Warning that giant banyan tree was dangerous ignored

Officials were told supports for giant banyan were too weak but they failed to act, sources say

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 5:12am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 8:13am

The collapse of a giant banyan tree in Hong Kong Park on Tuesday could perhaps have been avoided if the government had not ignored expert advice.

The 18-metre heritage tree, which was next to a greenhouse, luckily did not hit anyone but did crash through the roof.

"The tree supports were too weak, with two thin cables tied to two very weak trees. One of the supporting trees was eaten up by termites," said a source close to the Architectural Services Department, which managed the tree.

Sources close to the department and a member of the Tree Management Office's expert panel confirmed that both had found the tree was dangerous.

The panel member and a department consultant warned last December that the tree was a risk to the public but their advice was ignored.

The department yesterday declined to explain why no action was taken. But it said trees near the fallen one had been inspected and no problem detected.

A South China Morning Post check of the tree in April found a large hole covered in fungus at the base of the tree and it was leaning towards the path.

The government said it was suspected that the tree was infected with brown root rot.

While blaming the collapse on the heavy rain over the past two days, it said the last inspection of the tree in August had found no signs of a significant decline in the tree's health.

An expert panel member said the government had been advised late last year to ensure the tree was properly supported. Panel members also discussed ways to strengthen the support during a site visit last year.

Contractors yesterday struggled to remove the huge base and roots of the tree, while taking no obvious precautions to prevent the spread of the disease.

Fungi specialist at Chinese University, Professor Chiu Siu-wai, criticised the government for playing down the tree's disease and the removal workers for not ensuring the disease did not spread to nearby trees.

While the Tree Management Office said it had been trying to manage the disease - including asking Chinese University to study how to use a biological agent to improve the sick trees - Chiu said the office had not been open to other solutions. She said a pesticide she had tested could save the infected trees.

The disease has claimed at least 19 trees classified as old and valuable since July last year, when an infected tree fell on Park Lane Shopper's Boulevard in Tsim Sha Tsui, injuring five pedestrians.