In a drawn-out trial full of twists and turns, the Singapore Court of Appeals, on April 8th, stunningly cleared businessman Mr. Wong Wee Keong and his trading company of illegally importing 29,434 Malagasy rosewood logs, worth $50 million dollars. Malagasy rosewood is an extremely rare species in the wild and considered commercially extinct. The decision to release this seized timber was based upon a technicality, not because it was deemed legal.
Singapore’s 2014 seizure of approximately 3,235 tons of Malagasy rosewood logs was the largest of a CITES-listed species in the history of timber smuggling, representing more than half the amount of rosewood seized in the last decade globally.1 According to UNODC, rosewood is the single most smuggled wildlife product in the world.
Madagascar’s rosewoods and ebonies have been protected under Appendix II of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, since June 2013, and have since been subject to an international trade embargo. Due to dramatically declining tree populations, rosewood logging was officially banned in Madagascar in 2006, and a national export ban has been in place since 2010.
Mr. Wong had already been acquitted twice since the massive illegal shipment was seized in 2014, but eventually was found guilty by the court in 2017. The sentence, celebrated as a landmark in fighting illegal timber trade, prompted the CITES Secretariat in Geneva to honor the Government of Singapore with an award for its enforcement efforts. Alas, the success was short-lived as the much-lauded sentence has now been overturned, two years after the defendant filed an appeal on the grounds that the logs were only “in transit” in Singapore and thus not “imported.”
The final judgement marks the end of a five year case, in which the government of Madagascar played an arguably counterproductive role, putting the judge in an extremely awkward position; despite the logs being exported in clear violation of national and international law, Malagasy officials, including Ministers, repeatedly intervened during the elongated trial in support of the defendant. The Malagasy government, after flip-flopping its position several times, eventually rejected a request from Singapore to testify to the illegality of the timber.
Ultimately, the judgement was not at all about the illegality of the logs, but hinged on the term “transit.” According to the judges, the logs were not imported into Singapore, but only in transit; therefore the charges for illegally importing the logs could not stand. It was a technicality that let Mr. Wong off the hook. According to the Straits Times, the court has ordered the 29,434 logs to be released to Mr. Wong “as soon as was practicable.”
CITES in its Resolution Conf. 9.7 (Rev. CoP15) explicitly recognizes the potential for abuse of transit provisions, and pointing to “the need for Parties to take measures to fight illegal trade,” recommends that Member States “adopt legislation allowing them to seize and confiscate specimens in transit or being transhipped without a valid permit.” Indeed, Singapore’s own Endangered Species Act, chapter 92A, Part II, 5 (1) (a) already requires every scheduled species in transit to have a valid CITES export permit.
Now the question is, what will Mr. Wong do with 29,434 illegal logs, exported in blatant violation of CITES and Malagasy national law? The shipment is destined for China, but under CITES rules, no country will be able to accept the stolen timber. Placing this massive amount of rosewood back into the market would set a terrible precedent and likely result in renewed appetite for the threatened timber species from Madagascar, potentially spurring more illegal logging and trade. International cooperation – starting with Singapore sharing information about the shipment with Chinese and potential transit country authorities – could prevent this from happening. The CITES secretariat can contribute through notifying all parties to the Convention of the impending release of the illegal timber shipment and request any potential future trans-shipment and destination country to seize it and take it off the market.
The CITES secretariat can contribute by notifying all parties to the Convention of the impending release of the illegal timber shipment, and request any potential future trans-shipment and destination country to seize it and take it off the market. China in particular has an opportunity to show the world that no matter whether ivory or rosewood, illegal wildlife products have no place in its domestic market.
Photo: Seized Malagasy rosewood logs in Singapore. Source: AVA