The Big Bird Race marks 30 years of raising funds for Mai Po wetlands

The Big Bird Race celebrates a landmark year of fundraising for the Mai Po wetlands, but there's much more to do, writes Martin Williams

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 January, 2014, 9:14am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 January, 2014, 9:14am

With the high-rises of Yuen Long and Tin Shui Wai to the south, Fairview Park estate to the southwest and the urban sprawl of Shenzhen fringing the northern coast, Deep Bay may seem an unlikely location for one of the world's greatest wetland reserves. Yet on the southern shore lies the grandly titled Mai Po Marshes Wildlife Education Centre and Nature Reserve, often known simply as Mai Po.

The reserve covers an area of 380 hectares: 20 times the size of Victoria Park. Most of it is former shrimp ponds, now jointly managed by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department and the WWF Hong Kong, although it's the latter that does the hands-on work. And it is the only member of WWF's global network to manage a reserve.

Mai Po is also the beneficiary of Hong Kong's oldest annual fundraiser - the Big Bird Race, which marks its 30th anniversary this year. The event was instigated with the help of Mary Hotung Ketterer, then honorary director of WWF Hong Kong, to raise funds for the conservation and management of Mai Po. It was based on a British bird race, in which teams spent a day dashing about to spot as many species as possible. From just two teams when first held in 1984, the local race grew quickly, attracting more teams and sponsors, and becoming a key way for WWF Hong Kong to obtain funds to buy rights to manage more ponds. This later provided crucial support for habitat management.

Deep Bay is really a shallow estuary, which formed about 6,000 years ago as the Ice Age ended and the rising sea inundated a river valley. Silt carried in by streams and rivers formed mudflats along the shorelines, and from the 13th century man began reclaiming areas of land. Reclamation efforts accelerated in the last century, especially as farmers built bunds with sluice gates to impound areas of mudflats. They grew salt-tolerant red rice on the new, marshy land.

The farmers occasionally irrigated their paddies with water from the bay, and as the water came in, so too did shrimp, which were harvested by the farmers. This gave rise to commercial shrimp farming during the Japanese occupation in the early 1940s, and at places including Mai Po new ponds were created specially to cultivate shrimps.

These ponds, called gei wai, were mainly shallow, and the farmers retained mangroves. This made the ponds attractive to a host of waterbirds, such as herons, ducks and cormorants.

The first conservation measures were initiated in the 1970s, prompted by the planned construction of Fairview Park. Fearing residents would walk through Mai Po, birdwatchers Mike Webster and Fred Hechtel successfully petitioned the government to protect the area, which was declared a site of special scientific interest.

"The land was effectively kept on hold until the WWF was formed and was capable of running a managed reserve," recalled David Melville, the first manager of Mai Po Marshes and later executive director of WWF Hong Kong, during a discussion about Mai Po's history in 1990.

Initial funds for Mai Po were obtained from the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club. A consultant from Britain prepared a management plan and in the autumn of 1983 - the year before the inaugural Big Bird Race - WWF Hong Kong started to develop and manage the Mai Po Marshes Wildlife Education Centre and Nature Reserve. A visitor information centre and a concrete footpath were built, and the first guided visits for schools and the public were organised in 1985.

Two years later, the reserve seemed well established. Facilities included a floating boardwalk along a creek to the edge of the mangroves, where a viewing hide overlooked the mudflats at the heart of Deep Bay. Reeds had carpeted the two interlinked gei wai. But they were no match for the redoubtable Hotung Ketterer. She ordered the reeds burned, to create an open expanse intended to attract shorebirds when high tide covered the mudflats. This proved to be a huge success, with thousands of migratory shorebirds thronging the new lagoon in spring.

The reserve was becoming known worldwide for its birds, including rare species, most of which passed through during spring and autumn migration, or arrived to spend the winter. But there was one species attracting relatively little attention, as it was regular in winter and thought to be common in China - the black-faced spoonbill.

Standing about a metre tall, mostly white and with a long beak flattened at the tip, the spoonbill is easily identified. Most local birdwatchers almost took them for granted until one, Peter Kennerley, decided they might not be common after all and gathered data from around East Asia. He came up with a startling estimate for the entire world population: just 288 individuals.

Virtually overnight, the spoonbill was recognised as critically endangered - the highest alert category for species facing extinction.

No one knew why the spoonbill was so rare, though the prime reason was probably destruction of coastal wetlands. Nor did anyone really know why numbers then increased, so that the spoonbill was removed from the critically endangered list in 2000. In recent years, the world population has been around 2,000, reaching a high of 2,725 in last year's census, and Deep Bay has consistently proved the second most important winter site for black-faced spoonbill.

By 1990, WWF Hong was pressing the government to list Deep Bay under the Ramsar Convention as an area of international importance, which encourages management of wetlands for sustainable use. The bay met the criteria with ease, thanks to significant numbers of four endangered species - the spoonbill, dalmatian pelican, Saunders' gull and Nordmann's greenshank - and being one of the best remaining mangrove areas in southern China.

In September 1995, the government went ahead and listed the Mai Po Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site. Although this has not halted all threats to Deep Bay - where worrying changes included a sudden rise in silt levels during the 1990s - Ramsar status does seem to have put an end to ideas for extensive reclamation there.

Mai Po centre manager Mathew Cheng began working for WWF Hong Kong in 2008 after being impressed by his first visit to the reserve a decade earlier. "I thought the WWF had done a very good job of managing Mai Po on behalf of Hong Kong people," he says. He was tasked with enhancements such as improving facilities and the visitor programme.

"We had part-time interpreters, who were not trained, and introduced new ideas, along with training through funding from HSBC," Cheng says. "We also introduced an online booking system."

Though visitor numbers have not increased substantially - there were 38,000 last year, compared with 25,000 in 1989 - the programme now generates more revenue. Plus, with tours for newcomers as well as people wanting a more in-depth excursion, there is an enhanced visitor experience, which Cheng believes is important, given people might only visit Mai Po two or three times in their lives.

"Hong Kong people care about this place," Cheng says. "We did a survey two years ago, including asking if you have been to Mai Po. Responses from people who hadn't been here included, 'It's a very good place.' This was a surprise to me - that someone should know of a place but not come. Some said they came for the first time as a student, but never thought of returning."

With gei wai gradually silting up, habitat management and monitoring manager John Allcock and his team periodically drain ponds so the mud can be dug out and reflooded to provide the open water needed by ducks and spoonbills. Once or twice a month, they drain a pond to provide fish and shrimp feasts for egrets and spoonbills.

Just as Cheng says funding is a perennial problem, Allcock notes that lack of money restricts management work. Several possible large-scale projects are on hold, so for all the international recognition Mai Po has achieved as an outstanding wetland reserve, it still needs help to ensure that it continues thriving.

The 30th Big Bird Race will be held this Saturday, January 25. For information, and to sponsor a team, visit