Smugglers snared with haul of medicinal trees

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 September, 2008, 12:00am

Sea arrests expose new target for mainland gangs

Police suspect mainland tree smugglers have turned their sights on new targets after officers intercepted a speedboat loaded with stolen medicinal trees.

The 7-metre craft, crewed by three mainlanders, was loaded with 25 China box trees.

Marine police swooped on the craft after seeing an object one officer described as looking like a floating clump of mangroves off Sai Kung.

While the theft of 'fung shui trees' and incense trees is common, officials say this is the first recorded theft of a medicinal tree.

The tree (scientific name Murraya paniculata) is also known as kemuning or orange jasmine and is used to make herbal medicine.

Each tree can fetch HK$10,000 on the mainland.

The boat was seen travelling without navigation lights 3 nautical miles east of Conic Island at about 11pm on Sunday and two inflatable police boats were sent to check it.

The crew of the boat refused to stop, and the boat sped off into the darkness. The mainland-registered speedboat was stopped after a five-minute chase.

The 25 trees seized were 1 to 2 metres tall.

'The root, fruit and leaves of this tree can be used to make medicine for external and internal use,' marine police senior inspector Lau King-lun said.

The tree was used for medicine to treat stomach ache, toothache, diarrhoea and snake bites, he said.

Hong Kong Chinese Herbalists Association president Kwan Chi-yee said medicine made from such trees was commonly used to heal stomach ache and rheumatic aches.

'It is commonly used by Chinese herbalists, but it's not an expensive herb,' he said.

Marine Police Superintendent John Cameron said it was the first time tree poachers had been caught with this type of tree in Hong Kong.

'We know it's not Buddhist pine and it's not one of those incense trees. It's a new variety of tree poaching in Hong Kong,' Mr Cameron said.

Samples will be sent to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department for confirmation the trees are China box. Officers are trying to determine from where the trees were taken.

Senior Inspector Lau said they could have come from country parks on Hong Kong Island or Lantau Island.

Last night, the three men were still being held for questioning.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said Murraya paniculata was common in Hong Kong and was not endangered.

So far this year, two tree poaching cases have been reported and five illegal immigrants from the mainland arrested. Last year, 106 illegal immigrants were arrested in connection with 28 similar cases involving Buddhist pines and incense trees.

Buddhist pines, known as fung shui trees, are used as decorative plants and fetch a high price on the mainland. Incense trees - their scientific name is Aquilaria sinensis - are valued because the bark, wood and leaves are used to make incense.