Scientist swimming against the tide: Dr Samuel Hung

Dr Samuel Hung is clear on his mission: the dolphins come first. And that means speaking out against officials for failing to protect them

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 June, 2014, 5:06am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 June, 2014, 5:06am

It's a hot, hazy afternoon and a marine biologist is taking a group of reporters out to sea for an update on the plight of Chinese white dolphins.

He explains how construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge has disrupted the dolphins' habitat in the waters off northern Lantau Island.

He lambasts the government, its development plans and what he says is a complete disregard for the animals, which he has been working hard to protect.

For Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu, chairman of the Dolphin Conservation Society, it's just another day at the office.

Hung is perhaps the most oft-quoted expert on cetaceans in Hong Kong and one of few willing to openly criticise the government and large corporations for failing to protect what he sees as one of the city's priceless assets.

"I'm not the only dolphin expert or marine biologist in Hong Kong. But I'm guessing journalists come to me because I tell them nothing but the truth," he tells the South China Morning Post. "Too many authoritative experts on dolphins have vested interests and may not necessarily want to speak out too critically against large corporations or the government."

Hung's close relationship with reporters, respect among fellow scientists and alliance with green groups make him a formidable opponent for the government. And for close to two decades, he has made a name for himself with his tireless devotion to the plight of the heavily endangered dolphin, which is white or pink in colour.

Numbers of Chinese white dolphins in the waters off northeast Lantau have been cut by some 80 per cent in the last decade due to years of persistent habitat loss, displacement and falling birth rates, he says.

The uphill battle continues in the face of what he believes is the biggest threat yet to the dolphins: the Chek Lap Kok airport's planned third runway extension.

The Airport Authority's recently released environmental impact assessment on the expansion has been slammed as a failure by Hung for not providing mitigation measures during the seven-year construction period to lessen the impact on the dolphins.

About 670 hectares of seabed will be lost to land reclamation if the project gets the final go-ahead.

A plan to create a 2,400-hectare marine park for displaced dolphins to return to after construction is completed in 2023 was dismissed by Hung as a "grade-A phoney".

"By that time, all the dolphins would have died or left. This attempt at compensation for their loss of habitat is a joke," Hung says.

He has criticised the authority for ignoring recommendations including rezoning waters off the southwest of Lantau as marine park, and rerouting high-speed ferry routes southbound around the island.

Hung is now trying to lobby the public to oppose the plan during the 30-day public inspection period, which ends on July 19. "At such a critical moment, they need me now more than ever," Hung says. "I still have trust in the EIA [environmental impact assessment] system and I believe there is hope [for the plan to be rejected]."

But some have criticised him for biting the only hand that feeds him. Through his Cetacean Research Project, Hung helps the government to collate data and surveys on pink dolphins in Hong Kong waters.

Hung dismisses such talk. Each year the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department offers a grant worth more than HK$1 million for Chinese white dolphin conservation research. "For some reason, we are the only applicant every year, causing many people to wrongly believe we are funded directly by the AFCD," Hung says.

He adds that he has strived to remain independent and impartial. But he admits that, as one of the city's few pink dolphin experts, he would have been financially set if he had decided to continue helping the government with its environmental impact assessments.

"We are an independent NGO and we never campaign for funding," he said. "The problem with being an NGO sometimes is that when it gets to a certain size, you need funds to expand, but you lose some of your autonomy.

"You can call me naive or simple. Nobody can buy me with money. I wouldn't be able to face the dolphins."

He recalls how he turned down a corporate sponsorship from power supplier CLP in 2005, when it was trying to build a liquefied natural gas terminal on the Soko Islands off Lantau.

Hung says he has one principle in life: "I don't care what the client thinks. I put the interests of the dolphins first. The fact that I only speak for the dolphins actually makes my job a lot easier."

In some ways, his relationship with the government is a complex and precarious one. But Hung does not hide his disdain for the administration.

He jokes: "I'm sure the chief executive [Leung Chun-ying] is always asking: 'Why are these dolphins always getting in the way of my development plans?'

"They say the third runway is for the next generation. They say developing towns in the northeastern New Territories is for our next generation. Why does the future of our next generation need to be determined by these people and not the next generation?"

Politics aside, the protection of dolphins is more than just a job for Hung; they are his life.

Hung met his wife, also a biologist, while the pair were carrying out research on dolphins. They now have a seven-year-old son, who shares their love for the animals. "If one day I have to pay for the things I have said and I lose my rice bowl, I will not complain as I know it was these dolphins that gave me everything that I have today," Hung says.

He remembers how there were once many voices opposing reclamation work in Victoria Harbour. "Today, everyone is complaining about how the harbour is as narrow as a river. But all we can do now is sigh."

And he says the mistake should not be repeated with the Chinese white dolphin. "We must be proactive now so we don't have regrets in the future. If we don't protect the dolphins now, we will lose them."


Dr Samuel Hung

Age 38

Education and career
1997 Graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University, San Francisco, with biology degree
1997 Worked under marine biologist Dr Thomas Jefferson and conducted research on Chek Lap Kok airport's impact on Chinese white dolphins
1997 Started master's degree in marine science from University of San Diego
2001 Started PhD at University of Hong Kong on habitat use of Indo-Pacific dolphins
2003 Founded Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society