Panda research is dung and dusted

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 June, 2007, 12:00am

Strapping on a pair of latex gloves, Sung Yik-hey beams as he begins picking through a grapefruit-sized ball of panda faeces from Jia Jia, one of Ocean Park's four pandas.

Dissecting the ball and removing bits of bamboo leaves and stems, Mr Sung explained to a crowd at Ocean Park on Thursday how he had learned that the contents of the dung indicated everything from the size of the panda to the state of its health.

Mr Sung is one of a dozen students from the University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who in he past five months have travelled to countries, including Sri Lanka and Pakistan, to participate in conservation field-research projects under the auspices of the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation.

The demonstration was the finale of a publicity event to promote the foundation's campaign to raise HK$10 million to fund the group's environmental projects.

Preparing local students for careers in conservation was integral to Hong Kong's continued ecological health, foundation directors said, especially in an age when pollution and the environment has become a hot issue.

'In the last 10 years, there's been a great change in [public] perception,' said Dr Gray Williams, director of the HKU's Department of Ecology and Biodiversity. 'They are more aware of air pollution. They're more aware of development. They're more aware of what they're losing.'

The 12 students, many of whom said the experience had inspired them to pursue careers in conservation after graduation, said the trip brought not only practical field-research experience, but also a taste of life outside of Hong Kong.

For Mr Sung, this meant seeing snow for the first time and sampling spicy Sichuan peppercorns.

For his fellow HKU student Fu Wing-kan who travelled to Jiangxi province to study river dolphins and porpoises, this meant seeing the reality of environmental issues in a rapidly modernising mainland.

'We imagined that Jiangxi would be like old Chinese paintings but it was totally different,' Mr Fu said. 'It had no natural habitat along the river, they were all buildings. The [locals] didn't even know there were [endangered] porpoises in the river.'

The students were chosen in a competitive application process. The foundation hopes to expand the programme to fund 20 students next summer.