Illegal logging in Burma (© AP Images)
Trees, just like humans, have their own unique genetic fingerprints. That information is being used to find timber thieves. (© AP Images)

People often talk about illegal wildlife trade — the poaching of elephants and rhinos, for instance. You don’t hear much about trees being felled and stolen.

Yet the cost of seized shipments of rosewood timber exceeded that of all the illegal elephant tusks, tiger parts, rhino horns, pangolin scales and parrots from 2005 to 2014.

Around the world, illegal logging costs an estimated $51 billion to $152 billion every year, according to Interpol, the world’s largest policing organization.

Workers transporting Indonesian timber (© AP Images)
Illegal logging promotes dangerous deforestation and hurts legitimate timber businesses. (© AP Images)

But there’s a new tool to stop illegal timber, to keep crime out of everything from luxury furniture to high-end guitars. And if it sounds straight out of high-tech criminal investigation television shows, that’s because it is.

DNA “fingerprinting” allows companies to quickly track individual trees through their supply chains. This process involves taking a small amount of wood shavings to find the tree’s unique genetic code and matching it to databases of species, location and ancestry. That information can tell whether wood was harvested legally.

“The likelihood of two trees having the same DNA profile is as low as one in 428 sextillion,” Andrew Lowe of the University of Adelaide said in 2016 after the technology was used to convict timber thieves in the U.S.

Among others working to improve and deploy this technology: the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. and international universities, NGOs and private genetics companies.

Illegal logging hurts everybody: Legitimate businesses lose out when supplies of illegal lumber depress prices. And local communities’ livelihoods are often carted away with the ancient trees. But DNA tech can help.