Fell swoops

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 July, 2006, 12:00am

LAST WEEK, JUST a short walk from a rocky inlet in Sai Kung's Tai Long Wan, Hong Kong Police's rural patrol unit have found a campsite. Hidden under a thick canopy of trees and a red, white, and blue tarpaulin, there's recently cooked rice, a wok one-quarter full of chilli paste and onions, a tube of toothpaste, washing detergent, and cigarettes.

'It's a live one,' says Robert Brooks, operational commander for Sai Kung's rural patrol unit. 'These guys are off somewhere doing a job. They'll be back.'

The men they are looking for are illegal immigrants from the mainland. The 'job' Brooks suspects them of doing doesn't involve trafficking of people, drugs, or electronics, but something seemingly less sinister: trees.

Podocarpus macrophyllus, or Buddhist pine, is a green, leafy tree that grows along the eastern seaboard of Hong Kong.

Many mainland people view these trees as symbols of good luck and buy them to plant in their gardens as 'money trees'. Due to their popularity, the slow-growing species are in short supply on the mainland. One tree can fetch up to $100,000. That price makes Hong Kong's supply of Buddhist pines a prime target for smugglers.

In recent years, according to police and experts, a number of labourers, hired by people on the mainland, have taken boats to the New Territories, set up camp and spent days cutting down and stockpiling trees. Then, under cover of darkness, they pile them into sampans to take them the 10km back across the border. The trees are unloaded at the small port of Nan Ao in Guangdong - a popular stop-off for sampans evading police - where the pines are shipped off for sale or replanting.

The number of Buddhist pine thefts monitored by Hong Kong police has risen from 12 last year to 27 in the first half of this year alone, while the number of arrests of such thieves has more than doubled from 41 to 88 in the same periods. 'We used to think it was a seasonal thing,' says Clive Walton, patrol sub unit commander for Hong Kong's marine east division. 'But now we see it happening [at] any time.'

The results of the smuggling are visible from a boat in Tai Long Wan: long paths where trees have been cut snake around the hills.

The smugglers have depleted the Buddhist pine population, says Lawrence Chau Kam-chiu, a botanist employed by the police to assess the damage. 'Thirty or 40 years ago, the extent of Buddhist pine growth was much wider,' Chau says. 'Now only those in the remote areas remain.'

Part of this is due to the fact that the trees have always been popular in Hong Kong. Known for their positive fung shui properties, people often dig them up to put in gardens or in front of their homes.

There are still no forestry regulations against felling Buddhist pines in Hong Kong, but since they are only found in country parks and on public land, stealing or damaging them is illegal by proxy, says Chau.

The smugglers, Chau says, cause a 'trampling effect'. 'They ruin the land around the trees and limit their re-growth,' he says.

Since the handover, tree smuggling has been just another item on a long list of headaches for the police, created by Hong Kong's porous border. Every week, officials deal with illegal immigrants, trafficking, burglary and rescues. For years, smugglers have stolen herbs, sea urchins, and turtles to sell on the mainland. Saving trees hasn't always been on top of the list. 'People used to laugh about it,' Walton says. When someone is caught without the right papers, they're sent back to the mainland only to return a week later, says Brooks. If an immigrant is convicted of stealing Hong Kong property, they now face up to three years in prison. 'It's a pretty big deterrent,' he says.

Some smugglers, however, have grown wise to the heavy sentences. Recently, Brooks and his crew have noticed the tree snatchers wearing camouflage and walking in a 'platoon-like' formation, with the men just far enough apart to make them hard to catch as a unit.

Furthermore, unless an immigrant is caught red-handed in the act of stealing pines, a case won't stand up in court. Often, a snatcher will simply drop the tree beside them and run, making it hard for the patrol to claim evidence of theft.

Both Brooks and Walton, however, realise the smugglers are not the root of the problem. The real culprits are the people hiring them.

'As it's organised crime, you're only getting the people on the lower end,' Walton says. 'You're not getting the people in charge ... that's got to come from ... co-operation between the higher echelons in the force in Hong Kong with their counterparts in the mainland.'

The inexperience of some of the thieves was evident during a recent stake out. The crew recovered 30 to 40 trees destined for the mainland. Near the bounty the police found one of the smugglers fast asleep. 'He didn't even know he was in Hong Kong,' Walton says.

But without any serious effort from mainland authorities, the smuggling looks far from over. The land where smugglers can moor is 'a heck of a lot of coast', Brooks says.

Even with frequent patrolling of the seas, a few men on a sampan can easily slip past. Furthermore, there aren't enough ports for marine boats to dock, and communication between officers on land and sea can be spotty.

Then there's the matter of catching the men. The land is often dense with foliage. Brooks and his men scout the area during the day to look for signs of camps. Once they've found them, they return at night. After seeing whether or not they can land in rough seas, they've got to sneak up on the smugglers without alerting them. The men often get away.

'They can dart off in any direction,' Brooks says, scanning the thick foliage in a wooded area in Sai Wan. 'It's a cat-and-mouse game.'

There's also the fear of violent retaliation from men who, after spending nights and days in the woods, may be on edge. 'They don't just say, 'Oh, we've been caught let's surrender',' Brooks says. 'These guys fight back.' This year, seven of Brooks' 15 men have been injured, either by direct fighting with smugglers or when pursuing in rough terrain.

Sometimes, however, they get lucky. Brooks and his men spotted some smugglers carrying trees back to their campsite. The men took off the tops of their uniforms to look like casual hikers. As the smugglers passed, the two groups exchanged pleasantries. 'Then we jumped them,' Brooks says.

Rural patrol is not for the faint of heart, and with jobs rotating every four years, officers who know the terrain and are fit enough for the work often have to move on. Daniel Ching Kar-king, a sergeant who has been on many raids, hopes he can stick with it as long possible. 'I was a hiker before I had this job,' he says. 'So I enjoy using my knowledge and putting it into my work.'

For environmentalists, the increased rate of Buddhist pine smuggling is disheartening. 'The government can give more resources to the relevant department to patrol more across the border,' says Clarus Chu Ping-shing, a marine conservation officer at the World Wide Fund for Nature. 'Hong Kong is in a position to preserve loads of endangered things. We need to protect it.'

The police in Sai Kung, meanwhile, will continue to push for harsher sentences and more resources to fight the problem.

The campsite Brooks found is in one of the most active areas. Brooks has to decide how his men will approach the site. He says he believes that, since there was no large stockpile of trees, the immigrants will be there for a few days.

'To be honest, it's frustrating,' Brooks says of the never-ending battle with smugglers. 'I'll have to go back tonight and figure out how to raid this one.'