Fighting biodiversity loss through forensic wood research


Caring for wood

Wood, an immensely popular and versatile product, has been used since time immemorial. It remains popular for applications in construction, paper production, and the energy sector, and certain wood species are in extremely high demand for their quality, durability, or aesthetic value. Tropical forests in particular contain a huge variety of wood species, but only a few dozen of these reach the (inter)national market. If these species are cut down without any restrictions, their survival is threatened. Sustainable forest management takes into account the carrying capacity of forests and the needs of future generations. However, for certain species, the pressure is so great that additional regulations are necessary on top of these general forestry principles.



The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is an international treaty that restricts or prohibits the trade in endangered plant and animal species between participating countries. CITES uses three lists, called appendices, in which species are classified according to their level of protection.

Species listed in Appendix I are truly threatened with extinction, and are banned from commercial trade. Species in Appendix II are under significant pressure and could become threatened over time if trade is not controlled. CITES thus imposes trade quotas and conditions to limit and monitor trade. When one of the participating countries wants to protect a species and asks other countries for help, this species is placed in Appendix III. That way, those other countries can, for example, perform import controls.


Illegal timber trade

Regulations like CITES are not well received by everyone as they limit the income derived from valuable wood species. Unfortunately, part of the wood supply chain circumvents these rules, and a significant portion of international timber trade occurs illegally. INTERPOL estimates this at 15 to 30%, involving billions of dollars, making illegal timber trade one of the most profitable environmental crimes.


Belgium’s role

Wood species come from all over the world, and Belgium is a key player in the international timber trade. For example, nearly thirty percent of all tropical wood that enters the European Union – some of it from the illegal timber trade – is imported through the port of Antwerp. Our country bears great responsibility in the fight against illegal wood on the European market.



One of the most effective ways to combat illegal timber trade is to identify the species and/or origin of the wood. For this reason, ENFORCE, the first Belgian center of expertise for forensic wood research, was launched in 2022, in the AfricaMuseum Tervuren site. Government institutions, companies, and NGOs all want to conduct checks on the large quantities of wood entering Belgium. There are many stakeholders! Additionally, the research institute of the AfricaMuseum also holds a wood collection of over 82,000 samples from all over the world. It is managed by the Wood Biology service, and ENFORCE uses this collection daily to carry out expert assessments.


Wood anatomy meets chemistry!

ENFORCE employs two identification methods: the study of wood anatomy and its chemical composition. ‘To examine wood anatomy, we look at the microscopic characteristics of wood tissues and cells on ultrathin sections. These slices of wood are about 0.02 mm thick. Making these sections requires patience, experience, and concentration: not all wood species are equally hard or tough, and the blades are sharp. You also need to orient the sections correctly to see all the features.’

For decades, wood identification has been based on the description of over 160 anatomical characteristics. Each characteristic is marked present or absent, creating a kind of barcode that is compared with InsideWood, the reference database of described wood species. Wood samples and sections from the museum’s collection are then used to confirm the identification.

To determine the chemical composition of the wood, ENFORCE installed an advanced mass spectrometer. This ingenious instrument quickly and accurately produces a chemical signature of a wood chip, which is then compared with the profiles in another wood database. ‘We get the best results by combining the two methods. The chemical method is very promising and advancing very rapidly, but it’s still new for wood identification. Wood anatomy remains our starting point for determining a wood species. The analyses of wood samples from our own collection helps us reinforce the chemical and anatomical databases.’


What does the future hold?

ENFORCE helps in the fight against illegal timber trade and the further exploitation of endangered forests and tree species. ‘In our field, we often quote Abraham Lincoln: “Law without enforcement is just advice.” The challenges for forensic wood laboratories are enormous. The supply of wood products is vast and diverse, and new conflicts and regulations cause rapid shifts in the timber trade. Expanding databases, in particular, costs time and money. Cooperation and combination are the two key words. We can only achieve further successes in the fight against illegal wood smugglers by combining research methods and having a clear dialogue between scientists, policymakers, the wood industry, NGOs, and law enforcement.”

In short, preserving biodiversity requires a very broad range of knowledge and resources.
More information can be found on the ENFORCE website: