The end of kwila

Feature story - April 17, 2007
The demand for high end luxury flooring and furniture in China, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and other markets is driving the tree species, merbau (known in Indonesia as kwila), to commercial extinction.

Merbau timber from Indonesia stored at the Yuzhou Wood Market on the banks of the River Pearl, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China.

A new Greenpeace report reveals how kwila has been severely depleted across most of its original range and what remains is at high risk of extinction in the wild. 

Kwila was originally found from Eastern Africa through Southern India and onwards to Southeast Asia, Oceania and as far as Tahiti.  However today kwila only exists in significant commercial quantities on the island of New Guinea. Even here, the range of kwila has been heavily impacted by destructive and illegal logging and the logging industry has set its sights on these last stands.

83% of the forests once housing the last healthy populations of kwila on New Guinea have already been logged or are allocated for logging, and only 17% is, for the moment, not on the chopping block.

Kwila is a slow-growing species that takes at least 75-80 years to reach commercial size.  It is also a rare species with average densities ranging from only 5 to 10 trees per hectare even in healthy, kwila-rich rainforests. In much of its range, there can be as little as one tree per hectare found.

Unprecedented consumer demand for tropical timber is driving the price for species like kwila higher and higher.  Kwila can fetch up to US$600 per cubic metre fuelling a rush by commercial and  illegal logging outfits to exploit what is left of the species. 

Click on map for full animation

This map also shows the trade routes of merbau from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (in full animation mode, click on the Navigation button and select Trade Flow).

New Zealand's kwila use adding to the problem

In New Zealand, Greenpeace estimates that at least NZ$15-20 million of kwila sawn timber, decking and outdoor furniture is imported into New Zealand every year. According to the Ministry of Forestry statistics the imports of wooden furniture have increased four fold in recent years to a value of over $150 million annually.

Virtually all of it is illegal from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, but NZ customs codes and statistics don't record it separately.

 New Zealand is part of this potential species extinction - but the Government doesn't even track it.  Even Australian customs has a specific number and category for kwila imports - but our Customs codes are stuck back in the 1970's.

It's clear that both Customs and the timber importers do not want to deal with this problem, which is why we need strong regulation.   Even if the Government wanted to control the import of kwila, it wouldn't have a clue how much is coming in.

The high price kwila commands is also making logging profitable in areas where costs would otherwise prohibit harvesting of timber, thereby opening up forest areas for further exploitation. At the current rate of officially sanctioned logging, most of the remaining kwila will be gone within the next 35 years (this being the official rotation cycle for logging). However, this figure does not take into account illegal logging, which exacerbates the rate of destruction and will escalate the speed at which kwila disappears.

Greenpeace research in the report identified several illegal smuggling routes used to get kwila logs out of Indonesia to China and also found that illegally logged kwila from PNG ends up in the logs yards of China.  

The World Conservation Union's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species 2006 has categorised kwila as 'facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future,' with logging and habitat destruction being the major threats.  However, the IUCN has not done any field research to review the status of kwila since 1998 and in the nine years that have passed there has been a huge increase in logging of this species. The volume of kwila exported from the producing countries indicates that 'the near future' is now.

People purchasing kwila products should be aware that they are buying a product under severe threat of extinction.

Greenpeace makes the following recommendations to save this species:

  1. The Indonesian and Papua New Guinea Governments should immediately list kwila on Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) with quotas severely restricting the trade in this highly vulnerable species.  Governments and the CITES Secretariat must assess the possible upgrade of Kwila on CITES appendices at the 2009 CITES meeting to secure its population from massive logging activities in Indonesia and PNG;
  2. The governments of the states where kwila is found should immediately embark on participatory landscape-level planning processes, leading to the establishment of a large-scale network of protected areas;
  3. The New Zealand Government should join all governments to participate in bilateral and multilateral international cooperation and implement corresponding measures at home to eliminate illegal logging and ban the import of illegally logged timber products.
  4. NZ Customs must change its timber import categories so that the timber coming into the country can be tracked.  
  5. Wood manufacturing companies that continue to purchase kwila for high-end luxury products should immediately adopt credible third-party chain-of-custody procedures to ensure the legal supply of kwila from forest areas located outside Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs) or other forest areas containing High Conservation Value Forests. As a necessary second step, companies should immediately begin requesting their suppliers to pursue certification according to the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) within three years.