Origin and species: Fighting illegal logging with science

Robin Millard –

A timeworn laboratory in Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens may not seem like the obvious epicentre 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 centre at the gardens in Kew, southwest London, are working on a new galobal project to help precisely identify the origin and species of timber.
Illegal logging is estimated to account for 15 to 30 per cent of all timber traded worldwide, according to Interpol, with an estimated annual value of $51 billion to $152 billion (45 billion to 134 billion euros) 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.
While the Kew experts have the know-how to identify the species, they need help pinpointing where the tree originates, an expertise being 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. — AFP