The high price of an exotic wood has spurred a rash of timber theft in the forests of Panama, threatening the region’s tropical jungles as traffickers seek to satisfy demand in Asia.

Timber from Cocobolo trees — a relative of Rosewood used in expensive gunstocks, knife handles and high-end carpentry — now fetches between $3,000 and $4,000 a ton, causing swathes of the forest to be illegally cut down in protected areas that surround Bayano Lake and the Panama Canal, as well as within the southern Darien region, reported Critica. The newspaper stated the trade is being driven by Asian merchants who contract indigenous people from nearby communities to carry out the logging.

According to Critica, two high-ranking officials are the subject of an internal National Police investigation for apparent links to the illegal Cocobolo trade.

A primary destination for the Cocobolo wood appears to be China, as highlighted by a $4 million consignment of the wood recently seized from 13 shipping containers in the Port of Balboa — at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. The load was listed as scrap metal, but Panamanian customs found 200 Cocobolo logs ready to be sent to Hong Kong.

Last year authorities seized 700 cubic meters of Cocobolo wood. The problem appears to be escalating in 2014, with authorities saying they have already seized 500 cubic meters this year, not including the $4 million haul.

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The intense demand for exotic woods in Asia, coupled with insufficient oversight and enforcement by authorities in impoverished countries of provenance, has spurred illegal logging in much of Central America, as in other parts of the world.

According to recent reports, Central America’s largest protected forest, Nicaragua’s Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, has been invaded by Chinese-controlled “wood mafias” that also operate with the help of corrupt officials. Mexico is also a major consumer of imported wood from around the region, as well as experiencing its own problems with illegal deforestation.

Interpol estimates the global trade in illegal wood to be worth between $30 billion and $100 billion annually.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco Trafficking

While sometimes co-opted by the traffickers, Panama’s indigenous communities have also been vocal critics of illegal logging. The Wounaan people, who live between Panama and Colombia in the inhospitable jungles of the Darien Gap, recently took part in a documentary on the threats posed by deforestation after illegal loggers, harvesting Cocobolo wood, murdered a local chief.

There is little to indicate that the thefts are connected to local drug cartels, but the drug trade also has a role in illegal deforestation, with forests cleared to make way for clandestine runways, allow for drug transit and build cattle ranches used to launder money. A recent Ohio State University study found that rates of deforestation quadrupled in Honduras from 2007 to 2011, a period during which the country witnessed increasing drug trafficking and organized crime activity.

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