The Sad Stories Behind The Extinction of Lemurs
Speculative demand in rosewood furniture, a heart wrenching humanitarian crisis, the criminal destruction of the natural environment and tourism potential of Madagascar, and the release of gigatons of carbon dioxide.
This post could have been titled “If you buy rosewood furniture today, you are a complete idiot.”
I figured that headline would probably gain at least two to three times more views.
But I resisted.
Focusing on the avarice of those who buy replica antique Chinese furniture made out of rosewood (or Chinese rosewood furniture for short) would have been a mistake.
It is tempting to rant about the ignorance and the greed of those who buy Chinese rosewood furniture. That rant may have been cathartic, but what purpose does it serve?
Trust me, the devastation they have indirectly caused, most likely unknowingly, has been immense.
Do these people not know the immensity of the destruction they have indirectly wrecked? Or do they not care? How can they not know?
The devastation does not end at the extinction of multiple lemur species or the destruction of the unique forests in Madagascar. It is not even about the destruction of a place of outstanding natural beauty. It has caused literally a humanitarian crisis in Madagascar. This illegal trade had deprived a nation of 26 million people substantial development opportunities, and left them unable to cope. It has broken a nation.
The trade has also destroyed much of the remaining forests of Madagascar, causing a loss of a critical carbon sink, which we humanity, desperately, have to preserve.
And for the ordinary people of Madagascar, the Malagasy people, this trade has robbed them of their future and economic opportunities. How about the children of Madagascar?
It would have been easy to play to the gallery here and accused China’s consumers of high crimes against humanity.
How could consumer demand for rosewood furniture lead to this degree of devastation I am describing? Well, we are talking about a trade worth billions of dollars every year.
Yes, I could have highlighted examples of the vulgar and sick materialism of the “crazy rich Asian” [specifically Chinese] stereotype and providing it with the thrashing it deserves.
Racism or nationalism is easy. Problem is, it misses the truth.
Like the “rich kids of Instagram”, a lot of care-less consumption and ostentatious displays of wealth are, if you understand it, displays of ignorance and insecurity.
After all, the phrase nouveau riche and its variety has been developed across many different cultures to describe a particular type of person who has recently acquired wealth and has no taste.
Why will anyone buy a bed frame made of rosewood for one million dollars?
Well, in China, it is mostly due to marketing.
Replicable antique Chinese furniture — based on the Ming dynasty’s imperial tradition — is made with rosewood, often with mother of pearl inlays and sometimes deploy fairly ornate carved panels.
It was considered a simple design during the Ming era with a focus on efficiency.
In the western world, I think the equivalent would be Victorian era style furniture.
Rosewood is an excellent wood for building furniture. It is very dense, sturdy and its dark red hue lends it some character. Compared to other wood furniture, it is very smooth to the touch, and can withstand external elements very well.
The fact is, even for someone who prefers the simplicity of design (I am writing this using a bench as a table), I can tell that Ming dynasty furniture was certainly elegant for its age (See this Sotheby’s catalog for examples: https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-age-of-elegance-ming-dynasty-furniture).
However, the furniture’s elegance and inherent value do not explain the exorbitant prices fetched for rosewood furniture in China in around 2013.
The effort by which rosewood traders have gone to market and hype the value of replica antique Chinese furniture made from rosewood in modern-day China has been astounding.
The fact that rosewood furniture has been historically once the preserve of royal families and the scholar class has helped marketing efforts, but the furniture traders have gone to great lengths to market the product as the ticket to a higher social class.
China’s furniture traders have been known to hire Ming dynasty experts to endorse their products and provide educational tours to explain to the nouveau riche in China why that design is elegant.
For better or worse, due to marketing, for some people in China, the ownership of classically designed rosewood furniture is now associated with an elevation in social class and learning.
All of a sudden, rosewood furniture became the de facto furniture to buy if you were in China.
Because the furniture traders are not selling merely furniture but social capital and social status, the demand skyrocketed.
Most of the rosewood furniture buyers were from the nouveau riche class. They were also responsible for the spike in Chinese demand in luxury goods. If you recall, in 2013, there were many cases of buyers from China who were practically emptying the shelves of luxury stores in Paris.
The demand for Chinese rosewood furniture?
It comes from the same source, the same inane people.
In China, there is a term “Tu Hao” which has been developed to refer to this group of people. This term is similar to nouveau riche, but with strong negative connotations. It is an internet slang, used very commonly on the Chinese internet, suggesting that the person is tacky, extravagant and uncouth, and nouveau riche.
As this Weibo post describes the “Tu Hao” (translation to English mine, with certain liberties):
“They are everywhere, splurging freely their freshly printed renminbi (China’s currency) and maxing out their Union Pay debit cards. They like bright and shiny things. Their hobby of buying luxury goods has become the pillar of the global luxury goods market. At the same time, they have poor taste and have, therefore been subject to contempt, ridicule, and criticism. These are the “tu haos” — “tu” connotes a rural and rough background, “haos” suggests a luxurious but domineering elitist attitude — like China’s version of ‘Beverly Hillbillies’.” (http://collection.sina.com.cn/jjhm/hmsc/2017-06-26/doc-ifyhmtcf2891991.shtml)
I tried but I could not have described it better.
While I disapprove of crass consumerism, I am intellectually aware that there is a human desire to acquire goods to reflect one’s social class, which is a desire shared across many cultures. Those goods are intended to signify that the person acquiring those goods have “arrived.”
And like with any booming market, a type of investor known as a speculator soon arrive. Speculators began to buy rosewood furniture and rosewood logs to store for the sole purpose of reselling. Today, in China, there are still massive stockpiles of rosewood logs. There are still massive stockpiles in Madagascar, but that is another story. These speculators contribute to the increase in prices, while further fueling the demand for rosewood furniture.
Possession of rosewood furniture became, in China, both a matter of social status and as an indicator that one is rich.
Some speculators of course made hay.
The house of cards came crashing down around 2014.
In 2014, when China’s President Xi Jinping began an anti-corruption crackdown, the demand for rosewood furniture fell off a cliff. Materialistic culture and excessive and conspicuous consumption stopped trending in China overnight. Parents of children who showed off their wealth online got into trouble with the authorities. The people of the nouveau riche class were now careful not to show off their wealth lest they attract the authorities’ attention.
Speculators also realized that the logs they have stockpiled could not be sold. In China, it was said that there was a price for those logs, but there was no demand. The trade went cold. Traders went bust. Many furniture traders held on to their rosewood logs, hoping for a revival in the rosewood market, even till today.
Both the consumption of luxury goods to signal status and the buying of an appreciating asset with the sole purpose of selling it to a greater fool are quite common phenomenon.
Be it real estate, tulips, or rosewood furniture, a speculative bubble driving up demand and market prices for assets is a matter of human folly. These are well documented and universal. There is nothing Asian or Chinese about them. Bubbles burst, and millions more get hurt in the process.
Like the diamond trade, rosewood furniture may be bloody, but we generally do not blame the consumers or the speculators.
But if ignorant consumers and speculators are not to blame, who is at fault?
Who murdered the Lemurs? Who has blood on their hands? Who is reprehensible?
We need answers because the devastation it has caused is horrendous. And all for piles of logs lying in warehouses across China.
The Extinction Of Lemur Species, The Release Of Massive Amounts of Carbon Dioxide And The Wanton Destruction Of Tourism Potential
In March 2010, Canon featured the Black Lemur as part of its advertisement campaign “Wildlife As Canon Sees It” in the National Geographic Magazine.
The advertisement described the Black Lemur:
“Fantastically fruitful. The black lemur’s fruit-centric diet is hugely beneficial to the growth and health of its forest home. One of the most frugivorous primates in the world, the lemur spreads the seeds of 38 species of trees, and act as the sole seed disperser for all but four of them… But both the lemur and the forest it nurtures are in danger as habitat loss and hunting threaten to upset their fruitful balance.”
Lemurs can only be found on Madagascar. As Madagascar split from mainland Africa nearly 88 million years ago, like New Zealand, the creatures on this island have taken a different evolutionary path.
Madagascar’s ecology is truly unique. There are more than 10,000 plants and 700 species which are found nowhere else in the world. It is often referred to as the eighth continent.
Lemurs are particularly remarkable because firstly, they are primates, like us. In other words, a lemur is more similar to us than say, a squirrel.
Unlike humans, lemurs have also evolved into many different lemurs species on Madagascar, fitting separate ecological niches on this one island as there were few other mammals around.
With rapid deforestation due primarily to illegal logging and a slash and burn agriculture practice, lemurs are now found in only 10% of Madagascar’s land area. They used to be located all across Madagascar.
Fifteen species of lemur have gone extinct, and most lemur species are classified as vulnerable to extinction. Population loss remains unabated.
An updated in 2020 from the International Union of Conservation of Nature Red List states the following:
“33 lemur species are Critically Endangered, with 103 of the 107 surviving species threatened with extinction, mainly due to deforestation and hunting in Madagascar. Thirteen lemur species have been pushed to higher threat categories as a result of intensifying human pressures.” (https://www.iucn.org/news/species/202007/almost-a-third-lemurs-and-north-atlantic-right-whale-now-critically-endangered-iucn-red-list)
The extent of deforestation in Madagascar is gross. Since humans arrived, about 90% of the forest is lost. Based on NASA’s LCLUC (Land Change / Land Use Change) program, 40% of forest cover disappeared during the 1950s to 2000. Based on Global Forest Watch’s data, Madagascar further lost another 3.89Mha of tree cover from 2001 to 2019, equivalent to 1.29Gt of CO₂ emissions (https://gfw.global/2XRyg58).
How much is 1.29 gigatons? In 2020, the whole world released about 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil and land-use emissions.
We could really use that 1.29 gigatons for much more important purposes.
Based on Global Forest Watch’s data, Madagascar further lost another 3.89Mha of tree cover from 2001 to 2019, equivalent to 1.29Gt of CO₂ emissions.
There was a political coup in 2009 which overthrown the then existing government, and as the Wikipedia entry on the coup described:
While the new Malagasy government is otherwise preoccupied and some park rangers have left their posts, armed groups are cutting down valuable rosewood trees. Laws prohibiting the export of rosewood were repealed in January 2009, so the illegally acquired logs can be sold and exported for profit. Thousands of local people were involved in cutting a documented 123,000 rosewood logs representing an estimated 45,000 rosewood trees from Marojejy, Masoala and Makira National Parks between January–October 2009, with at least 871 containers already exported to China between March–April 2009 alone from the Vohemar and Toamasina ports.
In some countries, there is a tension between helping the local population and conservation efforts. Environmental goals would have to be balanced against economic considerations. Sometimes, natural resource extraction can provide good jobs for locals and raise their living standards, and environmental targets have to take economic realities into account.
However, despite years of illegal logging and the sale of rosewood timber worth billions, Madagascar is currently facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. Billions of dollars made from rosewood logging are nowhere to be found near millions of hungry mouths and malnourished children.
This is no exaggeration.
In Madagascar, the conflict between environmental conservation and helping the local population does not really exist.
What exists is the exploitation by armed gangs and the rich ruling elite of the general population and the natural environment
Lemurs are a lot more valuable to the economy of Madagascar alive and thriving than extinct. The ecotourism potential of Madagascar is immense. After all, Madagascar is, from an ecological perspective, a magical country with fantastic wildlife — particularly lemurs.
This unique ecology happens to be in a country with incredible natural beauty. There are (or were) lush forests and mountains. You can explore deep canyons, kayak down grand rivers and hike amongst the incredible limestone pinnacles at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tsingy de Bemaraha. The Avenue of the Baobabs (a photo of a baobab, which is also critically endangered, is shown above) is spectacular.
Madagascar may very well have a thriving natural environment and have a flourishing tourism industry in a parallel universe comprising of only decent people.
It is a world which would have taken concrete steps to prevent further deforestation as the Earth grapples with the challenge of climate change.
But no, not in this one, our universe.
We are living in a universe where, in Madagascar, the lemurs are facing extinction, the locals are dying of hunger while fat ugly men in the government are enriching themselves.
This universal is where we, despite the challenge of climate change, allow deforestation to persist and criminals to profit.
Exploitation, Starvation And A Litany Of Rich Evildoers
Who has gained the most from mismanagement of the economy of Madagascar? Who has pocketed the billions from the felling of illegally logged trees? Well, corrupt government officials and timber barons associated with transnational crime groups, of course.
How about the locals who were paid to do the logging? Really? Are people considered greedy if they are so desperate for food that they are prepared to track through deep jungle to cut down a rosewood tree in exchange for about 10 US dollars per log, some bush meat and food? Could we blame the Malagasy people for not prioritizing conservation?
Do we blame the Malagasy people for eating lemurs?
These are the same people who are most exploited by their evil overlords.
Based on data from the World Food Programme (WFP), 76% of people in Madagascar live in poverty (less than US$1.90 a day). On 12 January 2021, the WFP releases a press release highlighting the desperate situation in Madagascar and requesting for donations for emergency food aid:
“To survive, families are eating tamarind fruit mixed with clay,” says Moumini Ouedraogo, WFP’s Representative in Madagascar. “We can’t face another year like this. With no rain and a poor harvest, people will face starvation. No one should have to live like this.”
Children are worst affected by the food crisis and most of them have dropped out of schools to beg for food in the streets. A WFP assessment in Amboasary in October 2020 found that three out of four children are absent from school — mostly to help their parents forage for food.”
The Malagasy people contribute very little to carbon dioxide emissions but suffer gravely from the effects of climate change. As the United Nations news describes:
“Part of the current crisis is linked to Madagascar’s vulnerability to climate shocks, a problem it shares with the southern African region, the WFP official said.
The rains that normally come November-December, we only had one day of rain in December in the whole region. And the thunderstorms have been blasting…and destroying and burying the crops that were there”, she added. “The result is famine-like conditions”, with 1.3 million people food insecure, 135,000 children moderately, severely or acutely malnourished.” (https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/01/1081892)
The rosewood trade is formally banned in Madagascar and has been for decades. Some local exemptions allow certain local timber barons to claim that their rosewood falls within certain exemptions (e.g. if the trees were felled by ‘Acts of God’). In 2013, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) prohibited the Madagascar rosewood trade and made it clear that internationally, unless a local CITES authority has issued sustainability permits, there is no other exemption. [In 2019, another CITES exemption was made for rosewood musical instruments (not furniture)].
Since the decision by CITES in 2013, millions of illegally harvested rosewood were rounded up in Madagascar. The timber barons have been trying to dispose of them internationally. The Madagascar government has appealed to CITES to allow the sale but they have not been successful.
Nevertheless, numerous investigators have shown that it remains fairly easy to export Madagascar rosewood from Madagascar.
This is not surprising as it seems very easy for the timber barons to bribe government officials at all levels.
Why? Who are the criminals and exploiters? Who controls the government?
It turns out that the timber barons are extremely powerful and are known as the kingmakers of Madagascar.
At least 13 known individuals form a part of the rosewood mafia of Madagascar. These 13 are the best-connected traders in Madagascar who were granted licenses to export wood felled by “acts of God.”
Of course, most of the wood they export is illegally logged timber.
Take Roger Thunam. Known as one of Madagascar’s largest timber barons, he was investigated by the international non-government organization, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) for illicit trading in rosewood. He was caught on tape saying that all the timber in his possession was illegally felled and not felled by “acts of God.”
Then there is Jeannot Ranjanoro, the President of the National Group of Vanilla Exporters.
There is also Eugene Sam Som Miock, Madagascar’s largest lychee exporter.
Both are timber traders as well.
The President’s former political fundraiser, Jean Laisoa, is a very powerful person in Madagascar. He is in the National Assembly and wields control over government committees that, ironically, monitor natural resources. He is also known as a rosewood trader.
Basically, the evildoers in this story are members of the well to do elites in Madagascar society.
There are sources which suggest that the government of Madagascar is complicit as well. The current President of Madagascar is widely rumored to have been personally involved in the rosewood trade. There are reports from wholesale traders based in China claiming that they have dealt with him.
Yes, you read that right. The President.
To say that the youthful-looking President Andry Rajoelina is shady is an understatement. The President’s backer and longtime advisor, who is often described as a good friend to the President, is Mamy Ravatomanga. Mamy is linked to the illegal rosewood trade, money laundering and fraud. His assets have been seized in France.
When the highest government levels are involved in illicit trade, it is very difficult for conservationists to do anything. There have been so many local activists who have faced government persecution. A list of news articles documenting government action to oppress local conservation efforts is provided in the sources section below. To those brave individuals, I truly salute you.
So it is fairly easy for illegally logged timber to leave from ports in Madagascar despite the CITES ban. As long as bribes are paid to the correct people, from EIA reports, it would appear that exporting rosewood timber is par for the course.
Most of the timber will be exported to China under the guise of “legal” documentation sanctioned by China’s customs officials, typically obtained via bribes.
Given the illegal conduct, transnational crime groups facilitate this trade and extract a premium for providing their services.
International shipping is a risk for the traders as they face the risk of seizure of their illicit goods.
However, even in Singapore, the highest Singapore court has ruled that Madagascar rosewood (without proper permits) seized in a Singapore port was technically in transit and bound for Hong Kong and therefore does not constitute a breach of Singapore law.
EIA was disappointed by the decision and made it clear that:
“This action is contrary to CITES transit recommendations listed in Resolution Conf. 9.7 (Rev. CoP15) which called on Member States to update their implementing legislation to allow them to seize CITES-listed species transited without a valid permit. Singapore’s action is in violation of their Endangered Species Act, chapter 92A, Part II, 5 (1) (a), requiring every scheduled species to have a valid CITES export permit.”
The Singapore case dealt with nearly 30,000 rosewood logs and was one of the largest seizures in history. The logs were estimated to be worth 50 million dollars, not a single cent of which will benefit Madagascar’s general population.
Should Singapore have returned the logs to the trader?
Other countries can do a lot more to help stem the illegal wildlife trade.
We are living in a universe where, in Madagascar, the lemurs are facing extinction, the locals are dying of hunger while fat ugly men in the government are enriching themselves.
These stories across the world — from China to Madagascar to Singapore — may appear to be disparate stories. They are often presented as such. Some have approached this issue from a conservation perspective. It is certainly a climate change issue given the extent of deforestation. In this case, it could be a matter of proper governance or better international enforcement.
This long post, by housing snippets of all these stories, hope to highlight that at the end of the day, the issues are all connected.
Proper governance, consumer awareness, humanitarian aid, responsible tourism, putting efforts to conserve forests and wildlife are all bits of a big puzzle which we need to piece together, if we wish to live in a better, survivable universe.
As Joe Biden says:“ Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways, but the fact is we face them all at once, presenting this nation with — one of the gravest responsibilities we had.”
What Can We Do
China has to ban rosewood imports without providing any exemptions. They can and should do this. The US government should pressure China to do this.
China needs to enforce the ban. China must understand that soft power diplomacy should not be limited to enriching the local elites and that in the long run, the general local population must benefit from China’s trade, if China wishes to exert actual influence in the world.
We have to stop buying replica antique Chinese furniture made of rosewood.
Consumers need to be better educated on the impact of their choices.
We have to pressure our government to lobby China to exercise responsible leadership and management of the earth’s resources.
We can raise awareness that the use of rosewood is cruel. It not only causes deforestation, while we can ill afford but it indirectly causes death and malnutrition of the people in Madagascar. It has also led to the extinction of many species of lemurs. We can tell the story that buying rosewood furniture does not signal social capital but ignorance.
We can promote Madagascar as a tourist destination.
We can visit Madagascar as an ecotourist.
We may wish to donate to causes promoting lemur conservation in Madagascar as well as to United States World Food Programme.
Madagascar needs jobs, development and direct foreign investment.
We may not be in that amazing parallel universe filled with decent people but we certainly know that we can take steps to ensure that Madagascar has a thriving natural environment and a flourishing tourism industry.
We may not live in an ideal world but we can as individuals take concrete steps to prevent further deforestation as the Earth grapples with a challenge of climate change.
China’s demand for rosewood:
- The Rosewood Trade: An Illicit Trail from Forest to Furniture by Sandy Ong and Edward Carver (January 29, 2010), article published at Yale Environment 360, an online magazine published at the Yale School of Environment available at https://e360.yale.edu/features/the-rosewood-trade-the-illicit-trail-from-forest-to-furniture. This is excellent writing and reporting and contains some live reports straight from China.
- (Original in Chinese, Translation mine) How Did The Market For Rosewood Furniture Turned On Its Head Where the Finished Goods Are More Expensive Than The Raw Materials(June 26, 2017) (http://collection.sina.com.cn/jjhm/hmsc/2017-06-26/doc-ifyhmtcf2891991.shtml).
- Why Chinese attempts to reignite rosewood market will fail by Zi Yang (July 12, 2017) available at https://asiatimes.com/2017/07/chinese-attempts-reignite-rosewood-market-will-fail/
- Is China’s Demand For Rosewood Turning Africa’s Forests Into Furniture? by Kellie Barrett available at https://www.ecosystemmarketplace.com/articles/is-chinas-demand-for-rosewood-turning-tropical-forests-into-furniture/
The humanitarian crisis:
- Humanitarian crisis looms in Southern Madagascar as drought and pandemic double number of hungry people from United Nations World Food Programme https://www.wfp.org/news/humanitarian-crisis-looms-southern-madagascar-drought-and-pandemic-double-number-hungry-people
- Humanitarian crisis looms in Madagascar amid drought and pandemic from United Nations https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/01/1081892
Complicity by local government and suppression of local activists:
- Featured in National Geographic including an interview with Roger Thunam: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2010/09/madagascar/
Singapore Court of Appeal Case:
- You can google the court of appeal case and read it for yourself as well (Kong Hoo (Private) Limited v Public Prosecutor. Supreme Court of Singapore. 8 April 2019)
Some good news:
- Forests can be put to better use and help Madagascar locals: https://www.conservation.org/projects/avoiding-deforestation-in-madagascar
- There are heroes in Madagascar who are taking efforts to replant rosewood trees: https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/rosewood-conservation-success-story-madagascar