2020-04-13 12:18:50

HUBEI, Central China — Just as Wuhan is slowly emerging from its fight with the deadly coronavirus, the central Chinese city is now waging another war against an infectious disease that could destroy its pine trees.

The city’s foresters are rushing to stop the spread of the pine wood nematode — a pest that causes pine wilt disease, which is transmitted by sawyer beetles — after weeks of disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The nonnative pest, which turns pine needles brown and eventually kills the trees, was first discovered in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing in 1982 and has now spread to 18 provinces, threatening around 1 billion acres of pine forests.

On Thursday, branches cut from the infected pine trees were placed in batches at the city’s crowdless East Lake Scenic Area. A manager overseeing the work told Sixth Tone that the local government had contracted his company to exterminate trees in the area infected with the pine wood nematode during the winter — a task that was ultimately hindered by COVID-19.

“We cleared all the trees on the mountain and brought the branches here to exterminate together,” said the manager, Yue Cheng, from a bio-agriculture company in the nearby city of Xianning. “It’s like (COVID-19): If you don’t isolate one ‘patient,’ it will infect others.”

According to the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, eight of the 13 districts in Wuhan — including the East Lake area — have been designated “epidemic-stricken areas” affected by the pine wilt disease.

A spokesman at Wuhan’s forestry bureau told Sixth Tone that the city has been threatened by the pests since 2002, and all of Wuhan’s pine-covered areas have been infected. Each year, forestry workers identify infected trees beginning in November and carry out large-scale extermination at the start of the new year.

“The impact of the pandemic has been immense for us,” said the official, who declined to be named. He added that COVID-19 had delayed their work. “If the dead trees are not exterminated until April 20, the beetles in those trees will hatch and infect the other areas, killing healthy trees.”

Last April, over 340,000 trees infected with pine wilt disease were exterminated in Wuhan, according to local media. Earlier this month, the city government said most districts and companies had resumed operations to finish their tasks in a timely manner.

With work resuming April 1, Yue said his team is now under immense pressure to complete their jobs. He added that workers usually have two months to destroy the infected trees before sawyer beetles begin to emerge in late April.

A worker surnamed Xiao told Sixth Tone they had worked from dawn to dusk to cut down infected trees in the East Lake area and burn them after sunset.

“We’ve cut (branches of) some 100 trees every day for the past 11 days, so there should be over 1,000 trees here,” Xiao said Thursday, referring to the batches of tree branches.

Yue said that given the urgency of the situation, rather than just cutting off and chopping up infected branches, they’ve chosen to burn them, a common and quicker practice to eliminate contagion. He may also hire more workers to expedite the process in the East Lake area by April 20.

“I’ve hired 30 people here now,” Yue said. “In the past, 10 people would have sufficed. … It’ll be tricky if there are rainy days.”

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Workers burn the branches of pine wilt-infected trees in Wuhan, Hubei province, April 9, 2020. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)