AN appeal panel has given the go-ahead to a residential development which environmentalists say will mean the beginning of the end of Mai Po marshes. Henderson Land won its bid to develop an 18-hole golf course and luxury residential complex on 98.8 hectares of wetland at Nam Sang Wai on the edge of the Mai Po Marsh Nature Reserve. The development was twice rejected by the Town Planning Board but the decision was reversed in a 3-1 ruling by the Appeal Board. Environmentalists have warned the precedent-setting ruling could herald the slow death of the reserve. Seven sites necklacing the reserve are in the planning stage, awaiting approval from the Town Planning Board. 'Once you start nibbling away at the edges, the marsh will be affected,' World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Hong Kong manager for Mai Po, Llewellyn Young, said. 'The developer has gone a long way to ensure a good environmental standard if he does everything he says he'll do. There is nothing to ensure they will keep their promises,' he said. Mai Po and the surrounding wetlands make up the most significant wetland area in Southern China. Every winter 55,000 migrating waterbirds pass through. The main objection to the Henderson project was based on the intrinsic importance of the fishponds in Nam Sang Wai. The development will mean the loss of about 75 per cent of the fishponds, which the WWF has identified as key to feeding areas for attracting rare egrets and herons. Although the WWF has not come out in direct opposition to the development, it will not openly endorse it. Letters voicing its concern were cited in the Appeal Board's document. But Henderson spokesman Wan Man-yee said the company had set the standard in environmental responsibility, introducing innovative schemes to maintain a 'sound ecological balance'. The golf course will have a non-chemical pest control plan. The company says it will employ a staff ecologist and form an environmental advisory group. But dissenting Appeal Board member David DaSilva said in his statement integrated pest control had never been proven in Hong Kong and complained that Henderson relied too heavily on foreign experts to prove its case.