The United Nations Environment Program said as much as 90 percent of tropical deforestation can be attributed to organized crime, which controls an estimated 30 percent of the global timber trade.
While environmental regulators thought illegal logging was decreasing worldwide, report author Christian Nelleman said, they were looking in the wrong places.
The U.N. report, by factoring in the impact of sophisticated concealment techniques of the kind used by drug cartels, found rates of illegal logging have actually been rising, NewScientist.com reported.
Criminals have just become better at hiding their tracks, Nelleman said, using techniques like forging permits, hacking trade databases, bribing officials, concealing timber's true origin and hiding illegal timber amid legal stocks.
"What we're shocked about is the sheer scale of timber that goes unaccounted for," Nelleman said. In 2008, for instance, Indonesia officially exported 18.6 million more cubic meters of wood than in 2000, with the additional wood ostensibly coming from legal plantations.
But most of it turned out to be from illegal logging, he said.