Assault on our countryside

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2006, 12:00am

Growing luxuriantly in fung shui plantations behind every New Territories village is the Aquilaria sinensis, or incense tree. It is a symbol of Hong Kong. It also gave our city its name: 'Fragrant Harbour' refers to incense made from the tree.

Today, that proud plant is under attack from gangs of mainlanders on two-way permits. They roam the hills daily, slashing deep cuts into healthy incense trees. In one day, a single group may slice into dozens of trees over a route of 5km. Weeks later, they return along the same routes to collect the precious resin, formed from the sap that flows from the cuts. It can fetch up to $30,000 per kilo from herbalists over the border.

The widespread depredation by environmental criminals is threatening the very existence of the sacred incense trees, according to worried conservationists.

Now scientists from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department have come up with a unique solution. Police patrols that spot trees 'scarfed' by deep axe cuts are covering the trunks with thick layers of paint: that blocks out the sunlight, inhibiting the flow of the sap.

'With no resin, there is no profit,' explains Chief Inspector Fred Tsui Wai-hung, the commander of Sai Kung Division. An ardent conservationist and a self-taught expert on the incense tree, Chief Inspector Tsui is spearheading the fight against the vandals. His actions have won praise from environmentalists.

Ken Ng On-yeung, a member of the Sai Kung Association and a professional adviser on mountain adventure, says the strategy might be effective: 'I've alerted all hikers to report any slashed trees,' he said. 'It takes about three weeks for the tree to produce a good load of resin. So if people see trees that have been scarfed and they tell police, then the cuts can be painted ... before the gang returns.'

It's difficult to catch the gangs, which camp in remote spots in the high country. Their forays take them to abandoned villages: every Hakka settlement has its own sacred fung shui grove, which includes incense trees. Now indigenous villagers are enraged that the greedy outsiders are plundering their heritage.

As Chief Inspector Tsui and his men tramp the high ridges of Sai Kung, marine police are making amphibious assaults against an entirely different botanical assault on our countryside. Aided from the skies by government aircraft and in the courts by magistrates handing down stiff sentences, the mariners face a determined foe: criminal groups that are stripping large areas of native Buddhist pine trees.

These decorative and 'lucky' plants are uprooted by gangs of impoverished recruits, often from Guizhou province , then sped across Mirs Bay by fast boat and sold for huge profits to property developers. Dozens of vessels have been intercepted, scores of trees seized and 108 men arrested since the racket was first discovered in 2001.

On February 16, police stopped a boat off Basalt Island and found 11 Buddhist pines on board. Two mainlanders were arrested.

Dismissed as a minor infringement at first, this rape of the countryside is now viewed as a major threat.

Cases are prosecuted under the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance. One poacher - who was also involved with immigration offences - is serving six years and nine months in prison. That's a loud message that tells marauders we intend to save our trees.

Kevin Sinclair is a Hong Kong reporter who lives in the New Territories