TimeOut Hong Kong
14 January 2016
Nightfall descends upon Hong Kong’s lush country parks as a gentle breeze rustles the scented foliage that our city’s very name – the fragrant harbour – pays homage to. But, by dawn, all that remains of the trees are a scant scattering of stumps. An entire copse has been hacked away. The nighttime smugglers have already returned to the Mainland to trade these trees in a lucrative illegal market. This is the all-too-common fate of the Aquilaria sinensis(agarwood) tree – a tree that is highly sought after because, when infected with a specific fungus, it produces a resinous substance known as oud oil, which has a long history of medicinal use in many Asian cultures and is highly prized for its ambrosial fragrance. Gramme for gramme, oud oil is twice as valuable as gold.
However, the vicious cycle of its high value and perpetual illegal logging is leading the tree, which was once widely distributed across Hong Kong, to near extinction in the SAR. The oil’s value has increased 109 percent since 2005, with one gramme currently worth over $45,000 on the Mainland market. “The illegal trade of these trees in China is worth US$6 to $12billion ($40 to $90billion) a year,” says Gerard McGuirk, director of APC (Asia Plantation Capital), which owns over 120 sustainable agarwood plantations across Asia, including one in Hong Kong that currently houses 6,000 trees. Investors worldwide are – naturally – grappling to get their hands on this precious commodity, with buyers in mainland China willing to pay an exorbitant premium for the wood, but at what cost for Hong Kong’s natural habitat?...
So what is the government doing to protect these incense trees? “There’s a big problem with current legislation,” explains Amanda Whitfort, associate professor of law at HKU and wildlife advocate. When we ask a spokesperson from the AFCD (Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department), he tells us that the department is in ‘close liaison with the police’ and ‘necessary enforcement actions against illegal felling of incense trees has been undertaken’. “We have stepped up patrol at locations within country parks and special areas to monitor the situation,” he continues. But Whitfort says this isn’t enough. “The authorities only send in their officers during daytime hours, and naturally, with the value of these trees, the gangs come in to chop them down at night or at dusk – at times when the country parks aren’t being policed by the authorities.”
The law sanctions that any person who fells, cuts or otherwise destroys these trees is liable to a maximum fine of $100,000 and 10 years’ imprisonment, and any person who ships the agarwood out of Hong Kong without a valid CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) permit is subject to a $500,000 fine and a year’s imprisonment. This threat of heavy prosecution should, in theory, deter from the illegal smuggling, but in reality there are very few reported cases of felling. “This is not because the smuggling is not occurring, but because the AFCD has prosecuted few cases,” explains Whitfort.. Click here to read the full article.