Avenue of the Baobabs, an area near Morondava protected since 2007, is all that remains of a once thick forest cleared for farmland. Growing 80 feet or more, baobabs are valued for fruit and bark.
The young man in the shorts and sleeveless T-shirt stands in his pirogue and pulls it upstream with a long bamboo pole. The Onive River is shallow and moves swiftly against him. Overhead a brooding sky opens up and dispenses barrages of rain, then sunlight, then more rain. The young man, whose name is Remon, is as heedless of the weather as the crocodiles lying prostrate on the shore.
Gliding past him in the opposite direction, one every three minutes, are other piroguemen. Remon calls out to them; they holler back. They are his river mates, each ferrying a dark, monstrous log of illegally harvested rosewood downstream from the rain forest to the lumberyards in the northeastern Madagascan city of Antalaha. There a paycheck awaits. Once Remon drops us off at the edge of the forest, he will do the same.
Remon doesn't like the work. The timber boss who employs him—but whose name he does not know—has told Remon that he must paddle all day without pause because the rangers have been bribed to stay away for only a finite period, after which another bribe will be expected. Still, transporting the fallen trees is better than cutting them down, which had been Remon's previous job. He quit after concluding that the risks had become too great. While illegal logging had been going on for years, the pace had suddenly escalated: The forest was unpoliced and filled with organized gangs, a free-for-all of deforestation spurred by the collapse of Madagascar's government in March of 2009 and by the insatiable appetite of Chinese timber procurers, who imported more than 200 million dollars' worth of rosewood from the country's northeastern forests in just a few months. One rosewood cutter Remon knew had been robbed of his harvest by forest thugs who told him, "There's 30 of us, one of you." And he's just heard that two men were decapitated with a machete over a timber dispute a few days ago.