Hatchlings killed during tree pruning session at prime Hong Kong bird habitat

Officials from Leisure and Cultural Services Department apologise for incident, but Kadoorie Farm says criminal and negligent behaviour was clearly involved

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 June, 2017, 1:28am

More than a dozen hatchlings were dislodged from their nests and killed or ­injured during a tree pruning operation at one of Hong Kong’s prime bird habitats in what could be a criminal act.

The hatchlings, along with some eggs, are believed to have fallen from the branches when workers from the Leisure and ­Cultural Services Department (LCSD) were pruning trees at a wooded area on Kwong Fuk Road near Wan Tau Kok Lane, a site next to the old Tai Po police ­station.

The site is the city’s second largest habitat for egrets and ­accommodates 151 nests.

Kadoorie Farm, which runs a conservation and education centre in the New Territories, said it had ­received 15 birds for rescue and rehabilitation. “Among the birds, five were dead on arrival, one was euthanised due to its serious condition and nine remain alive and under intensive care,” it said.

The rescued species included Chinese pond herons, black-capped night herons and little and great egrets.

The farm said conservation staff were “shocked and outraged” that the tree pruning work was planned and allowed to go ahead at a known protected breeding site for the birds in the breeding season.

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“We hope that a full investigation will be undertaken and responsible persons held to account for what was clearly criminal and negligent behaviour,” it said, adding that current procedures for such roadside pruning should be reviewed to ensure that a similar event does not happen again.

It also noted that it was illegal to disturb or injure wild birds or destroy their nests and eggs under the Wild Animals Protection ­Ordinance.

The Hong Kong Birdwatching Society also “strongly condemned” the department, accusing it of disregarding the lives of the egrets and ignoring the wild animals law.

The society’s conservation officer, Woo Ming-chuan, said a pedestrian tried but failed to stop the workers when they were seen at the site on Tuesday.

Police, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were later alerted.

Why didn’t they stop the pruning even after they were notified?
Woo Ming-chuan, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society

Woo said the young birds and eggs were found scattered among the cut branches and foliage on the ground.

“We are very disappointed about what this government department has done. Why didn’t they know the site is an egret habitat? Why didn’t they stop the pruning even after they were notified [by the pedestrian]?” Woo said.

Michelle Law, a page manager for hkwildlife.net who rescued two egrets and one night heron at the site, questioned the pruning decision and method.

“The area is part of the well-known Tai Po egret colony. Plus now is the birds’ breeding season. How could the LCSD decide to cut trees there at this moment? And the cuts were made so close to the trunk and nests. This is problematic.”

Law suggested banning pruning in breeding seasons and offering more public education on living with wildlife.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department explained in two statements on Tuesday and Wednesday that the pruning was conducted in response to a public request to remove overgrown branches at the site. It added that it acted to ensure public safety.

The department said that by the time it received a request from the fisheries department to immediately stop the pruning, the workers had already completed the job and left the site.

“The department deeply apologises for the possible disturbance to the birds at the site due to the pruning,” it said.

In another statement on Wednesday, the department said it was taking serious steps to investigate and follow up on the case, adding that it had contacted the Development Bureau’s Tree Management Office. The office had issued emails on pruning matters to all tree management staff, instructing them to observe if wild animal protection was involved.

The department further reminded all tree team staff to heighten their attention to the matters.

Woo said the Tai Po egret habitat had been a subject of complaints from some residents who were upset by bird droppings. She believed this could be related to the incident on Tuesday.

Tai Po district councillor Lau Yung-wai also told the media that the pruning was a result of a public complaint about bird droppings.

However Samantha Fong, who commutes along Kwong Fuk Road, dismissed the bird-dropping claim. “I don’t think the problem is really serious. No need to use an umbrella. I still haven’t had a chance to win the jackpot [by being hit by bird droppings]. And there are not many pedestrians at that location.”

The Tai Po resident has put her name to a signature campaign to denounce the department.

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Woo said the Civil Engineering and Development Department, which previously managed the trees in the area, had been amenable when the society suggested doing the pruning before or after the egret breeding season from March to August.

The society urged the LCSD to conduct a thorough investigation and give an explanation to the public while ensuring that no such cases happened again.

This was the second apology issued by the department in a week. Last Wednesday, culture officials apologised for cutting the Gregorian calendar widely used in Taiwan out of an archived newspaper page on display at an exhibition to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its music office. The editing of the image drew accusations of self-censorship and a disrespect for history.

Additional reporting by Clifford Lo and Sue Su