China’s forays into Africa’s huge forest resources and indulgence in illegal trade disregarding the environment could lead to a disaster of monumental proportions.

A recent investigative report by international NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has claimed that China’s illegal imports of rosewood has led to massive devastation of Malian forests besides serving as a conduit for ivory smuggling. Western African state of Mali has become one of China’s leading rosewood suppliers in recent times. The rosewood, locally named kosso is used to make Ming dynasty-style furniture in China, which has in high demand among country’s new rich. It is illegally harvested in Mali.

EIA’s research indicates that during a period of five years since January 2017, China has imported 543,000 kosso trees worth about USD 220 million from Mali. Illegal imports continued in spite of prohibition on international trade in kosso in Mali since May 2020.

Earthsight, a London-based environmental NGO, earlier estimated that the annual value of worldwide rosewood smuggling exceeded a billion dollars. Following the depletion of rosewood forests in Southeast Asia in 2010s, trafficking networks moved to West Africa which is home to Kosso – a rosewood species native to the region’s semi-arid forests. West Africa quickly grew into China’s leading rosewood supplier as law enforcement was weak in the region. By 2020, over 70% of Chinese rosewood imports came from this region. Chinese traders have also started concealing ivory in kosso logs to smuggle it to lucrative markets, sources alleged.

The devastation of forest resources by Chinese traders have been noticed in other African countries as well. “Chinese businessmen have identified legal gaps in the protection of forests and timber trade in many African countries and capitalized on that lacuna. This has also been aided by corrupt government officials, some of them in very senior positions that authorize wanton destruction of African forests,” said Dr Mohammed Faizan, an environmental lawyer based in Nairobi.

Illicit trade in wildlife is often masked as part of legitimate exports of other natural resources including timber — main commodity in trade from Africa to China besides minerals. Several seizures of ivory, rhino horn and abalone have been disguised within timber cargo shipments to China. Less than 2% of cargo traffic is inspected before leaving Africa. This enables criminals to conceal the true origin, ownership and content of container cargo.

Critics claim Beijing-backed expansion of ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ (

) in many African countries is also a matter of grave concern as it risks fuelling the illegal wildlife trade and threatens the future of some of the world’s most endangered species.

The growth of the TCM market, coupled with the perception of Africa as a potential source of TCM ingredients, is a sure “prescription for disaster for some endangered animal species, such as leopards, pangolins and rhinos”.

Africa meets about 75% of China’s yearly timber requirements, according to the International Institute for Environment and Development. Though the trade in timber saw genuine business at the outset, numerous investigations now point to a well-oiled international network that is circumventing local and international laws to uproot trees at unsustainable rates and evade taxes with complacent African government officials facilitating its illegal trade.

Critics point out that from Nigeria in West Africa, to Congo basin, and further to Mozambique in South Africa, the Chinese appetite for unprocessed timber has left a trail of destruction and even death, yet the trade continues unabated.

International wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, is a global business, with a value of traded and smuggled goods worth billions of dollars every year. Every year Africa loses an approximate $ 17 billion to illegal logging activities, exacerbated by an international smuggling racket with China at the heart of this trade. This has also endangered many species now facing extinction.

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