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Long hidden in the shadows of informal trade, an African tree species known locally as mukula is now under an international spotlight.

A decision by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to include Pterocarpus tinctorius in its Appendix II list of species will make it much harder for traders to profit from this fast-disappearing tree.

For many among you concerned about human greed-driven environmental degradation, the names Pterocarpus erinaceus and P. tinctorius may not ring any particular bell. Unless you have recently visited or seen pictures of the dry forests of West and Southern Africa, that is.

In which case, you would know that those are the scientific names of beautiful and delicate trees growing in the miombo woodlands of Africa. Timber traders across the world simply call the timber extracted from them ‘rosewood’, and final consumers buy it for its magnificent colors and resistance.

To a forester, rosewood doesn’t mean much. It’s like inviting your Italian friends over for a plate of pasta without detailing the brand, type, shape and sauce. Similarly, rosewood includes dozens of species that fit the bill, and the list is growing.

Contrary to your Italian friends, however, the majority of consumers around the world seem captured by the name alone, and do not even remotely think or ask their sellers and traders about anything else. Which tree species has been used to make this very expensive piece of furniture? Where does it grow? Has it been harvested legally and sustainably?

Here is where names count.

In 2013–2014, people in West Africa noted that huge amounts of P. erinaceous (often called ‘kosso’ by traders) were being harvested and shipped out of Africa. Concerns about the worrying trend increased by the day. Regional and international attention mounted, media and environmental NGOs amplified the message and, in 2016, CITES included the species in its Annex II on a request initiated by the government of Senegal.

A few months later, my team and I were in Zambia researching the timber trade and – surprise surprise – we bumped into a huge export frenzy of a relative of P. erinaceous, namely P. tinctorius or ‘mukula’. We became so alarmed at the speed with which these trees were disappearing from the forests along the border of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that we sounded the alarm along multiple channels (e.g. a blog, a full report, an Infobrief and even a video).

The government of Malawi bravely took up the challenge and presented and defended its proposal to have mukula join kosso in the Appendix II list of species. It was unanimously approved by all CITES Parties.

   The Miombo woodlands in northern Zambia are the site of a number of large-scale biofuel investments, Zambia Jeff Walker/ CIFOR

Under the microscope

Once the decision enters into force in November 2019, both traders and importers will need CITES permits proving that the mukula trees have been harvested sustainably. This applies to all countries that export mukula – called ‘range states’ – including Angola, Burundi, DRC, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, and to all countries importing it.

As with kosso before it, the amount of paperwork, monitoring and verifications now required to trade mukula will be a major deterrent. In addition, CITES’ Plant Committee will conduct periodic reviews to detect abnormalities in trade patterns, and the UN Environment’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre is establishing a database on P. tinctorius to monitor and flag suspicious activity.

Such close scrutiny will leave traders fewer places to hide, to be sure. But as long as the demand stays high, the temptation to sell kosso, mukula, or any other species that traders can sell under the rosewood banner will remain.

The CITES listing is great news, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We need to ramp up our efforts in order to outrace the market, because the demand for rosewood is becoming ever more voracious.

The trade in mukula, similarly to that of kosso in West Africa, operates under a ‘cut and run’ business model. Traders look for the trees, fell and debark them (or, in most cases, have local farmers do this grunt work for a ridiculously low fee), and sell the timber to exporters, pocketing huge profits. Then they seek out the next source of trees.

Until that timber is mostly depleted, that is. In which case traders simply look for other tree species that can be sold as rosewood – i.e. with a reddish-brown color – and start the same process all over. Kosso is finished in Senegal? Let’s move on to mukula in Southern Africa. Mukula finished in Zambia? Check the supply in Malawi. And so on.

There are no national boundaries and no national laws that seem capable of stopping this trend before it creates irreversible environmental degradation. Bans are adopted, trucks and containers are seized, sometimes a culprit is even arrested. Yet overall, traders evade national measures in one country by slipping across the border into another. Or they simply find another ‘good enough’ tree species that is not banned, and slip back into the shadows.

   To prevent its extinction, the Mukula tree has been added to the CITES list

Time to step up

CITES is not the only option we have, and it cannot be expected to solve all the problems related to the unsustainable or illegal timber trade. Producing and importing countries have their share of responsibility, but diplomacy or the fear of losing an important stream of revenue are major speed bumps on the road from high-profile pledges to effective implementation.

Hence CITES remains a very important option. If the international body wants to remain relevant for nature, it must look ahead when it can, and cast its nets as broad as possible. We don’t know the Pterocarpus genus as well as we should. There may be several look-alike species, and traders are masters at exploiting all of them, irrespective of national laws and country borders.

So why not aim for a genus-wide listing, with the necessary caveats added by botanists? After all, this is nothing else than the basic application of the precautionary principle: we don’t know enough about it, so let’s try conserve it until we learn more.

The next CITES Conference of the Parties will be held in Costa Rica in 2022. The clock is ticking – let’s all work to make a genus-wide listing for Pterocarpus, happen.



This research was supported by UK Economic and Social Research Council and the Department of International Development through the project ‘Natural Resources, Rural Poverty and China-Africa Trade: Equity and Sustainability in Informal Commodities Value Chains’ (ES/M00659X/1) and Danida (Denmark), Irish Aid and Sida (Sweden). It is also part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), with support from the CGIAR Fund Donors
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