CRIME

Hong Kong customs seizes 92 tonnes of endangered rosewood

HK$3 million haul is biggest seized in the cityin a decade. Two people have been arrested

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 December, 2014, 4:07am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 December, 2014, 11:24am

Customs officers have smashed the city's biggest illegal wood-smuggling case in a decade, seizing some 92 tonnes of an endangered species commonly known as Honduras rosewood.

The haul, revealed yesterday, was worth HK$3 million and was found in four cargo containers which arrived in the city from Guatemala via Mexico. A husband, 52, and wife, 54, from Tuen Mun have been arrested but no one has yet been charged.

The announcement - which comes exactly a week after customs announced its biggest ever seizure of methamphetamine - again puts the spotlight on the city's role as a transshipment centre for a range of contraband.

While timber may make for an unlikely cargo for smugglers, the increasing scarcity of some species make it a profitable venture. Rosewood is a popular choice for high-end furniture and flooring in Hong Kong and the mainland, but the number of trees has declined markedly and trade in some species is restricted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

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Customs divisional commander Wong Wai-hung said the bust on November 26 was the result of a "risk assessment" on the shipment. After the seizure, officers traced the origins of the consignment and the companies involved, leading them to a trading company run by the couple.

The shipment had been mislabelled as plastic waste in an attempt to mislead the authorities, said Eddie Lee Man-lok, commander of customs' special investigation division.

In May, 640 tonnes of rosewood bound for Hong Kong was seized in Kenya. In April, Shenzhen authorities picked up 660kg of rosewood from Myanmar, smuggled via Hong Kong.

China has long been considered the epicentre of the illegal timber trade, with Hong Kong often a convenient gateway due to the city's status as a free port. As much as 30 per cent of the city's timber imports were from illegal sources, a 2010 report by WWF Hong Kong found.

"Illegal logging represents not only a loss of resources for local communities at source countries … but is associated with violence and human rights abuses, with forest communities often threatened and displaced in the process," said Wilson Lau, a project manager and researcher at think tank Civic Exchange. "Demand from Hong Kong and China plays an important part in causing this kind of devastation. International trade makes all players in the value chain complicit."