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Force of nature

A government plan to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity could offer the last best hope for Hong Kong's wildlife, writes Martin Williams

 

On learning that the government is preparing a biodiversity strategy and action plan, to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity established by the United Nations in the early 1990s, you would be forgiven for wondering whether it isn’t all a bit late. After all, there is hardly a plant or animal to be seen in Hong Kong’s urban areas.

There does, however, remain an extensive countryside home to a wealth of plant and animal species that is rivalled by few – if any – cities worldwide. Hong Kong boasts more than 3,000 species of flowering plants, some 260 species of butterflies and just over 500 bird species. There are creatures that are unique to Hong Kong, such as Romer’s tree frog and the Hong Kong paradise fish. The world’s pinkest dolphins inhabit our waters, the blackfaced spoonbill is among our globally endangered birds and the SAR may be the sole remaining refuge of the wild golden coin turtle.

Some 40 per cent of Hong Kong is designated as protected country park – more, reportedly, than in any other territory. But against this, a host of developments threatens places as far and wide as Yi O and Tung Chung Bay, on Lantau, and Lung Mei and Pak Sha O, in the eastern New Territories.

It seems almost every week brings fresh reports of jeopardy. News emerged last month, for example, that a planned housing project could destroy wetlands at Nam Sang Wai, near Mai Po, and that a rare fish – the rose bitterling – could be eliminated in the area where the government hopes to build Fanling North new town.

To gauge the future prospects for Hong Kong’s wildlife, Post Magazine spoke to four prominent local conservationists. Each expressed concerns but admitted the biodiversity strategy holds promise. Indeed, the expert views suggest the strategy may be the last best hope for Hong Kong’s wildlife and wild places.

 

THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO, Hong Kong was covered with subtropical forests within which roamed leopards, tigers, Asiatic wild dogs and, probably, elephants and rhinoceros. About 6,000 years ago, humans began transforming the landscape, hunting and felling trees. Later came farmers who cleared swathes of land to grow rice and other crops.

By 1841, when Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British, there were only fragments of forest left amid extensive grassy slopes, while the island itself was described as a “barren rock”. Though leopards and wild dogs still lived here, and tigers occasionally terrorised villages, by the middle of the 20th century they had all vanished from the territory.

During the second half of the 1800s and early last century, the government devoted considerable resources to planting trees on Hong Kong Island. One key reason was to safeguard water supplies for the growing colony: forests act like sponges, storing rainwater and releasing it later, and reduce erosion and silting of reservoirs. Similar reforestation efforts were implemented across much of Hong Kong after the addition of the New Territories, in 1898. By the early 1960s, according to biologist Stella Thrower, “Officers of the Agriculture and Fisheries Department, staff of the University of Hong Kong and members of amateur naturalist groups had all clearly recognised the urgent need for both conservation of wild life and for planned, controlled development of the countryside as an outdoor recreational resource.”

This led to the establishment of 21 country parks in the late 70s.

Thrower credits Murray MacLehose, the then governor of Hong Kong, as being among the few clear-sighted men who promoted the country parks “against a background of apathy and vested interest”.

Although the aims of the country park system included safeguarding vegetation and wildlife, the main intention was “to protect drainage basins, not conserve biodiversity”, says David Dudgeon, chair professor in ecology and biodiversity at HKU. With 30 years’ experience in studying Hong Kong wildlife, Dudgeon has witnessed many changes in rural areas, as well as in government thinking.

“In essence, the attitude until 2000 was: if we leave things alone, everything will be all right,” says Dudgeon. “Hong Kong was enforcing laws on hunting and it was a very substantial achievement to protect 40 per cent of the land area from development, which would inadvertently protect biodiversity. But there was no coherent conservation policy.”

Proactive conservation work was instigated, however, at Mai Po Marshes, on the shore of Deep Bay. Mai Po mainly comprises traditional shrimp ponds and in the late 70s these appeared threatened by mangrove clearances and nearby housing developments, leading to the government designating the area a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In 1981, WWF Hong Kong was established and, two years later, it began managing Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve and Education Centre.

Dr Michael Lau Wai-neng was among the early members of the Mai Po staff, working there from 1987 to 1991. After a lengthy stint as conservationist with Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, he rejoined WWF Hong Kong in 2011 as senior head of its Local Biodiversity and Regional Wetlands Programme.

“In the past, a handful of non-governmental organisations were involved in conservation and each had a major theme,” he says. “Now, some have a specific focus.”

Lau says that, from an emphasis on protecting plants and animals, there has been a shift towards linking biodiversity with quality of life.

“I think there’s a growing number of people who are concerned,” he says. “But it’s still not high enough.”

The approach to Mai Po has, likewise, become broader: “Its future relies not only on Deep Bay, but also on wetland reserves in [mainland] China,” says Lau, explaining that the reserves lie on a flyway travelled by migratory birds – which is why WWF Hong Kong has been running a wetland management training programme for reserve staff from the mainland and partners with several key wetland reserves across south China to enhance the value of these sites for both migratory birds and local communities.

Thirty years after management work began, however, Mai Po still faces threats, such as developments on both the Hong Kong and Shenzhen sides of Deep Bay, and even the conversion of the margins of neighbouring fish ponds from grass to concrete and plastic sheeting, which reduces habitat for the insects birds feed on.

“This is the reality,” says Lau. “We need to try harder and do more.”

Assessing the evolution of conservation in Hong Kong, independent ecologist Dr Andy Cornish says a certain stage was reached with the establishment of the country park and marine park systems and with the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Ordinance enacted in 1997, but that there have been only one or two significant developments since then.

“There’s too much reliance on EIAs, which are not a conservation tool but a system to facilitate development,” he says.

Cornish is a keen scuba diver and has witnessed a marked decline in marine life, which received almost no protection until 1996, when Hong Kong’s only marine reserve and four of the current five marine parks were established.

“Intensive fishing pressure has affected all parts of Hong Kong,” says Cornish. “Commercial catches peaked in the 1980s and have declined since, along with the large fish.”

A report from the 1940s tells of sharks being caught year round and there are old photos of eagle rays caught in Victoria Harbour. An elderly lady who spoke to Cornish told him there used to be a beach where the Kwai Chung Container Terminal now stands and that she remembers seeing seahorses there.

“There are sliding baselines – people’s expectations are based primarily on experiences [they have] as they are growing up,” says Cornish. “Now, we see 5cm rabbit fish and gobies caught in the harbour, so it’s harder to motivate people, as expectations are low.”

The Chinese white dolphin, found off north and west Lantau, has become a flagship species for Hong Kong’s marine life.

“The dolphins are an interesting case study,” says Cornish. “They have received more attention than any other marine species – they’re a protected species and a lot of attention is given to them in environmental impact assessments, and there was a rather vague conservation plan from the government. And despite all this, we are losing this animal. Numbers have dropped off a cliff, with a 50 per cent decline in 10 years.”

Cornish says that even though green groups warned the dolphin numbers would decline if the pressure was piled on, complacency set in as the first 10 years of monitoring indicated the population was fairly stable. Now there are plans for four reclamations in the dolphins’ habitat – including the one for the third runway at Chek Lap Kok airport – which will cover an area the size of 650 football fields.

“We need to think about a moratorium on development in western waters, until we understand why numbers are dropping, and have a recovery plan in place,” he says.

“It’s as if Hong Kong’s trying to kill all the dolphins,” says Dickson Wong Chi-chun, who works at the Ho Koon Nature Education cum Astronomical Centre, in Tsuen Wan, and is a spokesman for the Hong Kong Wildlife Forum, which played a pivotal role in opposing plans to build an artificial beach at Lung Mei, in Tai Po. “I was at a forum on reclamation and engineers said they would build an ecologically sound marine surface. It was weird thinking; I don’t know why they claim expertise when they know nothing about dolphins.

“The government lacks any kind of vision,” he says. “There’s no longterm conservation policy.”

While furious at the government’s refusal to abandon plans for the beach, Wong retains a broader vision, and sees two main issues facing Hong Kong wildlife: loss of marine resources and valuable agricultural land being abandoned and transformed.

“There’s no future for Hong Kong, it seems,” Wong says. “If you try to be reasonable, the government ignores you. So you become more vociferous, and society as a whole is not harmonious.”

Like Lau, Wong believes attitudes are changing in Hong Kong, with more people aware that it is not sustainable to have ever more buildings or to eliminate agricultural land. But the background of apathy and vested interests that Thrower wrote of still exists.

Post Magazine tried to contact two prominent advocates of development: Hopewell Holdings chairman Gordon Wu Ying-sheung and the former legislator who, on the Hong Kong Institution of Engineer’s website, is grandly titled “Ir Dr The Hon Raymond Ho Chung-tai”, but neither replied. They have, however, made previous comments in public.

For instance, Wu has been quoted as saying, “Those environmental groups are crazy. You can’t force everyone to like birds even though you like them,” and has even claimed that after the airport was built the number of Chinese white dolphins actually increased.

“They [Chinese white dolphins] will become extinct only if they are yummy, because the whole world will start catching them. How will something be endangered if it is not tasty?” he asked.

Although annual expenditure on capital works surged to HK$62.3 billion in 2012-13, Ho has expressed concerns that the government has not announced “major infrastructure project” development plans “post-10” (i.e. post-Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s 10 major infrastructure projects trumpeted in his 2007-08 policy address), without which “we may risk driving our construction industry out of work”. He has suggested housing a million people on Lantau, wondering why we allocate so much land to country parks, and, in January, he said it would be a good idea to build a second Tsing Ma Bridge.

With its extensive reclamation plans, the Lung Mei beach project and massive infrastructure projects proceeding and planned, would it be fair to say the government is clueless, or at least unconcerned, when it comes to sustainable development? “This administration puts the environment in high priority – the four key areas of the chief executive are housing, poverty, economic development and environmental protection,” says Christine Loh Kung-wai, undersecretary for environment. “So, it’s hardly fair to use the word ‘clueless’ to describe this government, but it is necessary to strike a balance between development and environment. Difficult choices have to be made.”

Dudgeon believes measures needed for nature conservation in Hong Kong include an agricultural land use policy and a better small-house policy. He notes that country parks mostly protect hilly areas, that there’s almost a contour line below which small houses are being built in an almost anything-goes manner, and that there has been a general decline in ecologically valuable sites. Areas known as enclaves – perhaps surrounded by, yet excluded from, country parks – have been and are being “trashed”.

For Dudgeon, as a freshwater ecologist, one of the worst examples of such trashing has occurred on Sun Hung Kai Properties’ land at Sham Chung, on the northwest of the Sai Kung Peninsula.

“It was a beautiful place, with a wonderful wetland, a large population of the endemic Hong Kong paradise fish and nice mangroves,” he says. But the valley bottom was wrecked in an attempt to prepare for a development that has so far stalled. “What they did was legal, but absolutely wrong,” adds Dudgeon.

In 2004, the government identified 12 sites that were important for biodiversity, suggesting they could be protected through partnerships between private developers and NGOs. As yet, there are no successful examples of such partnerships; and WWF Hong Kong recently pulled out of a project with Cheung Kong to build housing and partly protect wetland at Fung Lok Wai, near Mai Po.

Dudgeon is scathing about the partnership idea: “A developer hopes to say, ‘We’ll dig a duck pond, so here’s the conservation gain, now let’s build 30-storey buildings on the rest of the site.’ To me, when the government said, ‘We’d like developers to work on public-private partnerships’, it was like drawing a target: let’s trash them. It would be more enlightened for the government to say, ‘Let’s protect them in their entirety.’ If we were to protect all sites known to be important a decade ago, it would only increase the country parks area by 1 per cent.”

There may be a glimmer of hope for both the enclaves and their wildlife, however.

“There is certainly room to expand Hong Kong’s country parks,” Loh says. “Three enclaves [Sai Wan, Kam Shan and Yuen Tun] are currently covered by draft country park maps going through the statutory process, which, by the way, is not without resistance but the government’s intention is clear, and we hope to create new country parks in the next few years.”

Loh joined the government as part of a shake-up of the Environment Bureau under Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Out went environment secretary Edward Yau Tang-wah, who showed more enthusiasm for overseas trips than environmental protection, and in his place came Wong Kam-sing, an architect with extensive experience in sustainable building design. Wong soon enrolled Loh, a former legislator and founder of Civic Exchange, a think tank covering issues including pollution and biodiversity.

Civic Exchange is playing a central role in bringing green groups and academics together to help the government develop a biodiversity strategy and action plan, referred to by the ungainly acronym BSAP, which is scheduled for implementation in 2015. Developing such a plan is among the obligations demanded under the Convention on Biological Diversity, which was extended to Hong Kong in 2011 and “recognises that biological diversity is about more than plants, animals and micro-organisms and their ecosystems – it is about people and our need for food security, medicines, fresh air and water, shelter, and a clean and healthy environment in which to live”.

“The work will not be confined to experts,” Loh said at a meeting on the BSAP earlier this year. “In Hong Kong, we have never had extensive discussions on all the conflicts between conservation and development.

Now, we need to find how to engage people on the street – how to get them interested.”

Speakers at the meeting included Chan Yiu-keung, assistant director (conservation) of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, who gave a rosy assessment of the situation, noting that three-quarters of Hong Kong is countryside, the percentage of protected areas is way above the global average and about 98 per cent of all legally protected species are found in such areas. His photos likewise suggested Hong Kong is a veritable paradise for plants and animals, with nary a bulldozer nor trace of infrastructure in sight.

Although conservationists outside government have more measured views, they are hopeful. “It’s the best opportunity in many years for achieving broader planning of nature conservation,” says Lau.

Cornish was involved in early discussions about Hong Kong joining the convention, and believes the strategy represents “an opportunity to be taken for doing a variety of things that have never been done before. I’m very optimistic about that.”

Dudgeon also sees grounds for optimism: “It’s a fantastic opportunity, if the government is committed to doing something. But the window of opportunity for a lot of biodiversity in Hong Kong is closing. We are losing what’s left in the enclaves. And the Chinese white dolphin has been well studied, yet almost nothing has been done to protect it. So what hope can we have for smaller, less charismatic species?”

 

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