Poachers are stealing trees from forests in many countries at night, and the problem may be getting worse. Lyndsie Bourgon investigates the complicated reasons for blame.


Hundreds of trees have been stolen one by one from the oak, birch, and beech stands that populate Germany’s forests. Last winter, poachers took 100 pine trees in one forest alone, Konigs Wusterhausen, near Berlin. In response, a new initiative has sprung up to encourage hikers to report suspicious stumps or people they see. Cameras have been nestled into tree branches by managers.

What’s the reason? Winter heat has been harvested by wood poachers. The Working Group of German Forest Owners Associations (AGDW) reported in October 2022 that firewood scavenging was on the rise in the country’s forests, with people felling trees and chopping them up for easy transport, or taking wood that had already been chopped down from the side of the road. According to the AGDW, the value of stolen wood from German forests the previous winter was in the millions of Euros.

Tree theft has become a worldwide issue. To combat it, hidden cameras have been installed in forests all over the world, including the redwood forests of California, the foggy coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest coast, and the tropical rainforests of South America and Southeast Asia. All are intended to deter poachers, who enter the woods at night and steal valuable old-growth timber. In my book, Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods, I followed poachers and wood dealers through the woods, harvesting wood and selling it to artisans, mills, and manufacturers, as well as meeting park rangers hoping to stop them.

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According to the most recent figures, the US Forest Service estimates that timber worth $100 million (£83 million/€95 million) is stolen from their land each year. In Canada, the province of British Columbia reports that approximately $20 million (£17 million/€19 million) in timber is stolen from publicly managed forests each year. And this trade contributes to the estimated $152 billion (£131 billion/€149 billion) black market trade in illegal timber. Poachers take walnut and white oak in eastern Missouri; elm bark is stripped off elms in Kentucky; bonsai are stolen from gardens in San Diego and Seattle; and redwood burl is carved from sequoia in northern California’s towering redwoods.

This wood comes into our lives in a variety of ways: During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the price of wood skyrocketed, and people stole truckloads of processed timber. In their supply chains, retailers of hardwood flooring and flatpack furniture have been caught sourcing illegal wood. In addition, every winter, parks in or near cities report the theft of fir boughs and pine trees felled for Christmas trees.


However, the most common motivation identified in my research was the need for firewood. Stories from Germany’s forests echo those from my home province, where Douglas fir is frequently poached near roadways that cross public conservation land. There is frequently evidence that these trees were cut into blocks right where they fell, then loaded onto the back of a truck and driven away. This poached wood often feeds the burners in local communities in rural areas, where homes are often heated by multiple stoves rather than central heating. However, in the midst of both the energy and cost-of-living crises, demand for firewood is increasing. The poached wood market is growing. The demand for wood heat in the UK has been palpable: wood stove sales have increased by 40%, and chainsaw sales have followed suit. In early January, £10,000 ($12,000/€11,300) of wood was stolen from a Wildlife Trust site in Dorset.


In the background, firewood prices have risen across Europe. The World Economic Forum weighed in in September 2022, stating that a country’s woodstores are now an indicator of a strong economy. Bulgaria, Switzerland, and Poland all reported that the price of a bundle of wood had more than doubled, and that some people had been duped into paying exorbitant prices for a cord of wood (about 3.6 cubic metres/128 cubic feet) that was never delivered. According to reports, officials in Poland are considering distributing anti-smog masks in anticipation of people burning wood and trash for heat.

As I became acquainted with poachers through my research, many of them described how they poach wood to dry for use in their woodstoves. or the stoves of their relatives. Some sell their bounty to needy neighbours online, using social media to connect. Researchers discovered that iconic trees like baobab are being illegally sold and manufactured into charcoal used for cooking outside of North America.


The ethics of wood poaching have become increasingly complicated: trees that need to be protected to ensure biodiversity, forest health, and climate change mitigation are now being taken by poachers in night-time raids, but this is not necessarily a crime motivated by simple greed. Economic pressures exacerbate the problem: poverty is prevalent in rural communities that require heat and income. Harvesting wood is an act of self-sufficiency, tradition, and necessity for many poachers. It necessitates technical skills passed down through family members, a “form of osmosis,” according to one.

Burning wood for heat is often associated with stigma, especially in urban areas. However, the utility of wood varies according to class. A crackling fire lit under a glittering mantlepiece at Christmas is aesthetically pleasing and traditional, whereas black smoke spewing from every house in a low-income neighbourhood is often perceived as “dirty”. Wood and other biofuels (such as peat) are accessible and affordable ways for many homes to stay warm during the winter, when fuel prices skyrocket. “There is a genuine social divide,” says Martin Pigeon, a forest and climate campaigner with the European activist group Fern.

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