Mon, Mar 11, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Origin and species

Scientists in London are on the front line fighting illegal logging, which has an estimated annual value of between US$51 billion and US$152 billion


A photograph taken through a microscope last month shows a section of Dalbergia nigra, an endangered plant commonly known as the Bahia rosewood from Brazil, at Kew Gardens laboratory in west London.

Photo: AFP

A timeworn laboratory in Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens may not seem like the obvious epicenter of efforts to halt international illegal logging.

Beakers bubble away on a hotplate, while suspect guitars that have been sent by customs officials for testing sit on top of shelves lined with tattered old journals and reference books in a multitude of languages.

But scientists at the Wood Anatomy Laboratory, part of the research center at the gardens in Kew, southwest London, are working on a new global project to help precisely identify the origin and species of timber.

Illegal logging is estimated to account for 15 to 30 percent of all timber traded worldwide, according to Interpol, with an estimated annual value of US$51 billion to US$152 billion in 2017.

Much of the import and export business relies on paper trails for verification.

However experts hope that their new project can, in future, provide enforcement agencies with some hard science that can quickly identify through checks whether a wood species is as claimed, and exactly where it was grown.

“I’m hoping it will really help to reduce illegal logging,” said Peter Gasson, the Kew institution’s research leader in wood and timber.


Chunks of wood from Laos are stacked in a pile, alongside other slices of timber with yellow sticky notes identifying them.

The laboratory’s samples originate from far and wide and some date back well over a century.

Lying around besides the Leica and Nikon microscopes is a piece of African blackwood collected during British explorer David Livingstone’s Zambezi expedition, dated 1860.

There is method however in the apparent miscellany at one of the world’s largest wood sample collections.

Six chests of drawers hold 100,000 microscope slides of fragments, sorted in Latin by family, genus and then species. Each specimen contains three different slices through the wood: transverse, tangential and radial.

“We’re trying to build up and future-proof the reference collection of wood samples of all the commercial timbers used in the world,” said Gasson.

“We want a big, comprehensive library -- and that’s going to take a long time,” added the expert, who started his life’s work in the Kew lab as a student in 1977.


While the Kew experts have the know-how to identify the species, they need help pinpointing where the tree originates, expertise provided by a separate partner team in northern England.

By combining the wood analysis at Kew with isotope testing of different timbers in Yorkshire, the project should provide law enforcement agencies with a key tool to help rapidly establish whether the timber has come from legal sources.

Kew will be able to determine the species of wood and the so-called stable isotope testing — looking at the chemical composition within the wood and patterns reflecting local rainfall and prevailing winds — can identify where the tree was grown.

The project is also in partnership with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a not-for-profit body certifying sustainably-managed forests around the world which account for about 10 percent of the planet’s productive forests.

The 200 million hectares of FSC-certified forests hold around 2,000 species and the Germany-based organization will be collecting geo-referenced samples to start amassing the database for use in fighting illegal logging.

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