewood tree — whose slow growth makes its wood both rare and precious — extends across much of Southeast Asia, where Vietnam and Cambodia are known as logging hubs, and where Laos just last year legislated its first formal logging limitations.

Thailand is the only country in the region with significant stands of rosewood remaining. In the past three months, it has seen a sudden spike in cross-border tree poaching, Mr. Redford said.

For more than 1,000 years, the region’s fragrant rosewood was used to make furniture for China’s elite. Since 2010, though, Chinese demand for Thai wood has ramped up. The wood has become highly fashionable for making ornamental furniture — a throwback to the imperial dynasties — and is a status symbol among China’s newly rich.

Traditionally, Thais have rarely harvested rosewood, believing that the spirit of the forest resides in the tree. To build a house from rosewood would bring spirits and bad luck inside.

But when demand began soaring for the wood nine years ago, some Thais guided Cambodian poachers into the forest and helped them find the prized trees, Mr. Redford said.

Until about three years ago, Thai spotters equipped with GPS could make $ 1,000 by going into the forest and tagging a single large rosewood tree.

Now, the Cambodian poachers know their way around the forest and have no need of local help.

They have improved their tactics, too. Instead of camping in the forest for weeks, one crew comes in and quickly turns a tree into timber. Another crew hikes in during the night and carries out the wood before dawn.

Siamese rosewood is dense and dark. Its grains are long and deep and red like a Thai sunset, one ranger said.

A smaller tree worth logging takes around 60 years to grow, while the most mature ones are around 200 years old.

Poachers typically can get $ 150 to $ 200 for a load of wood that could be worth tens of thousands of dollars in China. A single mature tree can be worth as much as $ 300,000.

With faked documents testifying to a legal harvest and corrupt payments to transport the wood across international borders, rosewood is now readily bought and sold across China, Freeland organization officials say.

“Probably around 2 percent of all rosewood is legally obtained,” Mr. Redford said.

A recent patrol at the park included new recruits, who went through an array of training on a three-day trek into the jungle. They practiced arrest techniques, firing weapons, tracking and how to identify different types of trees.

Some of the recruits had never held a rifle before. One young man, holding an old Remington rifle for the first time, practiced his stance. The instructor shouted, “Fire!”

Before pulling the trigger, the recruit, however, lowered his gun.

An older, shorter man could barely lift the shotgun he had been issued. As some of the men laughed at him, an observing Thai official walked over and told the trainers not to give the man a gun.

On patrol, silence is paramount. The rangers hiked in cheap sneakers and plastic sandals to avoid giving away their presence.

They walked along streams, refilling used plastic bottles with dingy drinking water and setting up tents in abandoned poacher camps, sometimes just hours after their targets had left. Many of them spread black tile grout on their faces for camouflage.

They ate rice and beans, sometimes with some fried crickets or silkworms as added protein.

One of the men on patrol, who goes by the name of Maung, was a former rosewood poacher now turned ranger. After being arrested and imprisoned for six months, he said he wanted to apply his knowledge of poaching tactics to make things better in the forest instead of continuing the problem.

He also runs a volunteer group that takes children into the woods to teach them about the trees.

“From now on, I’ll never give up this work,” Maung said. “Will do it until I die. I want to teach the next generation to learn to love the forest. Then they’ll know not to destroy it.”

Ben C. Solomon reported from Ta Phraya National Park, Thailand, and Richard C. Paddock from Bangkok.

Source: NYT > World

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