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4 Cutting-Edge Technologies to Catch Illegal Loggers

WRI will host a discussion on technology to combat illegal timber at the World Forestry Congress on September 7-11, and will also host the Perimeter Defense Summit on September 16 and 18 in San Francisco, California. Get more information on our Events page.


Illegal logging and trade in illegal wood is often hard to detect. Illicit loggers and traders will cut legally protected trees at night or in remote areas, disguise or mislabel wood, falsify documents, or work with corrupt law enforcement officers and smugglers in timber markets. Despite recent advances in laws to crack down on illegally sourced wood, for law enforcement agencies with limited resources and companies with complex, global supply chains, identifying illicit activity can be like trying to catch a shadow.

By working with scientists, law enforcement officials can employ cutting-edge technologies to assist them in cracking down on illicit activities. These technologies can also assist companies in identifying and weeding out illegal wood from their supply chains. Below we present four technologies that are currently being used in the law enforcement and consumer communities to combat illegal logging.

DNA Analysis

DNA, the hereditary material found in almost all organisms, can be analyzed using various methods to determine in many cases both the species and the geographic origin of timber and wood-based products – with the assumption that a) the extraction of enough, high-quality DNA is possible and that b) the researcher has access to appropriate reference databases. One method for identifying species is DNA barcoding, in which scientists isolate a short, specific DNA sequence unique to a particular species and compare it to a reference database for accurate identification. Other methods use genetic information to identify similarities between closely related individuals. The variability contained within the tree’s genome provides scientists with enough information to distinguish between distinct populations or even individual plants.

DNA analysis can be a powerful tool for testing samples of wood at the end of a supply chain (for example in a retail store) to assess whether the product’s documentation - listing species and origin – is accurate. Further, DNA analysis can assist retailers in vetting their supply chain for legality.

Stable Isotope Analysis

As trees grow, they absorb stable isotopes, a sort of atomic signature, from their surrounding environment. Because stable isotopes occur in varying distributions and patterns across the planet, scientists’ interpreting stable isotope analysis can often reveal the origin of a sample down to a unique geographic area, such as a river catchment or mountain range. Like DNA analysis, stable isotope analysis would likely be applied further up the supply chain (such as where the wood is processed into furniture) where, for example, law enforcement had reason to suspect falsification of documentation with regard to species or origin.

Fiber Analysis

While DNA and stable isotope analysis can be used for solid wood products, they cannot be applied to forest products that have been heavily processed due to the damaging effects of heat and chemical processing. For pulp and paper products, scientists can use fiber analysis to identify the different tree fibers present in a sample. Researchers treat samples of paper with chemicals to see how the fibers react, and use high-powered microscopes to find anatomical features unique to the type of wood. Analysts can determine whether the fiber comes from softwood or hardwood, the pulping process used (e.g. mechanical or chemical), the genus, and in limited instances, the species. Paper suppliers and consumers are now more aware that much of the inexpensive paper they are buying is produced from illegal tropical hardwoods and some (including WRI) have started testing their paper to confirm that they are buying only paper made from legally sourced materials.

Perimeter Defense

Above are examples of how technologies can be used to identify wood after it has already been logged and even processed. But technology can also be applied to take preemptive measures, better monitor forests and detect illegal logging.

Perimeter defense technologies help prevent illegal logging from happening by detecting suspicious activity and gathering information from a particular forest area, which helps forest defenders develop an informed intervention plan. These technologies are wide-ranging and include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), sensor and surveillance systems, satellite imagery analysis, smartphone applications that aggregate and analyze crowd-sourced data, and much more. These technologies can empower local communities, indigenous groups and government authorities to protect forests from illegal loggers.

Illegal logging and trade’s negative effects are felt along the entire supply chain. They degrade natural forests, reduce biodiversity and harm local communities. They support corrupt and criminal activities, undermine the rule of law and reduce government revenues. For companies that trade in forest products, illegal logging produces an uneven playing field and harms the reputation of the forest sector and of wood as a sustainable raw material. Leveraging these technologies to turn the tide against illegal logging is an investment that pays for itself.

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