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.