Stunted, gnarled trees on the rural coast are often overlooked, but for a whole community of fish and aquatic animals they serve as nursery, feeding station and refuge. Unique mangrove species that inhabit the inter-tidal zone are threatened by coastal development throughout Asia. Hong Kong's seven species of mangrove are increasingly under attack as redevelopment pollutes the seas on which they depend or reclamation buries them. Mangroves lining the northern Lantau coast have been destroyed by Chek Lap Kok airport works, and spreading urbanisation puts increasing pressure on stands in the New Territories. Of the 276 hectares of mangroves remaining in the territory, only a few sites are protected, including the Mai Po marshes, Hau Hoi Wan marine park and the Site of Special Scientific Interest at Lai Chi Wo, opposite Crooked Harbour. The spread of village houses along Three Fathoms Cove, near Sai Kung, has degraded others. The threats are heightened by the fact many wetlands, and the hinterland behind mangrove stands, are privately owned. So ecologists are racing against time to study mangroves before development engulfs them. Dr Joe Lee Shing-yip, senior lecturer at the Hong Kong University Department of Ecology and Biodiversity, said the pace of development in the New Territories was alarming. While village development may not kill off mangroves immediately, the advent of human disturbance, pollution and changes in the water flow would damage the habitat, Dr Lee said. 'The problem will become more pressured, even in remote sites like Lai Chi Wo,' he predicted. 'There are a lot of large-scale developments on the Chinese side, for example plans to develop the deep harbour at Yan Tian port [at Mirs Bay].'