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China’s obsession with rosewood

An $18m rosewood table

The world’s most trafficked product from an endangered species isn’t ivory or rhino horn, says George Pendle in Air Mail. It’s rosewood, a “dark-red, fragrant” timber much prized by the Chinese nouveau riche. Thanks to various attempts by world governments to clamp down on the illegal rosewood timber trade, prices have skyrocketed. There is now a “multi-billion-dollar illegal-logging network” stretching from the mountains of Guatemala, through the jungles of Gambia, to the rainforests of Cambodia. And it all leads back to China.

“Nothing says ‘I have arrived’ in China better than rosewood.” It first became fashionable in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and apart from a “blip” during the Cultural Revolution, when luxurious furniture “gained popularity as kindling”, it has always been a symbol of affluence. Last year, a Ming-era rosewood table sold in Beijing for a record-breaking $18m. The annual market in antique and newly made rosewood furniture is worth around $26bn.

Amid growing fears the trees would soon be extinct, in 2016 international trade restrictions were placed on all 300 known species of rosewood. But the criminal gangs that specialise in buying and selling the smuggled timber are “banking on the wood becoming extinct”. The more its stocks are depleted, the more valuable existing stockpiles become. The one hope is the changing tastes of young Chinese people. Many now see rosewood as something only old people like. “They would rather buy their furniture at Ikea.”