DAKAR (Reuters) - Forests in Senegal's lush Casamance region risk disappearing within two years because of illegal timber smuggling, one of the West African country's foremost environmentalists said on Thursday.
Casamance in southern Senegal contains the country's last remaining forests, an area of 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) that could be depleted by 2018 as smugglers feed the demand for rosewood furniture in China, said former environment minister Haidar El Ali.
Exporting timber from Senegal is illegal, so traffickers smuggle it to neighboring Gambia for shipping to China.
"This unacceptable trafficking is devastating for our forests and it has to stop," Haidar told a news conference.
Much of northern Senegal bordering on the Sahara Desert has succumbed to desertification, a process where land becomes increasingly arid due to drought and climate shifts, making forests unsustainable.
Now what is left of the West African country's greenery is fading fast, according to Haidar. Traffickers have chopped down 1 million trees, or 10,000 hectares, since 2010, he said.
Meanwhile, Gambian exports of rosewood to China totaled $238.5 million between 2010-2015, the second highest in West Africa after Nigeria, he said. Gambia has only 4,000 hectares of forests.
The spokesman for Senegal's Ministry of the Environment was not available for comment.
(Reporting by Diadie Ba; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Edward McAllister and Tom Heneghan)