An investigation has discovered that nearly 300,000 cues imported into the UK annually are made from the timber of ramin trees - a rare species listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) - chopped down and exported illegally from Indonesia's dwindling tropical forests.
The Indonesian Government banned all cutting and export of ramin wood in 2001, yet Red Pepper has learnt that a number of British companies continue to import cues made from ramin for supply to hundreds of pubs, clubs and retail outlets, including Argos which advertises ramin cues for sale at 7.99. The timber is smuggled into China by criminal gangs before being manufactured into cues for export to the west.
Environmentalists have reacted with fury to the revelation which will come as a blow to the UK authorities who in 2002 signed a groundbreaking bilateral agreement with the Indonesian Government promising to crackdown on the trade in plundered timber between the two countries.
Indonesia is home to around 10% of the world's remaining tropical forests and home to many rare and endangered species including the Orangutan, Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, clouded leopard and sun bear. Pressure groups such as the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) claim that over two million hectares of Indonesian rainforest is being destroyed each year by logging and that by 2010 virtually all the country's lowland forests will have disappeared.
Illegal logging in Indonesia has been linked to widespread corruption and human rights abuses, with highly organised criminal gangs - dubbed the timber barons by environmentalists -brutally controlling the lucrative trade in stolen timber, much of it, including the highly prized ramin wood, plundered from inside supposedly protected forest areas.
In Central Kalimantan's Tanjung Puting National Park - one of the largest conservation forests in Indonesia - millions of cubic metres of ramin trees are chopped down, hauled out and sold illegally each year, devastating the area's rich ecology and costing the country's economy millions of pounds in lost revenue. Those opposed to the activities of the logging cartels have faced violence and intimidation.
Ramin is a tropical hardwood only found in the swamp areas of Borneo, Sumatra and in the peninsular region of Malaysia and is classified under CITES as a vulnerable tree species. Once processed it can fetch a $1000 per cubic metre on the international market for use in picture frames, wood blinds, decorative mouldings as well as pool cues.
Much of the stolen timber used in the cues destined for the UK is believed to be exported to China where the cues are manufactured before being dispatched to the west. Red Pepper has learnt that at least four key companies are importing ramin cues into the UK for distribution to coin machine operators contracted by brewery groups to supply their pub games equipment.
Pool is one of the UK's favourite pastimes, with over 5.2 million people playing the game each week on some 62,000 tables in public houses, clubs, hotels and in private homes. According to industry sources around 99 in every 100 cues used in British pubs are made from ramin.
Devon based Pot Black Ltd distributes cues by mail order to high street outlets including Argos, Littlewoods, Toys R Us and John Lewis. Cuecraft Ltd of Nottingham supplies snooker club chains with ramin cues supplied from China; the Merseyside based Leisure Services Group also imports them.
Another importer of ramin cues is Bristol Coin Exchange (BCE) / Critical Place Limited. The company, which sponsors leading snooker players Ronnie O'Sullivan and Jimmy White, is understood to import around 100, 000 cues each year from a Taiwanese owned factory in Xiamen, China.
Most of the companies contacted were unaware they needed permits to import ramin. David Nichols, of BCE / Critical Place Ltd, said his company had switched to an alternative timber source.
Under CITES legislation, companies importing ramin products must hold the appropriate permits guaranteeing that the wood comes from sustainable sources. But because ramin only grows in Indonesia and Malaysia, where investigations have discovered that Indonesian ramin is frequently laundered illegally, pressure groups maintain that no ramin imports can be trusted to have come from ecologically friendly sources.
Sam Lawson, of the EIA, said: "I find it shocking that wood from rare and endangered tropical trees is being used for cheap throw-away cues. This is only possible because these trees are being stolen, often from national parks.
"But what is more shocking is that ramin is a special case. Millions of pounds worth of illegal timber enters the UK every week and for most of this wood there is no UK law stopping companies from importing and selling it. New laws are urgently needed Europe wide to ban the import of all timber which was illegally sourced."