How one Hongkonger is lighting up the night skies, with fireflies

Development has robbed Hong Kong wildlife of much of its natural habitat, but one young man is fighting back with a remarkable firefly breeding programme, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 9:36am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 9:36am

Who would have thought a holiday in Japan could be such a life changer? For former teacher Mark Mak Siu-fung, a trip six years ago to Kitakyushu in Fukuoka not only yielded fresh perspectives on life, it set him off on a new career as a firefly breeder and expert who is invited to conferences around the region. It has even brought him, in a roundabout fashion, his wife.

Mak, 29, has an abiding interest in green issues; so much so he headed for Kitakyushu in 2008 because the city was known for its effective management, with eco-friendly vehicles on the roads and treated waste used as compost in parks.

"I wanted to see for myself how a city went about its green planning," he says.

Whenever people think of fireflies in Hong Kong, they will think of me
Mark Mak 

It led to a vital encounter with Nakamura Mitsuo, an elderly consultant at Kitakyushu's firefly museum who he met while checking out its displays.

Although Mak did not speak Japanese, he and Mitsuo were able to communicate through written notes as the Japanese kanji are based on Chinese characters. The pair hit it off, and Mitsuo even put him up in his home for five days when it became clear that the backpacking Mak had limited funds.

As it turned out, Mitsuo was instrumental in setting up the museum. The streams near his home once drew plenty of fireflies as their larvae live in damp, dark areas. But as the city industrialised, effluent from steel plants polluted the waterways and firefly populations shrunk.

Saddened by their disappearance, Mitsuo rallied his neighbours to launch a campaign to breed fireflies and release them back to the wild, and later proposed setting up the museum, which opened in 2002.

Mak was so inspired by Mitsuo's story that he decided to quit his job at a primary school and embark on a similar mission when he returned to Hong Kong.

His first foray, however, proved disastrous. He rented a village house in Lam Tsuen, Tai Po, to experiment with breeding fireflies, not realising that flower growers' use of pesticide on ornamental peach and other plants had decimated insect populations in the area.

As Mak had signed a two-year lease, his savings were being used on a futile exercise.

But while still smarting from his loss, a villager named Ping called to report sightings of an unusual species of firefly near her organic farm in Tai Long village in south Lantau. While most species flew around with flickering light, this firefly was a ground crawler whose luminescent tail radiated a constant glow.

As he suspected, Mak says, it was Rhagophthalmus, a protected species in Japan that also turned out to be native to Hong Kong.

But he had no income and could not afford to make daily trip to the Tai Long site to conduct research on the unusual fireflies. Happily, Sister Ping, as he calls her, sympathised and offered the use of a room in her village house for a laboratory.

"She also invited me to her organic farm for free meals, and she has since become like family," Mak says.

He spent three months surveying the firefly population at Tai Long and recorded sightings of 200 Rhagophthalmus on one night at the peak of the mating season in March. In his makeshift lab, he also studied their characteristics, how different environments affected their development.

"Sister Ping was very impressed that a young lad could live without television, internet and devote all his time to nature," he says.

She commended Mak to the village chief, who eventually rented a village house to him for only HK$1,000 per month to set up his research base. "I finally had a decent place for my centre."

He also got villagers at Tai Long to help to refurbish the building, creating a dark room where he could breed fireflies with specimens collected from nearby streams. It takes about eight months for an egg to develop into larvae for transfer back to their habitat, he says.

Located five minutes' walk from the Tai Long pier, the Hong Kong Firefly Museum officially opened in December 2010 and has so far received 2,700 visitors. It has since signed up 560 members, who help Mak with cleaning up after typhoons and heavy downpours.

Not one to take well-trodden paths, Mak studied child psychology at Chinese University but went on to work as a country park warden and an instructor at the Kadoorie Farm before becoming a teacher.

Although relocating to a remote village to work on reviving populations of short-lived fireflies may seem like a quixotic mission, he finds his efforts deeply rewarding.

"No one is doing such studies in Hong Kong. There are entomological experts and societies whose work touches

on fireflies, but no one does specialised work

like me."

Aquatica ficta, a species commonly found across Hong Kong during the 1950s and '60s, had shrunk to a total population of about 300 as their habitats in wetlands and farms in the New Territories gave way to car parks and shipping container yards. Mak has now bred 1,000 in his lab and plans to release them soon.

He has also identified more than 30 species, five of which had never been recorded anywhere else in the world. There were only four recognised firefly species in Hong Kong when he first returned from Kitakyushu in 2008.

Mak's meticulous fieldwork has gathered recognition, with invitations to present his findings at conferences in Japan, Korea and Malaysia over the past few years. But he still visits Mitsuo regularly to learn from the Japanese experience, he says.

"Japan has been conducting firefly research for 40 years. New scientific literature is published every year. I still have a lot to learn.

"Studying fireflies can be tough as you can only do it at night without the slightest trace of light - a beam of light from a torch will drive them away. And you might come into contact with snakes on site visits. My field work starts about half an hour after nightfall and lasts until 10pm."

It takes an unusual young man to stay in Tai Long village. There is no television reception, the 56k internet connection is sufficient only for email and the only other residents are six elderly people.

However, a four-day nature therapy camp held at the village in 2010 brought an unexpected companion: Ema Tam Wai-ting, who later became Mak's wife.

The event was organised by green-living advocate Simon Chau, who kept a house in the village, and Tam signed up for a chance to relieve the stress from her job as a secretary. Among the activities was an astronomy session at Mak's firefly centre, which had a telescope.

"I was the last one in the queue to view the night sky," Tam says. "While other campers spent just five minutes looking at stars through his telescope, I spent an hour. After the others went to sleep, Mark and I talked the whole night and he took me star-gazing in a nearby field. We saw over 10 meteors that night and only left at seven the next morning."

Tam admits she had "good feelings for this young guy who was so dedicated to doing a job with no financial reward", and the pair clearly connected.

She become a part-time volunteer but it wasn't long before she found her whole life revolving around the firefly centre, helping with everything from its layout to designing an education programme.

"The work is never-ending," Tam says. "There is no way he can do it on his own."

They became a couple three months after first meeting at the camp, married in 2011 and their son was born the next year.

The family of three live on a small stipend that Mak gets from the government, which has commissioned him to conduct firefly surveys and conservation work in Tin Shui Wai.

"Donations from visitors and sale of souvenirs and books only cover the operating cost of the centre, which does not charge for admission," Mak says.

"My parents are upset that I gave up a stable government job for this work, but I am happy that I have achieved some results over the past few years."

He laments that Hong Kong does little about firefly protection, unlike Japan, which devotes a lot of resources into it, noting Mitsuo has support from government environmental staff.

In Malaysia, mangroves with fireflies are also designated as protected zones and promoted for eco-tourism.

"Farmers consider fireflies as beneficial insects as they prey on snails which damage crops. They are amazing and beautiful insects. I am delighted that whenever people think of fireflies in Hong Kong, they will think of me."