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Up in arms: The battle to save Lantau’s incense trees

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Big men with machetes are smashing down gates and cutting up trees in our own backyards. Jason Danes reports on the battle for the incense trees.

When Andrew Watson first moved to Hong Kong he had no idea what an incense tree was. He didn’t know they were endangered, and he didn’t even know that Hong Kong, which translates as fragrant harbour, is named after the incense tree trade that used to go on here. But in the past year he has gone from being totally ignorant about pretty much everything, to chasing incense tree poachers across the jungle-rich mountains of South Lantau. Needless to say, it has been an interesting time not just for Andrew, but for many people, both local and expat, who call Lantau home.

Native to Hong Kong, the incense tree, or agarwood (aquilaria sinensis) is one of the most prized trees in all of East Asia. Its processed sap is worth more than gold per gram due to its feng- shui properties, and people are willing to go to ridiculous lengths to get it out of Hong Kong and into the mainland Chinese black market (and beyond). The tree is on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List and it is already almost extinct in the mainland due to illegal logging.

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Under siege 

Let’s rewind about 12 months. Andrew came to Hong Kong in April to do an ecosystem-focused permaculture course at Ark Eden, and part of the course involved visiting a secluded private holding in South Lantau, owned by Daniel Wing.

Daniel’s handful of fully-grown Buddha Pine incense trees (luóhàn s?ng) are his pride and joy. They were planted by his grandfather in the middle of the last century as part of the beautification of the garden and have been preserved to enhance the property’s feng shui. During his visit, Andrew learnt that Daniel’s garden, however inaccessible, was being targeted by poachers.

“In 2015, after the first few were stolen, we started to beef up our security,” Daniel explains. “We put in wi-fi cameras so we could watch and listen to live feed on our phones, and one night in early spring I heard a metallic clinking from the audio feed. I turned up the volume and heard someone say, in Mandarin, ‘Get over here’. I immediately called the police but the men fled before they arrived. They had removed a few cameras, dug the top few inches out of an incense tree and cleared an escape path.”

Incense trees transplant best in late winter/ spring, so Daniel was ready for the poachers on their return a few nights later. Awoken by his newly installed motion detector alarms, he saw men running off into the mountain, and immediately called the police. “To their credit, the police sped up the mountain and hollered and searched for an hour,” says Daniel, “but we came down empty-handed.”

Before heading back home, Daniel and his friends saw a man loitering nearby, and since it was 4am, in a very remote area, they got curious. The man saw their car and walked away. He then doubled back, ran to his vehicle and fled the scene. Daniel suspects he was the loggers’ look out or driver.

Daniel has experienced five such attacks on his property, with the biggest occurring in March 2016, when he found 10 people digging out one of his Buddha Pine trees. On being discovered, the poachers disappeared into the forest before anyone could even call the police.

Daniel subsequently heard that a villager had seen a speedboat leaving a Lantau beach a few nights after the heist, with a large incense tree strapped to it.

“As of right now, we have, on average, a half dozen people living at the garden with three dogs, an army of security cameras, flood lights and comprehensive fencing around the site,” Daniel says. “There could still be hideouts in the mountains. Sometimes the dogs still bark into the forest, so someone may still be in the shadows, just waiting for us to let down our guard.”

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Eyewitness accounts

Not surprisingly, Daniel has become wrapped up in the methodology of the illegal loggers and has gradually pieced together a clear picture through eyewitness accounts.

“These aren’t attempts made on impulse, the teams are big,” Daniel explains. “As I understand it, there’s a mainland or local Hong Kong mastermind who is in charge of the operation, a tree buyer, a scout or two, a number of tree diggers, an arborist or tree surgeon, a truck driver, a boat driver to transport the tree back to China, and someone in charge of the complex logistics for the Hong Kong side of the operation.”

Faced with the surge in attacks, the Lantau Police has been working with local environmentalists to put an end to the poaching. Thanks to a series of tip ofs, they were able to dismantle a poachers’ camp close to Shui Hao Village in June last year. After a lengthy stakeout, a 40-person jungle-trained taskforce reclaimed bagfuls of incense tree pieces and logging tools, though they weren’t able to catch the culprits.

“We can’t be there 24 hours a day, so we need to work together with the community,” senior superintendent Alice Lee said in November. Alice, Lantau’s then district commander, went on to point out that: “The illegal loggers aren’t dangerous, when people shout at them, they always run. They’re scared – if you chase them they want to go in a hole and hide.”

This theory is backed up by numerous firsthand experiences, including that of Donna Wan, a South Lantau villager, who found a man chopping down a huge incense tree at the edge of her back garden last April. When she yelled at him, he ran off into the forest.

Convicted loggers face a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and hefty fines, but with so much money on offer from black market profiteering, they are nothing if not persistent. As a case in point, the poacher on Donna’s property returned just a week or two after he was first discovered, ironically enough on Earth Day.

On this occasion, the police again came out in force but it was up to Donna and Andrew to pursue the poacher into the forest. “We chased the man for over an hour but he finally ran down a path into one of the villages, so we lost him,” Andrew says. “I got a picture of his boot prints, and I’ve turned it over to the Lantau Police, but you can’t catch a man from a boot print.”

Later that day, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) got involved. An agent found mainland snack wrappers on the forest floor and evidence proving that 18 trees had been cut down or damaged within the past few days or weeks. Incense trees are slow growing, so seeing that many mature trees damaged or destroyed almost brought Donna to tears.

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The bigger picture 

Police figures show the number of reported cases involving illegal felling of incense trees has increased dramatically in recent years, though it has improved in the past few months due to concerted efforts by the community, Marine Police, AFCD and Lantau Police.

For many of those involved in protecting our environment, the tree- poaching is a symptom of a much deeper problem.

It is not for nothing that Lantau is known as Hong Kong’s green lung. Our wealth of trees act as a carbon sink for some of the carbon emissions created by Lamma Power Station, as well as a gigantic air purifier for Hong Kong’s high-polluting shipping industry and downtown vehicle emissions. The proposed development plans (potentially involving the felling of thousands of trees) may bring with them the promise of more money and jobs, but at what cost? In essence, that’s what this whole incense tree battle is really about.

At what point do we decide that enough is enough and we’d rather not make the quick buck if it means dooming an entire species or ecosystem to certain destruction. And that’s where the incense tree, along with countless other species around the globe, is headed. So saddle up: It’s time to change the world.

You can report any suspicious activity concerning incense trees to the Lantau Police on 3661 1696 for North Lantau, and 3661 1694 for South Lantau. You can call the AFCD on 2150 6978. To contact the writer, email [email protected]

Images: Andrew Watson and Alice Lee

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