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The DNA of trees

The Forest Stewardship Council

Agency: Quiller Consultants


Illegal logging causes enormous problems, including deforestation, the loss of biodiversity and damage to local communities and economies. Interpol estimates that the annual cost of illegal logging is as much as £76 billion, with species such as rosewoods and ebony particular targets of the illicit trade.


The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a not-for-profit organisation that promotes responsible management of forests, recruited London-based Quiller Consultants to amplify the work it does to tackle illegal logging around the world.


It wanted to galvanise media attention in the issue and its potential solutions, thereby raising the profile of the Forest Stewardship Council and highlight the need for funds to tackle the problem.


Quiller’s solution was to focus on a little-known partnership between its client and the Royal Botanic Gardens, based in Kew. 


Established more than a century ago, the Gardens host an unrivalled library of more than 150,000 slide specimens of around 30,000 species, including nearly all tree species, that provides the Forest Stewardship Council with DNA and isotope data on many of the world’s rarest and most endangered plants.


This data is then used by border officials to identify species of protected wood smuggled amongst legitimately traded logs. It can actually pinpoint the exact geographical provenance of woods under suspicion.


But the steps undertaken by border officials are many and complex, and were unlikely to interest the media. The process had to be simplified, and seen to be believed. Quiller organised a ‘hands on’ demonstration at Kew, involving journalists from the BBC, Agence France-Presse, France 2, Observer, Daily Telegraph and Nature, where commonplace items, such as a guitar, were tested to determine whether the wood had been obtained legally or illegally logged. In short, by following the steps, journalists could ‘discover’ whether the item derived from a certified FSC forest: they were analysing the DNA of trees.


A range of angles were created, each with the underlying theme of climate change crisis, to provide media outlets with different hooks, and a variety of broadcast opportunities were arranged. The BBC and France’s Agence France-Presse led the way, and the story reached more than 100 publications across 29 counties and five continents. The coverage led to renewed support from key funders for the Forest Stewardship Council, which is now able to redouble its efforts to tackle illegal logging.