To protect incense trees, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora restricts trading in agarwood. But Hong Kong does not single out those who destroy or damage the trees for harsh treatment. If an incense tree is on government-managed land, the maximum sentence for cutting it down is the same as it is for felling any other kind of tree on such property: a fine of HK$25,000 ($3,210) and a year in prison. Such penalties do little to deter thieves from mainland China, who are encouraged by growing demand for exotic medicines among members of the mainland’s fast-growing middle class. Professor C.Y. Jim of the University of Hong Kong reckons that in 2013 high-grade agarwood was worth $1,600 a gram on the black market. That is more than gold. According to Mr Jim, Hong Kong may be the “last refuge” of the tree, so it has become a “honeypot” for tree-snatchers.
Most of the thieves work for criminal gangs based across the border in mainland China. In recent years a relaxation of restrictions on travel from the mainland to Hong Kong has made their work easier. They often pretend to be hikers, sometimes camping out for weeks while gathering the timber. A local NGO has produced a map showing about 200 sites from which it says around 500 trees were stolen in the past year.
Very few incense trees form agarwood, so they are often destroyed indiscriminately. On Lamma, a plaque marks a spot where three young trees were uprooted. A short scramble up a steep slope reveals a gorier scene: splintered woodchips are all that remain of an aged tree. Mr Yeung, the beekeeper, says “hunters” felled and butchered it in situ. As supplies diminish, the gangs are becoming more desperate. Thieves are raiding private gardens; some residents have begun organising patrols to frighten the thieves away. Alarms and monitoring cameras are being installed.
Excerpts from Trees in Hong Kong: Fragrant Arbour, Economist, Feb. 22, 2016, at 37