Ancient Trees Have Become the New Ivory

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Torrance Coste of the Wilderness Committee illustrates the immensity of the missing Carmanah cedar in 2012. (Courtesy Torrance Coste)

The Case of the Missing Cedar

by Lyndsie Bourgon /Smithsonian.com /May 2017 

Ancient trees are disappearing from protected national forests around the world. A look inside $100 billion market for stolen wood

It was a local hiker who noticed, during a backwoods stroll in May 2012, the remains of the body. The victim in question: an 800-year-old cedar tree. Fifty meters tall and with a trunk three meters in circumference, the cedar was one of the crown jewels in Canada’s Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. Now all that remained was a minivan-sized section of its trunk, surrounded by shards of wood and dust, with broken heavy equipment chains lying nearby.

This park is firmly rooted, filled with centuries old Sitka spruce and cedar that impose a towering permanence. These trees are also an integral part of the forest ecosystem: moss and lichen grow on them, mushrooms sprout from the damp bark at their base. Their branches are home to endangered birds like the tiny grey and white marbled murrelet, which scientists presumed regionally extinct until they found a lone bird in the Carmanah.

But lately, these living ecosystems have been disappearing across the province. In the past decade, forest investigators have found themselves fielding cases in which more than 100 trees were stolen at once.

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