Hong Kong is facing a huge influx of illegal red sandalwood, with 26 tonnes of the timber worth about HK$40 million seized from smugglers last year - 100 times the amount seized in 2012.
Early last month, customs officers confiscated 10 tonnes of suspected red sandalwood, worth about HK$15 million, hidden in a container shipped from India. Then on June 19, some 850kg of the wood, worth about HK$1.2 million, was found aboard a mainland-bound speedboat that was chased down by customs.
In the whole of 2012, just 260kg of the wood was seized, and in 2011 just 360kg. Last year's figure was the highest in five years.
Red sandalwood is known as "red gold" due to its high value, and has long been prized in China for furniture and carvings. But overexploitation of the species, which is found only in a few areas of India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, has led to it being declared endangered.
A government source told the Post that "all the seized logs were believed to be destined for the mainland", where growing affluence was fuelling demand.
"The wood can be bought for less than HK$100 per kilogram on the black market in India," he said. "After it is smuggled into the mainland, it is sold for as much as HK$1,500 per kilogram."
Red sandalwood is listed as endangered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. As such, a spokesman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said: "The timber must not be imported or exported without a licence."
Chong Wai-ming, head of customs' syndicate crimes investigation bureau, said last year's huge haul prompted customs to work with Indian authorities and exchange intelligence to curb smuggling. The 10-tonne shipment seized last month was a result of that intelligence work.
"The container was declared to be carrying machines," he said. "When officers opened the container for inspection, the timber was found packed inside."
Last year's haul included three containers that had been shipped into the city with red sandalwood hidden inside. "These containers were declared to be carrying low-value products, such as waste paper, in an attempt to disguise the true contents and avoid detection," Chong said.
Air routes were also being used, he added. "Couriers were recruited to carry small logs of red sandalwood in their luggage to smuggle the timber into Hong Kong by plane," he said.
Last year, customs arrested 28 people in connection with the smuggling of red sandalwood. It is understood most of them were intercepted at the airport.
Customs have stepped up inspections at the airport and on shipping cargo, Chong said.
As well as the red sandalwood hauls, last month saw 790kg of ivory seized at Chek Lap Kok and three tonnes of pangolin scales worth HK$17 million found hidden in shipping containers. Pangolins are an endangered anteater whose large keratin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Despite these seizures, a Customs and Excise Department spokeswoman said: "There is no evidence or intelligence indicating that Hong Kong has become a transit point for the smuggling of endangered species."
A spokesman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said confiscated red sandalwood was handled under international guidelines, which allow its use for scientific, educational, enforcement or identification purposes.
The department had been working with local and overseas agencies to combat the trade in endangered species, he added.
The maximum penalty for importing red sandalwood without a licence is a HK$500,000 fine and one year in jail.