Call of the wild

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2007, 12:00am

When Wilson Lee Kwok-hang goes to his office, he thinks he's the luckiest man in Hong Kong. He may be right. Mr Lee, 43, is a park ranger based at the Lions Nature Education Centre in Sai Kung. 'There are no lions here,' he laughs. 'But in the hills nearby we've got just about everything else.'

A park ranger since 1998, he began his civil service career in the Urban Services Department, working in city parks. But he soon felt the call of the hills, and managed to get a transfer to country parks.

'It's very different,' he says, his arms sweeping to embrace the soaring summits and the islands that stud the coast.

'Urban parks are more like landscaped gardens. Country parks are a wild and natural environment. The first parks started as drainage areas for reservoirs. Steep slopes were protected from erosion by thick vegetation.

'To keep the drinking water clean, an arbitrary boundary was drawn around the reservoirs, and strict laws were passed to prevent people from cutting down trees.'

In the 1970s, then governor Sir Murray - later Lord - MacLehose rammed through laws - against great opposition from rural bosses - safeguarding 40 per cent of Hong Kong as country parks. They are now inviolate.

Educating people about features of our wild countryside is part of the job of the 27 park rangers. 'You've got to enjoy the outdoors to like this life,' said Mr Lee. 'It's sometimes hot and arduous. And you have to like meeting new people, whether it's a party of hikers you bump into on a remote path, or a class of schoolchildren who come to learn about insects or shells or geology.'

Rangers have many roles. They patrol the hundreds of kilometres of tracks that wind across the parks. They educate the public, organise outings and run education groups.

Much of this is at the Lions Nature Education Centre. The 54 hectares was once a government demonstration farm where agricultural experts showed farmers how to plant new crops. After the collapse of farming in the 1960s and 1970s, the Lions Club applied to use the land as an education centre.

Visitors find low hills planted with exotic trees, various crops, fruit trees and patches of herbs. Quiet tracks lead through the plantations and patches of forest.

There's also an educational hall holding 5,000 shells found around our coastline, areas featuring minerals and different types of rocks, and tree nurseries. A small museum shows video programmes on topics such as tree snails, the once-vital lime kiln industry, and corals.

'But it isn't just a place to study,' Mr Lee points out. 'It's also a place to stroll, and rest and reflect.'

Kevin Sinclair is a Hong Kong reporter who lives in the New Territories