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Largest-ever Rosewood detection :

Customs bust smuggling syndicate

Colombo Port being the most crucial shipping hub of the South East Asia connecting the East and West plays a major role in transshipment activities in the world. Thousands of containers carrying cargo is being loaded and unloaded everyday with vessels bound to various destinations.

Senior Customs officials inspecting the consignment
Customs Director General Jagath P Wijeweera explaining about the detection
A chunk of Rosewood timber
A Rosewood log being chopped for verification

The location which was used by numerous shipping agencies with confidence for the legitimate flow of goods for many years has also seemed to have attracted the attention of global smuggling syndicates. This was proved by the recent detection of a massive Rosewood shipment in the harbour.

The Sri Lanka Customs Bio Diversity, Cultural and National Heritage Protection Division (BCNP) seized 28 containers carrying a large stock of Rosewood worth over one billion rupees ($7million) that arrived at the harbour as a transshipment in the last week of March. The containers had 3, 660 logs weighing over 420 metric tons. The stock was full of mature Rosewood logs with an approximate girth of eight inches. Customs Director General Jagath P Wijeweera who examined the contraband at the Grey Line 2 Yard last week told the media that the transshipment has arrived in the country from an African country to a far Eastern destination as a part of a well organised international smuggling syndicate.

However the detection was not done accidentally as a result of an unexpected turn of events but following a well planned mission. Customs BCNP received an information about a smuggling attempt of a stock of Rosewood about two months ago which they then followed it up until it arrived in the country. The initial investigations revealed that the stock was shipped from East African port in Zanzibar and was reportedly bound for Hong Kong. Deputy Director of Customs BCNP Samantha Gunasekara said that they received a reliable information that six containers carrying high quality Rosewood is heading towards Colombo.

With this tip off the unit prepared to seize six containers having done their initial investigations and tracking the proceeding ship for two months. The unit became extra vigilant about suspicious maritime movements especially between the destinations of East African region and far Eastern Asian countries via the Sri Lankan waters. As scheduled before the ship arrived at Colombo Port on March 24 and the containers were unloaded. Among the shipment the Customs found only four containers carrying Rosewood and not six. The probe was intensified and the entire shipment was searched following the initial detection. To their utter amazement 24 more containers were found carrying the same contraband making it the largest ever detection of Rosewood that an enforcement agency conducted in the world.

The recovered batch of containers were then transferred to Customs Grey Line 2 container yard for inspection purposes. There they found the logs to be the finest quality of Dalbergia Nigra. Rosewood is considered as one of the most valuable tropical hardwood that is found in Madagascar, East Africa and Brazil and South East Asian countries. Rosewood found in Madagascar has more demand than the same of other origins. The tree has a very long maturity period which is nearly 300 years to grow up to the size of a trunk with a girth of eight inches.

According to Customs Spokesman Director Leslie Gamini felling Rosewood trees for its timber has become an environmental issue in Madagascar and nearby East African countries as it is threatening the ecological balance of these countries. Also the threat of extinction of this rare tree from their forest. Therefore cutting and trading Rosewood is banned in Madagascar. Destruction of precious tropical forest cover of Madagascar has become not only an environment issue but political and human welfare issue in that country still threatening the political stability of that highly bio diversity hot spot of the world. Rosewood has a very high demand in international market for manufacturing high end furniture, musical instruments ornaments etc. Collecting Rosewood furniture is an expensive hobby in the west and the timber is used to manufacture sensitive instruments like guitar boxes and piano parts. Also expensive Chess figures are made out of this wood.

According to the powers vested in the Customs Ordinance and and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) the Director General of Customs is empowered to enforce the law on any consignment of Import or Export (even transshipment) of Rosewood. Since Sri Lanka being a signatory to this international convention it is the Customs Department's responsibility to act on the instances of smuggling such species mentioned in CITES.

Rosewood happens to be in the appendix II of this Convention in which international trading is allowed only on permits issued by local authority concerned. Limited quantity is granted as an annual quota for source countries in order to restrict the heavy trading so that this rare tropical tree can be saved from extinction. In view of being signatory to this convention Sri Lanka Customs has an obligation to act on any information provided regarding CITES commodities.

Since the contraband came in as a part of a transshipment the Customs couldn't do much on its Consigner or Consignee. But they are going after the responsible shipping agency which was in charge of the shipment. Statements have already been recorded from the local agents of this international agency who possess the documents saying that the cargo was timber. Although the consigner's manifest declared the goods as general cargo (which could be anything)

whereas the shipping agency's manifest declared it as timber. This had risen a suspicion among the investigators who doubt whether the shipping of the illicit consignment has been wilfully facilitated by the shipping agency.

Another fact the officials noticed was that the batches of logs in containers bore a different coloured marking. This was considered as a secret code perhaps to classify the variety of qualities of the logs being marked by the consigner for the requirement of the consignee.

The Customs that are continuing with their investigations at present is yet to determine what to do with the illicit consignment.

Investigation are being carried out by the staff of Customs Bio Diversity, Cultural and National Heritage Protection Unit under the Direction of Superintendent R D A N G. Niyarepola, Deputy Director Samantha Gunasekara, Director Customs Social Protection M. Paskaran under the instructions of Customs Director General Jagath P. Wijeweera.

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