For years, trees have been disappearing from outside the Lamma Island flat of Natalie Belbin and Shaun Martin. Strange men would appear at all hours of the day to cut into or cut down these spindly trees with dark green leaves.

The couple have lived on the island since 2011, and have been observing the gradual disappearance of the rare foliage that surrounds them.

“That whole spot was covered in trees. It was so covered that we couldn’t see [the next] village. We couldn’t even see a light,” Belbin said. “It was an amazing forest. It was stunning and then year by year as months went by, [the poachers] just kept coming back.”

Incense tree Lamma
Photo: Erin Hale.

What was equally alarming was how these mystery men seemed to monitor them. The pair witnessed one poacher cut down a tree as they were out walking their dog, and noticed more questionable behaviour that they reported to the police.

But approaching local officers turned out to be frustrating, as quite often they failed to understand the significance of the crime, or even where their community of Tai Wan New Village was located.

Police often couldn’t immediately grasp that the trees being cut down were not just ordinary flora but a variety of aquilaria, or “incense tree,” a highly sought after but vulnerable species protected by local law and listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The trees grow across Hong Kong but their numbers are dwindling as poachers cash in on global demand.

Lamma trees poachers
Photo: Erin Hale.

This is according to global aquilaria expert Dr Joel Jurgens, who has conducted research on trees that produce agarwood for more than 20 years, and believes Hong Kong to be riddled with misguided poachers with “agarwood fever.”

In a bid to get rich quick, they hack away at endangered trees using ineffective methods.

According to Jurgens, “People [who] think they are going to make money off of something that isn’t there just compounds how ridiculous this [behaviour] is.” He described the activity of agarwood harvesting as “awful.”

Wood worth more than gold

Hong Kong’s name “香港” – meaning “Fragrant Harbour” is said to have derived from the incense trees that were once numerous across southern China. The tree species has been coveted across Asia and the Middle East since ancient times.

Poachers through the centuries have hankered after its internal, resin-rich wood, distinct aromatic fragrance and alleged medicinal properties.

Often referred to as agarwood, it can be distilled into oil, carved into sculptures or beads, used as medicine, or burned as incense. It is now a popular perfume ingredient for luxury brands including Tom Ford and Yves St. Laurent.

Lamma trees
Photo: Erin Hale.

The global industry attached to agarwood is worth around HK$50 billion, according to Asia Plantation Capital, an international plantation company.

While incense trees are grown legally on plantations in Hong Kong and elsewhere, much of the global trade is still derived from black market harvests.

Jurgens has written about the trade for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. He estimated that a kilogram of agarwood can fetch as much as HK$80,000 – HK$150,000, while oil can go for as much as HK$400, 000, although prices vary depending on quality and variety, much like wine.

But as lucrative as agarwood can be, it’s just as fickle. In the wild, it appears in five per cent of incense trees as a defence against external wounds or infection, rather like scar tissue. On farms, workers deliberately wound the trees, a practice that the Lamma poachers have tried to imitate for years.

Police outnumbered and out-manoeuvred

Fewer than 100 incense trees are left on Lamma, according to the Hong Kong’s Association for the Ecological and Cultural Conservation of aquilaria Sinensis, but they are difficult for the island’s handful of police to protect as they are scattered across 13 square kilometres of hilly terrain.

Instead, the Lamma police’s strategy has been to deal with instances of poaching as and when they are reported. There is no large-scale investigation underway.

Police told HKFP that they had not seen “information suggesting [there had been] any organised tree poaching activities on Lamma Island.” Police also reported a single suspected theft in 2018 despite numerous calls from residents.

Lamma trees
Photo: Natalie Belbin.

Similar numbers hold across Hong Kong. Only one person has been arrested for incense tree theft in 2018. But 31 cases were reported over the same period. Numbers have been falling since a high point of 65 arrests in 2014.

That decline can be attributed as much to the “declining stock” of mature trees as it can to police efforts, according to a recent report by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD).

The department has been experimenting with the use of camera traps to monitor incense trees in country parks. But it ultimately concluded that these cameras were too  “costly” and “labour intensive.” Its latest solution has been to fence off the trees with metallic guards.

Agarwood fever

Elsewhere – outside of Asia – more creative solutions have been found. Jurgens describes how people abroad have been encouraged to plant and harvest their own trees. Another long-term solution would be to let poachers know that their efforts are mostly in vain.

Belbin and Martin reported that their local poachers would cut at the trees before slowly chopping them down. Inducing agarwood, however, takes deep wounds, according to Jurgens. In places like Thailand, farmers will hammer hundreds if not thousands of nails into a tree to induce agarwood.

Lamma trees
Photo: Erin Hale.

“The people that are doing this in Hong Kong, they don’t understand what’s going on. They don’t know that these trees do not have agarwood, they just know these trees have the potential to produce agarwood,” Jurgens said.

Poacher profiles

Trying to figure out who has been cutting the trees down has been a maddening endeavour in such a close-knit community as Lamma, Martin said. Residents continue to wonder whether the poachers are locals or enterprising outsiders.

During a recent incident in October, Belbin and Martin noticed that their local Cantonese-speaking poachers seemed to be using a “VV,” a small vehicle used by workers on the otherwise car-free island.

The couple also recently found a site for butchering the trees in a local cemetery, a short walk from their house. Left behind were two jackets, an empty pack of Chinese cigarettes and hundreds of pieces of freshly chopped, resin-free wood.

And the tree maiming continues.

Last weekend, the stump of an incense tree sealed by the AFCD was hacked at again by poachers who had been hoping to get at its final remains. They worry the entire tree will soon be gone.

Erin Hale is a freelance journalist based in Taiwan writing for Al Jazeera, Voice of America, the BBC and more. She was previously based in Hong Kong and Cambodia.