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By Mike Gaworecki

Originally published at Mongabay.com

  • More than 350,000 trees were felled between March 2010 and March 2015, the study states, despite being in areas that have been granted official protected status.
  • At least one million logs were illegally exported from Madagascar during those years — that’s more than 150,000 metric tons-worth of logs, per the study.
  • The primary target of illegal loggers is rosewood and palisander, both species belonging to the genus Dalbergia, though other precious hardwood species like ebony (in the genus Diospyros) are targeted as well.

A study released this month by TRAFFIC, an NGO that monitors the wildlife trade, finds that governance has been so lacking in the forests of Madagascar in recent years that hundreds of thousands of trees have been illegally cut down in protected areas.

 More than 350,000 trees were felled between March 2010 and March 2015, the study states, despite being in areas that have been granted official protected status. At least one million logs were illegally exported from Madagascar during those years — that’s more than 150,000 metric tons-worth of logs, per the study.

The primary target of illegal loggers is rosewood and palisander, both species belonging to the genus Dalbergia, though other precious hardwood species like ebony (in the genus Diospyros) are targeted as well.

“Poor governance and corruption led to an anarchic situation with no control over timber harvesting resulting in an all-out ‘timber-rush’ with widespread felling of rosewood and ebony trees in protected areas across Madagascar, from which it will take years for the environment to recover,” Roland Melisch, TRAFFIC’s Senior Programme Director for Africa, said in a statement.

Madagascar’s precious hardwood timber species are in high demand in Europe and the United States, where they’re used in the manufacture of musical instruments, and in Asia, where they’re used in high-end furniture, especially in China.

The TRAFFIC study cites numerous factors that contribute to the poor management of precious timber in Madagascar, including a lack of consistent regulations governing the logging of the selectively targeted species, allegations of governmental authorities colluding with traffickers of illegal timber, a general lack of laws governing forestry (and precious hardwood species in particular), and a failure to hold well-known traffickers accountable.

Madagascar adopted a prohibition on the cutting, transport, and export of precious hardwood by governmental decree in 2010. In order to bolster this measure, the country’s government also requested in 2013 that its precious timber species be listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which requires that any authorized international trade be proven to not threaten the survival of the species before permits can be issued.

“The application for an export permit must therefore be preceded by the issuing of a non-detriment finding (NDF),” the authors of the study note, adding that “such a finding should not be issued without having appropriate and adequate information on the status of populations in the wild, quantitative logging data, trade history and associated management systems.”

Among the TRAFFIC study’s findings, however, were that information on how many rosewood and ebony trees exist in Madagascar’s forests today (what’s known as “standing timber inventories”) is “at best partial or is non-existent.” And there is no data collected by the country on timber harvests at the species level, even while data on illegal harvesting activities is “general,” meaning that the number and location of trees being cut down is not readily discernible.

The study also found that “The precious timber management policy is characterized by a disconnect between management decisions (i.e. political declarations and international commitments) and their implementation on the ground.”

In other words, the TRAFFIC study found that Madagascar’s precious timber management system cannot possibly guarantee that current logging activities are not a threat to the future survival of rosewood and ebony species.

Mongabay’s requests for comment were not returned by Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment, Ecology and Forests.

The study authors make a number of recommendations for how the government of Madagascar can address the situation, but there are already signs that change may be at hand. The country faced intense international pressure at the 2016 CITES meeting in South Africa, for instance. The CITES Secretariat ultimately called on Madagascar to audit stockpiles of precious timber species that have been seized by the government and to step up enforcement actions against illegal timber harvesting. If the country fails to adequately implement this “Timber Action Plan,” it could face trade sanctions.

And during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation held in December 2015, China signaled its willingness to help by increasing its cooperation with African countries on sustainable forest management, among other measures. As the main importer of Madagascar’s timber, China’s assistance could prove crucial.

But Madagascar itself appears to be well aware of the situation, as well, having joined the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) and signed on to the Zanzibar Declaration on timber trade as well as the Southern African Development Community’s Law Enforcement and Anti-Poaching Strategy. According to TRAFFIC, these forums will not only allow Madagascar to get financial and technical support to combat the illegal trade of its precious timber, but also represent an acknowledgement that a regional strategy to combat the illegal trade in fauna and flora is required.

Still, the country has a long way to go before it can ensure logging activities aren’t threatening its rosewood and ebony stocks. “Madagascar is signalling it sees the need for reform in management of its timber resources, but such agreements need to be accompanied by hard action at the highest level of government,” Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, Country Director for WWF Madagascar, said in a statement.

TRAFFIC’s Melisch said that he’s hopeful the new research will help rein in the “timber rush” underway in Madagascar’s forests: “This latest study should help the government of Madagascar to understand the issues that led to this catastrophic situation and to begin the long process of mitigating the ensuing mismanagement crisis.”

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