Life thrives outside the concrete jungle

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 April, 1998, 12:00am


Clouds of mosquitoes, an endless diet of instant noodles and sleepless nights under canvas failed to deter a team of researchers who spent months laying animal traps, catching insects and collecting plants from remote corners of Hong Kong.

After two years of field work, the first Hong Kong-wide biodiversity survey, which began in 1996, is bearing fruit and should challenge the prevailing view that polluted Hong Kong is a trash heap with little worth preserving.

Scientists hope it will highlight Hong Kong's ecology - the relationship between living organisms and their habitat - and our ultimate dependence on our environment, from which high-density urban living has divorced us.

The study's botanist, Professor William Xing Fuwu of the South China Institute of Botany, has unearthed 100 plant species new to Hong Kong, two new to China, and one being studied that may be new to science.

Most of the insects found represent new SAR records and 'dozens at least' are new to science, according to Dr Richard Corlett, senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong's Department of Ecology and Biodiversity.

While there are no new mammal discoveries - the animal group best studied worldwide - the survey has revealed a surprising range of wild boar, barking deer, civets and a host of rodents.

Now the scientists at the University of Hong Kong heading the $3.8 million study plan to expand its focus to include 'little critters' such as moss and fungi.

There could be more than 1.5 million species of fungi worldwide, and yet this huge resource - which contains potential new drugs, a host of edible mushrooms and even pollution indicators - has hardly been cataloged, let alone exploited, according to mycologist Dr Kevin Hyde.

More than 95 per cent of the world's fungi are unknown, and those in the tropics are the least studied.

Dr Hyde, who will examine the diversity of fungi in selected areas as part of the ongoing biodiversity work, says there is a good chance of finding fungi with potential as antibiotics. Among the 20 best-selling types of drugs, three are derived from fungi.

'Fungi are extra important because of their ability to produce novel compounds - antibiotics,' Dr Hyde says. Cyclosporin, an immunosuppressant widely used in transplant operations, comes from fungi.

Scientists have long known that plants contain useful ingredients, but only in recent decades have they realised ecosystems such as rainforests are massive repositories of information.

Fung shui woods may turn out to be Hong Kong's richest ecological storehouses, as it was among these 300-odd remaining village woodlands that researchers stumbled upon some of the best 'biodiversity hotspots'.

Biodiversity, the ecological buzzword of the 1990s, has barely caused a ripple in Hong Kong, where a forest of tinted glass and concrete has pushed nature out of sight and largely out of mind. The study could change all that.

Simply put, biodiversity - a contraction of biological diversity - means the world's rich medley of living organisms. Or as Roger Kitching, Foundation Professor of Ecology at Queensland's Griffith University, calls it, 'the thin layer of protoplasm that coats this planet'.

The professor, who has been studying rainforest insects in Australasia for more than a decade, says arguably the most surprising discovery of the survey is the survival of Hong Kong's original plantlife. 'There is just about the diversity of trees here that I would expect for an undisturbed rainforest in this area.' Although they are not as mature as those in pristine rainforests, their existence suggests 'extraordinary' endurance.

'It says something about the resilience of those species - their ability to withstand change over a very long period of time,' he says.

Indeed, the results reveal Hong Kong supports more species than many much larger countries, Dr Corlett says.

'It should be impossible now for anyone to say that there is nothing worth preserving,' he says. 'The main importance of the study should be to remove ignorance as an excuse for ecological damage. We know what is rare, we know what is important.' Despite the encouraging findings, Professor Kitching says there is no room for complacency anywhere in the world, particularly when it comes to mammals, birds and reptiles - 'anything edible, dangerous and saleable'. The tigers and leopards which once roamed Hong Kong are a case in point.

Now the inventory has begun - a commitment under the International Convention on Biodiversity - scientists must identify the factors instrumental in preservation and how to ensure no further loss.

Professor Kitching points to Hong Kong's mountainous topography, its network of country parks and fung shui woods as inadvertent saviours of biodiversity. 'The key is going to be the future of the [country] parks, the future development of fringe areas around country parks, especially in the New Territories, which at the moment are buffer zones.' However, some biodiversity 'hotspots' lie outside country parks: fung shui woods, freshwater wetlands, lowland streams and coastal areas largely unprotected and threatened by development.

Without connections between protected areas, species cannot intermingle, which is essential to retaining genetic diversity.

Professor Kitching has argued for a redefinition of conservation based on a wider biodiversity ethic which embraces the 'little critters' - the insects, fungi and micro-organisms that have so far been overshadowed by 'charismatic megafauna'.

Insects represent the overwhelming bulk of biodiversity on Earth, numbering anywhere between 12 and 80 million species. They are the unsung heroes of the forest, the ecological thread binding it together by dispersing seeds, pollinating flowers and recycling nutrients. 'Without which,' Professor Kitching says, 'the forest would cease to operate.' Yet only 1.25 million species of insect have been identified. Instead, conservation dollars and research efforts are focused on 'flagship species' - tigers, pandas and elephants - which protagonists argue will also protect their habitat.

Professor Kitching warns this is no guarantee of habitat preservation and that, to fulfil international commitments on biodiversity conservation, a wider approach is required.

'We are protecting pandas and bears and that is OK - but you could win the battle and lose the war,' he warns.

Conserving all biodiversity - including not-so-cuddly plants and insects - could prove easier and in the longer term more economically beneficial to humans than struggling against cultural values which see tigers as more valuable dead than alive.

'You don't have to change a positive perception of them, and that is a very big difference,' he says.

Even if scientific or philosophical arguments falter, the economic imperative for preserving biodiversity makes sense. The journal Nature recently estimated the annual cost of natural resources exploited worldwide at US$1.4 trillion (HK$10.8 trillion).

'These things we are getting for free,' Professor Kitching says. 'If we cut down the trees they will no longer be available to us. For entirely selfish human concerns, if for no other, we had better look at preserving it.' Plants produced the basis for drugs such as aspirin and the contraceptive pill, while insects such as ants may contain chemicals for a new generation of antibiotics that could prove crucial as resistance to existing drugs spreads.

Yet the 305 million hectares of Asia's rainforests are disappearing at a rate of 1.82 million hectares a year, much cleared without its biodiversity ever being assessed.

This is true of China's rainforests, and Professor Kitching, who has led volunteer Earthwatch expeditions in Australasian rainforests for a decade, is planning a survey of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan next year.

Hong Kong scientists are also taking a keen interest in mainland ecology. Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden experts have carried out intensive surveys of nine reserves in Guanxi, Guangdong and Hainan Island. Not only have they added to the reserves' species list, but many discoveries may be new to science.

Kadoorie Farm is also raising awareness about the local ecology by pioneering workshops for schoolchildren using their wildlife displays, which include a butterfly garden, an insect house, a reptile collection and a raptor sanctuary.

Ecologists have a pivotal role to play in spreading the message, argues Professor Kitching, both by highlighting their discoveries and being part of the Government's decision-making process.

'We have to develop a 'can do' approach. If we price ourselves out of the market or say it is too hard, we will simply be sidelined by decision-makers, and that would be a mistake,' he says.

'Apart from anything else it is our world they are messing with.'