Forensic Scientists Fighting Timber Theft

The Forensic Scientists Fighting Timber Theft

At the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Forensics Lab in Oregon, researchers are building a chemical database of trees threatened by illegal harvesting

By Lyndsie Bourgon

June 23, 2022 11:53 am ET

Thirty percent of the world’s wood trade involves timber that was poached—illegally harvested from public or private land. The World Bank and Interpol have estimated that the global scale of illegal logging generates up to $157 billion annually, some of which goes to fund large-scale crime networks. The terrorist network Al-Shabab is known to traffic in poached wood and charcoal from Somalia. In Australia, organized-crime “firewood rings” haul in a million dollars’ worth of poached Tasmanian timber each year.

Most poached wood makes it into our homes in products made from rosewood, ebony, Dalbergia nigra, balsa and agar wood. The wood is often poached in countries like Cambodia, Peru and Brazil and sold to manufacturers in China, who then ship it to retailers and consumers around the world in the form of furniture, paper products, construction materials and musical instruments.

According to many experts, the trade in poached wood can be very difficult to stop. Infrastructure projects in many countries offer easy access to deep stands of forest, and there is little political will to halt deforestation. “If you deal drugs or kill an elephant, you are constantly at risk” of being caught, explains Christian Nellemann, formerly a senior officer with the U.N. Environment Program. “If you deal timber, no one really cares.”

‘‘When we first started looking [at tree poaching], we were stunned.

— Ken Goddard

In 2008, the U.S. law prohibiting trade in endangered animals was expanded to include illegally harvested plants and timber. From a forensic standpoint, it was one of the largest challenges the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had ever encountered. “When we first started looking” at tree poaching, “we were stunned,” says Ken Goddard, a former crime scene investigator who runs the Fish & Wildlife Service Forensics Lab in Ashland, Ore. “We were starting to hear stories from agents in other countries about entire forests being clear-cut and ships filled with raw trees in containerized cargo. At that point we couldn’t make an identification if it was milled into planks, so we had to come up with something.”

Today, the forensics lab houses an expansive warehouse that Mr. Goddard and his team are working to fill with “standards”—examples of each plant and animal currently being traded on the illegal market, which can be compared against incoming seizures. Madagascan rosewood, for instance, is the most trafficked tree in the world. Called the “tree that bleeds,” it is distinguished by its deep crimson heartwood, which is in high demand for musical instruments. In 2012, the Gibson company was fined $300,000 for purchasing poached rosewood from Madagascar to produce its renowned guitars. Samples of the rosewood from those instruments made their way to the forensic lab, where they were identified as poached by wood chemist Ed Espinoza and his team of researchers.

The lab’s maze-like rooms are now filled with examples of wooden guitars, violin pegs and watch faces. On the day I visited the lab, I spotted a chess set on a table; its pieces were about to be shaved and its wood analyzed, along with parts of the box that held them. On a wall nearby hung a photo of a trendy-looking wooden watch, marketed until recently on Instagram. The timepieces had been intercepted at the border and determined to be made from illegal timber.

A cross section of wood under examination at the forensics lab, 2015.PHOTO: JES BURNS/OREGON PUBLIC BROADCASTING

To build a chemical database of every endangered tree in the world, Mr. Espinoza has developed a groundbreaking method using mass spectrometry to identify chemical compounds. The process involves converting oils found in the bark and wood into a gas, then injecting it into a device roughly the size of an office photocopier, known as the DART (for Direct Analysis in Real Time).

Wielding a pair of tweezers, a technician places a tiny wood chip or bark shaving between two narrow silver cones, where the sample is heated to 450 degrees Celsius; I could see the edges of the wood smolder and give off steam. The vapor is then absorbed into the machine, where its molecules are analyzed. Finally, the DART sends the data to a computer, where it is processed and mapped like a fingerprint, capturing a unique chemical pattern.

The process can be riskier than it looks. On one occasion, Mr. Espinoza was running a piece of rosewood through the DART when he suddenly felt light-headed and began to experience tunnel vision. He dropped the wood and staggered away. Rosewood contains a natural insecticide, and it turned out that some of the gas had been leaking from the machine. “It was basically shutting down his brain,” says Mr. Goddard.

Mr. Espinoza has presented his techniques to wildlife-trade experts in many countries, and the lab now works in tandem with some of the largest botanical collections in the world. By feeding enough minuscule wooden shards through the DART, he and his team hope to create a profile for every endangered tree in the world—some 900 at last count. Many of the wood samples that make their way into the stockpiles of the Fish & Wildlife Service Lab come from xylaria—libraries of wood specimens that were once maintained at the world’s largest botanical gardens and in archival collections. Today most xylaria are gathering dust in storage rooms, but they have proven especially useful in criminal cases related to timber theft.

One fall day, forensic researcher Cady Lancaster ushered me into a side room of the sprawling lab compound in Ashland. Filing cabinets lined the walls. When she slid one open, the drawer was stuffed with folders containing small slips of folded white paper, each enclosing a sliver of wood. A few years earlier, Ms. Lancaster—then a Forest Service employee focused on the global wood-poaching trade—had been tasked with traveling the globe to shave splinters from archived wood samples, many of them collected hundreds of years before.

She unearthed book-sized slabs of wood from the Smithsonian Institution’s back rooms in Washington, D.C., and carried home slim white envelopes filled with wood slivers from the Royal Botanic Gardens in the U.K. “A lot of the reference samples we have from the original blocks say ‘from World Fair 1903,’” she says. “It’s just really cool.” Now those samples and countless others are filed away in Oregon, where they are steadily yielding their secrets to the DART.

Ms. Bourgon is a historian and nature writer. This essay is adapted from her new book, “Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods,” which was published this week by Little Brown.


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