Calling for More Tree Surgeons

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Shortage of tree experts hamper management of Hong Kong’s urban trees

Reporters: Johanna Chan, Iris Yeung, Howard Li

Editor: Nannerl Yau

Trees can be deadly if they are not managed properly. In 2014, a tree in Mid-Levels fell and killed a pregnant passerby. Accidents and fatal falls such as this one have brought the issue of tree maintenance and safety to public attention in recent years.

The government began to catalogue urban trees in 2013, creating an inventory to assess the locations and condition of the trees. More than 1,500 trees have been removed in the past three years as a result. The number of injuries caused by trees has decreased, with no major injuries recorded during this time.

Despite concerns about both public safety and the need to protect the city’s trees, the government has ruled out the drafting of a Tree Law. In February, Development Secretary Michael Wong Wai-lun told lawmakers this was due to a lack of tree experts, especially arborists.

The decision highlights the limited development of Hong Kong’s arboriculture industry, despite signs of growth of in the past few years.

Increasing public awareness of and interest in tree health means there are now more people interested in aboriculture. Organisations, such as the International Society of Arborists (ISA) Hong Kong Chapter, conduct school visits and host tree activity days for children, interested individuals, and families.

Ian Robinson, the vice-president of the ISA Hong Kong Chapter, says one of the reasons behind the shortage of tree experts is people’s perception of the field.

“It isn’t that sort of thing that parents would generally encourage. They don’t want to see their sons and daughters working in the landscaping industries,” he says.

Robinson thinks more will value the profession once people understand it’s a career with prospects.

There are some encouraging signs, for instance there has been a recent increase in students attending higher education courses related to tree risk assessments.

Caroline Law Man-yee, a teaching fellow at the Department of Environment, Faculty of Design and Environment at THEi, says she sees a steady growth in the enrollment numbers in her department’s four year programme in horticulture and landscape management. Law says she is pleased that newcomers are joining the sector after seeing its growth potential.

The duties of tree management staff include performing regular check-ups on trees, pruning and chainsaw operation. They are also required to have knowledge in plant botany and biology in order to determine whether a tree is living healthily in its environment.

But Chiu Siu-wai, a retired professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who is also a tree expert, says the starting salaries for budding arborists are too low. She thinks the government needs to do more to improve their career prospects.

The arboriculture industry was incorporated into the Qualifications Framework in 2015. This means tree management staff can better map out their futures in the arboriculture field, whether as frontline staff or in management.

Anna Yau Wai-yu, the tree management program manager at HKU SPACE says that using competency levels to categorize staff with different amounts of training helps those in the sector to see where they are, and what they need to learn to achieve a higher professional standard.

“Those who want to enter the industry will know clearly what the job requires, and if they want to work in this industry, and they need to train or study, this will make it clearer to them,” she says.