Tragedy for incense trees

Tragedy for incense trees

Agarwood logging is a serious conservation issue


Agarwood Logging_L
Photos: Joyee Chan & Ho Pui-han
A gap in the dense roadside bushes near Mui Wo's Man Mo Temple opens to a scene of carnage. Large sandy holes and freshly-cut stumps dot the forest ground where as many as 1,000 incense trees, or Aquilaria sinensis, stood until last year. The attackers have already fled with their prize back to the mainland by speedboat, leaving only a few stacks of less valuable logs and three pairs of muddied shoes behind.

Young Post and a dozen nature lovers saw the damage first-hand, visiting the woods on a guided tour organised by environmentalist Ho Pui-han earlier this month.

Ho says the damage to the area's incense trees, listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Category-II-protected in China, is already done. Ho, who has been working to protect Lantau Island's countryside for more than 10 years, says all she can do now is try to save other forests from preying hands.

The tree's fragrant wood, agarwood, is dubbed the "gold of trees" on the mainland. Agarwood is formed when the plant secretes a scented resin to defend itself against the attack of a wood-decaying fungus, which infects the tree through its wounds when it gets damaged. Agarwood is used to make sculptures, Buddhist beads, perfumes and cigarettes. One gram of agarwood is said to cost as much as 10,000 yuan (HK$12,580). Businessmen can therefore make a big profit - they reportedly pay 500 yuan per day for loggers to cross the border to harvest the wood.

Over the past 10 years, prices for agarwood have skyrocketed. "But it has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the wood," says Jim Chi-yung, a tree expert at the University of Hong Kong. "It's pure flipping." In other words, the wood is bought and quickly resold for profit.

The agarwood craze has caused illegal loggers to wipe out incense trees on the mainland. So they have now turned to Hong Kong.

In the past, loggers slashed the tree or ripped off branches to increase the chances of an infection. They would mark the tree's location and return a year later. If they cut the plant open to find no agarwood, it would be left to die. "It's brutal," says Jim.

But now Ho says the loggers have less patience. They take whatever incense tree they find - with or without agarwood.

The government hasn't done enough to protect the species, says Ho. "The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department [AFCD] still sees the tree as a common species," she says. "The data is 10 years old and the locations are inaccurate."

That's why she has been working with a University of Hong Kong professor and volunteers to record standing and fallen incense trees this year. By presenting their findings to the police and the AFCD, they hope to improve law enforcement.

Ho has also initiated an online petition to push the government to conduct an extensive tree survey, boost law enforcement and ban the sale of incense-tree-related goods.

The tours she runs to the logging site in Mui Wo help the public understand the severity of the issue.

When the trees bear fruit this summer, Ho will collect seeds and try to plant them in a safe site. Hopefully in the future, she says, Hongkongers will be able to see more living incense trees in the countryside than dead ones.

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