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Hong Kong environmental issues

Tree pruners ‘lacked common sense’ in work which led to 21 egrets dying in protected area

Official report on incident in Tai Po exposes multiple shortcomings in government’s tree management work

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 December, 2017, 7:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 December, 2017, 7:03am

Five tree pruners with the Hong Kong government failed to show common sense or sufficient awareness of wildlife protection in an operation which contributed to the deaths of 21 egret chicks in a protected habitat, according to an official report on the incident.

That conclusion was revealed on Friday after five months of investigations by four managers involved in tree management work for the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

It came with an admission that the department, which was in charge of the pruning operation, did not possess a database of wildlife protection areas in the city or any guidelines on the issue for its tree management work.

But landscape architect Patrick Lau Hing-tat said the report still left one request by the industry unaddressed, which was to set up an official arborist licensing system.

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“Guidelines are never enough to cover all sorts of possibilities arising from real-life practices,” Lau said. “Individuals should be held professionally responsible to prevent such things happening again.”

The department carried out the pruning work on Kwong Fuk Road in Tai Po in June, causing the hatchlings, along with some eggs, to fall from branches.

The site is within Tai Po Market Egretry, the city’s second largest habitat for egrets and home to more than 150 nests.

The department’s investigation panel said the team of four, headed by a “senior artisan”, conducted the pruning in the absence of the team’s supervisor, who had surveyed the site earlier and scheduled the operation, but could not attend due to urgent matters.

“The team should have exercised common sense and awareness on wild animal protection and should have stopped the work when they noticed that the nests ... would be affected,” the panel said.

They concluded that the pruning work fell “far below” basic standards, resulting in over-pruning and increased harm to the nests.

Tree-pruning blunder that killed 21 baby egrets in Hong Kong could have been prevented by official licensing scheme

The panel said that if the supervisor had rescheduled the operation so he could supervise, the impact could have been minimised.

Investigators recommended the department obtain information of local wildlife protection zones, alert district-based teams to that information and remind them to be careful of wildlife when working.

The panel also suggested the department improve its tree management guidelines to bring them into line with the government’s nature conservation policies, and enhance staff training and study.

Lau said the report showed “sincerity” from the government in improving the situation, but relied too much on internal guidelines.

Hong Kong bird expert fears for egret chicks with 12 now dead after pruning operation

He said there should be an official licensing system for experts in charge of tree management and an accompanying penalty system, including licence suspensions, so arborists could be held personally responsible for any mishandling and would actively work to prevent such incidents.

“Tree pruning is a profession and needs very professional knowledge,” Lau said. “A licensing system will not only hold individuals accountable, but also encourage them to actively improve themselves.”