Identifying Wood to Combat Illegal Logging: Gabonese technicians head to Oregon for a Study Tour with USFS

When we walk outside, the trees around us tell us what they are. Leaves, fruits, and bark help us identify different species, but when these identifying characteristics are removed, is it still possible to identify a tree species, even from a tiny sliver of wood?

Labs like the U.S. Forest Service Wood Identification and Screening Center, also known as WISC, do this every day, using Direct Analysis in Real Time (DART) Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry (TOFMS) to identify wood samples. This technology allows us to see a wood sample’s “chemical fingerprint” which can then be matched in databases that have cataloged tree species growing in the United States and around the world.

Headed into the forest in Gabon. Photo by Eva McNamara, U.S. Forest Service International Programs.

This technology helps law enforcement personnel combat the illegal trade of timber happening globally. To ensure that forest resources are ecologically and economically sound, countries want to know that the wood they are importing and exporting has been legally harvested. Labs like WISC can test suspicious timber samples, to either confirm that they have been legally sourced or to identify timber that has been illegally harvested, in order to prosecute the actors involved. They can also help create “chemical fingerprints” of rare species that have not yet been cataloged, in order to build a comprehensive database of species within each country.

Combatting illegal timber trafficking is a global effort, and USFS has partnered with the Ministry of Water and Forests, the Seas, and the Environment in Gabon to support them in their efforts to enforce the legal trade and export of timber grown in Gabon. USFS has been working with prosecutors, judges, and forestry agents to build strong enforcement networks. As part of this effort, USFS is helping the Ministry to acquire a mass spectrometer for use at the Port of Owendo to help identify illegal goods before they leave the country.

This mass spectrometer will be the first to arrive in the country, and will be kept in a temperature-controlled, well-ventilated environment, regularly maintained by experts. To prepare for the arrival of the mass spectrometer, three Gabonese technicians traveled to the WISC lab in Ashland, Oregon in August 2022. Joined by colleagues from Vietnam and Peru, they undertook a two-week-long training in mass spectrometer operations and general maintenance, data collection and interpretation, and multivariate analysis and model creation.

Therence BESSAYI FOUMBANGOYE prepares wood samples during the study tour. Photo by Kimberlee Hudson.

Therence BESSAYI FOUMBANGOYE has a background in electrical engineering and sees this technology as an opportunity and resource for Gabon, but also for neighboring countries. “I would like to help the Ministry of Water and Forestry through the DART tool to improve the trade of timber and establish Gabon as a reference in Sub Sahara Africa for wood identification.”

“The use of DART-TOFMS in the work of the analysis of wood molecules of Gabonese species for a differentiation of poorly known wood species presents itself to me as a great opportunity in my work,” says Roland Jacks EKILA, who is a chemical engineer and teaches chemistry at the National School of Water and Forests in Libreville.

“This training allowed us to discover a new tool in the identification of wood. I greatly appreciated the training, because it was based on my field of work, the chemical analysis of wood molecules. This training allowed me to understand how to determine the molecular profile of a wood species and how to use the specific software.” 

As the experts prepare for the mass spectrometer’s arrival early next year, they hope to take another study tour to visit, learn, and exchange with colleagues at the WISC lab in Oregon. Until then, they continue to work remotely with USFS staff at WISC to prepare the space at the port for the machine’s arrival, and to catalog rare species endemic to Gabon.

Wendy Paola Janampa Arroyo (Peru), Therence BESSAYI FOUMBANGOYE (Gabon), Roland Jacks EKILA (Gabon), Daniele Cunha (Brazil), Keichia Chalane (Gabon), and John Albert Bartolo Cuba (Peru) pose for a photo during the study tour. Photo by Kimberlee Hudson.

The U.S. Forest Service Central Africa Program is working with the Gabonese government and the U.S. Department of Justice to increase the capacity of government ministries, law enforcement, and forestry officials to combat illegal logging. These programs are supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), USAID, and the Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL). 

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