Learn from nature
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Finding activities that can keep children occupied and happy for long periods can be easy when they are toddlers, but when they have grown up to become more independent and inquisitive, an opportunity to explore new things in a free and safe environment could be just what they need.
Families who live in a concrete jungle like Hong Kong often long for fresh air and to be close to nature. Apart from the much-loved Ocean Park, the newest place which offers a chance to explore nature and wildlife is the Hong Kong Wetland Park, where families can spend a day becoming familiar with rare and unique types of birds and sea creatures, and stroll along marshes, fishponds, mudflats, streams and mangrove beds while learning about wetland environments and their conservation.
Located far from the polluted city centre in Tin Shui Wai, the New Territories, the park opened in May last year and is Hong Kong's first major ecotourism facility aimed at promoting green tourism and education on environmental protection and wetland conservation.
It includes a visitor centre of about 10,000 square metres with exhibition galleries and an outdoor park of 60 hectares containing the habitats of various wildlife. It is expected to help position Hong Kong as the premier destination for family tourism in the region. Up to the end of 2005, the area had played host to 191 species of birds, 39 species of dragonflies, 113 species of butterflies, 10 species of fish, nine species of amphibians, nine species of reptiles and nine mammal species.
For those who have yet to see the new attraction, a walk around the whole park could take from a few hours to a whole day, depending on what you would like to include in the trip.
An easy way to see the different wetland habitats and learn about the life of wetland plants and animals is to join the 'Know More' guided tour, which is designed for individual visitors. They have the choice of taking the tour named 'Know More about the Nature Reserve' to learn about wetland habitats, and the 'Thematic Know More' seasonal tours which revolve around wetland plants and animals, such as birds, dragonflies and butterflies.
Hong Kong families may regard Pui Pui, a saltwater crocodile found in a river in northwest New Territories in 2003, as a must-see. The crocodile, which evaded croc-hunters from Australia and China for seven months, is believed to have been an illegal home-kept pet released into the river after she grew too big. She is now living in a 72-square-metre outdoor enclosure incorporating a landscaped pool area.
Different wildlife will visit the park in different seasons. Autumn, winter and the beginning of spring are the best times to see the different natural scenery and creatures in different corners of the park, according to Edmond Lam Yui-fong, executive director of Hong Kong Wetland Park.
'Towards the end of a season, many birds will migrate to other places. The peak time for bird watching is in December and January, while July and August are the best times for seeing water plants and creatures such as crabs and fish of rare species, as well as insects like butterflies and dragonflies,' he explains.
During summer, when the weather may get too hot for touring outdoors, visitors can spend more time inside the various galleries, which reveal the ecosystems of wetlands around the world, and the importance of wetlands to wildlife, with vividly designed exhibits and experiments.
'Living Wetland' introduces wetlands throughout the world, from the poles to the tropics, in a variety of forms. 'Frozen North' allows visitors to discover the diversity of the northern tundra. The way the various species adapt to their surroundings is explained, as well as stories of mass migration and major bird migratory routes.
In the 'Tropical Swamp' gallery, steam hovers over the water, plants grow in profusion and water flows over fallen trees. The heart of the scene is the models of huge peat swamp trees with their buttress, stilt roots and pneumatophores. Different levels of the forest - underwater, on the ground and in the canopy - are explored together with the lives of Asian arowanas, Malayan box terrapins and false gharials.
Mr Lam says the park has been a success for the past 10 months, having received about a million visitors. Almost all the activities under different themes have reached full capacity, including the guided tours and the weekend workshops on origami, reed paper making and drawing. The visitors consist of groups of school children, families, tour groups and individual travellers from the mainland.
'The park provides a safe and secure environment for families, children, elderly people and the disabled to see the nature and wildlife,' he says. 'On some weekends, the number of visitors could go up to 8,000 to 9,000 a day. We try to keep the number below 10,000. Moreover, it is important for the visitors to appreciate nature and to keep the environment quiet for everyone to enjoy.'
To get there, take the West Rail to Tin Shui Wai station, interchange for Light Rail (Route 705) and get off at Wetland Park station. The park is five minutes' walk right ahead.
The park is open from 9.30am to 4pm on Mondays and Wednesdays to Sundays. It closes on Tuesdays (except public holidays) as well as the first and second days of the Lunar New year. The admission fee is HK$30 for adults and HK$15 for children, students and senior citizens. More details can be obtained from the park's website www.wetlandpark.com.
Points to note
October to April is birdwatching season in Hong Kong, especially from December to January. Summer is the peak time to see insects, water plants and creatures
Visitors should wear loose, long-sleeved clothing to protect themselves from mosquitoes and be comfortable
Although there is a cafe that sells beverages inside the Visitor Centre, and vending machines at the ticket office and discovery centre, visitors are advised to bring enough drinking water
The park does not provide a cloak room and wheelchairs are reserved for emergency needs only
Private cars are advised to park at nearby car parks as there are limited parking spaces at the park
Do not touch wild birds or their droppings. Wash your hands after your visit
Do not feed animals and keep the environment quiet
Pets are not allowed inside the park