More than seven cubic metres of rosewood with an estimated value of at least $218,000 was seized by joint border authorities as smugglers attempted to cross from Thailand into Banteay Meanchey on Wednesday night.
From 9pm until after midnight yesterday, officials stopped four vehicles, eventually gathering 109 pieces of the highly valuable wood.
“While we stopped a car carrying fragrant rice, we spotted the car carrying rosewood behind it and discovered much more rosewood along the riverbank and river [that was in the process of being moved into trucks],” Sao Bun, Malai district police chief said.
“The wood was carried from Thailand and dropped there to allow dealers in Cambodia to carry on the transportation. In Malai, there is no rosewood for export,” he said.
In addition to the car, three trucks were stopped, Bun said. Rosewood had been smuggled in each, hidden beneath bags of milled rice. No arrests were made, and no suspects had been identified yet “because the car does not have licence plates,” he added.
“After we finish the work, we will file a complaint with the court,” he said.
The large-scale crackdown comes just a month after the prime minister issued an unprecedented directive ordering provincial authorities and the military to crack down on rosewood smuggling.
Though highly comprehensive, the directive has come under fire for its timing – with conservationists pointing out that the species has already been logged to near extinction within Cambodia’s borders.
Colonel Yin Broseth, chief of the anti-economic crime office at the Interior Ministry, called the haul “the highest-grade rosewood I have ever seen”.
“We seized more than seven cubic metres equaling 109 pieces,” he said. “One piece is worth from around $2,000 to $3,000, so we can estimate what it’s worth in total.”
Last month, authorities seized 10 cubic metres of rosewood, 586 pieces, worth more than $1 million, from a rental home in Stung Treng.
Rights groups warn that without vigorous prosecution of the ringleaders, such hauls will do little to deter those behind the logging.
“If we want to effectively prevent illegal logging, we must arrest the masterminds or the influential dealers and bring them to justice. In the past, when rosewood was confiscated, only the driver was arrested, and they don’t know where it came from.”
Frequently headed by members of the armed forces, logging syndicates often employ impoverished villagers to cut and move the timber. With stocks all but depleted in Cambodia’s borders, loggers have had to push further and further into Thai territory – resulting in mounting death counts.
Last year alone, 45 Cambodians were shot dead by Thai border forces, a three-fold increase from the prior year.
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at firstname.lastname@example.org