In Phnom Penh’s furniture stores, vendors can easily recite the names of the hardwood used to make their wares. Gleaming red tables of beng, high-backed chairs made of white-veineda neang nuon and ornate headboards of varnished thnong crowd the many shops about town.
Vendors say the wood comes from old trees, as the so-called luxury hardwood species are protected by law. Experts, however, say most of the wood has been logged illegally and that such exploitation is the biggest threat to these unusual and slow-growing trees.
“High market prices and demands for commercial trees are leading to the extinction of rare and endangered species in Cambodia,” according to a December report by the Cambodian Tree Seed project, a conservation program at the Forestry Administration funded by the Danish International Development Agency.
Beng, neang nuon and thnong are in the top 10 of a list of 34 species the project cited as in need of preservation in the report.
Neang nuon is found in at least seven provinces ranging from Preah Vihear to Kratie, according to the project’s report, but its growth is sparse and fertile trees are particularly hard to find.
“In many areas of its natural range, mature and large sized trees are rarely to be found,” the report stated.
Beng is found in even more places, from Kampot province to Ratanakkiri province, according to its profile in the report, but mature trees are similarly hard to find.
Other endangered trees, like Chan Crassna, are not used in furniture at all. The resin and wood from Chan Crassna are used in high-quality cosmetics, incense and medicine, and are in high demand in the Middle East and Asia. Resin from the tree can sell for $10,000 per kg in foreign markets.
“There are only a very few [trees] left and it’s doubtful they could recover,” said Arvid Sloth, the project’s adviser.
Logging of such species, especially those used for products other than furniture, often varies as the products fall in and out of fashion, said Mike Davis of forestry watchdog Global Witness.
“There’s a pattern of people concentrating on specific species,” Davis said. “It goes in waves and is obviously market driven.”
Within Cambodia, the price of most luxury timber has stayed more or less constant, despite a ban on logging in 2002.
Davis said the price varies depending on the species and hovers between $400 and $700 a cubic meter, about three trees’ worth.
In Vietnam or Thailand, the wood can fetch double that, he said. And in Europe and North America, luxury hardwoods, and the furniture made from them, can go for thousands of dollars per cubic meter.
The trees’ high price and inadequate enforcement of the logging ban are enormous barriers to preserving these trees, said botanist Andrew McDonald. But another problem is a sheer lack of scientific data on Cambodia’s forests.
Because of a lack of such data, the Cambodia Tree Seed Project was forced to rely largely on reports from those who worked in the forest to map the trees’ distribution, he said. As such, there are gaps in areas where little work has been done before.
Cambodia has the largest remaining tract in Indochina of a type of forest called lowland evergreen, which stretches from Kompong Thom province to Preah Vihear province. Yet no study has been done of the plants and animals in that stretch of forest.
“There’s only one lowland forest that’s been described in detail, and it no longer exists,” McDonald said, referring to the account of a French botanist, who in the 1970s described the forests around Sihanoukville that have since been logged and cleared.
Not even the flora and fauna of its tallest mountain, Mount Oral, has yet to be thoroughly described.
Sometimes, McDonald said, it seems like the only thing that is known about these trees is that they are being cut down, and sold at great profit.
“How common are these trees, really; how many are there in any one area; how often do you encounter them?” he said. “We just don’t know.”