Two Forest Rangers Pay the Ultimate Price for China's Demand for Rare Wood
It is a familiar story in Southeast Asia. In truth, it has become a familiar story almost everywhere: China’s vast appetite for luxury items was the underlying cause of last week’s execution-style killing of two government conservation workers in Cambodia.
Sieng Darong, a 47-year-old forest ranger, and Sab Yoh, a 29-year-old police officer, were murdered as they slept on Nov. 7, shot with AK-47-style heavy weapons. A third member of the team survived with injuries, and a fourth escaped. The killings happened shortly after the team confiscated chain saws at an illegal logging site in northwestern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear Protected Forest.
Investigators have arrested six soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces on charges of illegal logging in the incident. One of the six has already been jailed to serve a prior sentence of 10 years in prison on an armed robbery conviction. But so far, no formal murder charges have been filed, nor has anyone above the level of foot soldier been implicated in the case.
The killings happened in an area heavily affected by the illegal trade in rosewood (also known as hongmu), a rare precious wood prized in the Chinese luxury market for ornately carved beds and other status symbols. In a comment on the killings, an Environmental Investigation Agency campaigner noted that “China is the global center of hongmu demand and its log imports in 2014 were the highest on record, topping $2 billion in value, with Cambodia the fifth largest contributor to this industry.”
The two murder victims in the current case were associated with the New York–based Wildlife Conservation Society. In a statement Ross Sinclair, director of WCS Cambodia, said that organization was “encouraged by the swift action by local authorities.” He also praised the Cambodian government “for assigning high-level investigators to this case.” But he added, “We are committed to ensure that the murders of Darong and Yoh are honored by the prosecution of those who killed them and by working to ensure the illegal logging networks are dismantled and the forests and wildlife are protected."
That will be harder than it sounds. Cambodia has one of the worst overall deforestation rates in the world, according to a 2014 report from the University of Maryland. That didn’t even count the trade in rosewood, which is harder to detect by satellite. But that trade is lucrative, largely illegal, and made possible only by widespread official collaboration. A report early this year from Global Witness, another investigative organization, linked Cambodian rosewood exports to officials in the military and at the highest levels of government, including key allies and advisors of longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In the normal order, the murder investigation would probably fade away when international attention inevitably shifts elsewhere. But “the interesting thing about this case is…suddenly it’s Cambodian military versus Cambodian police,” said one observer on the scene. “They can no longer blame this on activists. This is premeditated violence within their own ranks. The Cambodia police are very unhappy with the Cambodian military, and that ups the stakes considerably.” The case may thus be “working its way up the chain. There are people who don’t want to let it lie, because of what was done.”
One sign of that determination: In the aftermath of the killing, conservation groups issued a joint statement expressing their alarm and concern, which by itself would be business as usual. The statement declared that “this heinous crime highlights the importance of a strong collaboration between conservation NGOs, their community partners and the government to empower law enforcement officials and rangers in their important mission to fight against illegal activities that destroy the country’s natural capital.” But in a remarkable show of unity, the director general of Cambodia’s Forestry Administration has posted that statement on his agency’s website.
Meanwhile, the hunger for luxury continues to drive the seemingly unstoppable demand for rosewood objects in China. The Global Witness report urged China to impose a ban on illegal timber imports. But there is very little evidence that China gives a damn, any more than it does about tigers, elephants, rhinos, pangolins, or a host of imperiled species. We can hope, perhaps, that the ghosts of Darong and Yoh—husbands, fathers, honest defenders of the natural world—will haunt the buyers as they lie in those delicately carved rosewood beds.