A walk on the wild side of Hong Kong

IT has been dubbed a biological treasure trove, with a glittering array of wildlife 'jewels', yet few have been spied by the millions of people who live in the concrete jungle that makes up part of Hong Kong.

In the seas in the mouth of the Pearl River swim less than 100 endangered Chinese white dolphins, while in bays to the east lies an underwater landscape of hills and canyons, formed by some of the world's most northerly corals.

On the border with China is the internationally renowned Mai Po Marsh National Reserve which plays host to tens of thousands of waterbirds, including the globally rare Nordmann's greenshanks, Saunders gulls and black-faced spoonbills.

Hong Kong is the world's last refuge of Ice Age relics like the tiny Romer's tree frog.

In the dwindling forests, if you are lucky, you can still spy leopard cats - slightly larger than domestic cats - civet cats, barking deer, at least 100 different reptiles and amphibians, 102 types of dragonflies, more than 200 butterflies, and between 3,000 and 4,000 species of moth.

Take a stroll in the country parks and among the 1,875 species of native plants you will see more than 150 tree species; in Britain there are 35.

A new book, The Green Dragon: Hong Kong's living environment, has captured many of these rare sights together for the first time.

Around 190 colour photographs taken by 31 different amateur and professional wildlife enthusiasts illustrate the book, which has been produced by Dr Martin Williams, a wildlife writer, photographer and conservationist, and Michael Pitts, a wildlife cameraman who has produced a number of documentaries, for the BBC, including the acclaimed Land of Dragons, Oasis in the Orient and Kites - Kings of Hong Kong.

'Many people don't realise the sheer variety and quantity of different types of wildlife in Hong Kong because they are never fortunate enough to see these things,' said Dr Williams.

'So this book collects together, for the first time, all the different areas of Hong Kong's wildlife.

'Hopefully more people will be made aware of the wildlife in Hong Kong and things will be done to help preserve it.

'I also hope it will contribute to people's understanding of the wildlife that is around them, and the threats that exist from man.' Sadly much of Hong Kong's wildlife 'treasures' are under threat from man - much of it through 'progress', and sheer ignorance.

Just as building work on the new airport, reclamation work, and dumping of rubbish and waste is killing off and eating away at Hong Kong's natural space, so residents here and over the border in Guangdong can sometimes be found eating rare and often threatened animals living in the ever-diminishing countryside.

'Tiger, for example, costs a lot of money and people consider it a real delicacy, and they think if they eat tiger they will somehow gain some of its power,' said Williams.

'Tiger, rhino and bears have all been found living in the wilds of Hong Kong in the past, but have been hunted to death or forced away as their habitat is destroyed.

'Today there are less than 100 dolphins which live around estuaries off North Lantau. They are suffering terribly from the blasting and reclamation work for the new airport, the pollution of the sea and over fishing.' Many of the photographs show stunningly impressive scenes of wildlife, such as Pitts' shot of kites - with a 1.5 metre wing span outstretched, and which roost on Stonecutter's Island - soaring above Hong Kong as they are passed by a Kai Tak-bound 747 jet.

The new book contains a chapter based on the book Hong Kong Countryside Through the Seasons by the prolific writer and naturalist Geoffrey Herklots.

Other writers are landscape architect Richard Webb, who is reading for a PhD on the subject of fung shui woods in the New Territories, and Chris Lonsdale, director of the environmental consultancy Permaculture Asia.

'The pictures for the book have taken literally thousands of hours - with people sitting for hours, or even several days in a row, cramped in a bird hide in Mai Po, for example, just waiting to take the right shot,' Williams said.

Among the photographers involved are Brian Pearce, a founder member of the Cathay Club, and runner-up in Photo Asia magazine's contest for the 1993 Photographer of the Year - best known for his railway stills but here contributing rural and flora subjects.

Others include Chong Dee-hwa - an expert on Hong Kong's freshwater fish - who is studying for a master's degree at Hong Kong University; author and photographer Keith Wilson, who will soon have his own book on Hong Kong's dragonflies published; birdwatcher Ray Tipper, who spent days cramped in a hide on a Mai Po lagoon waiting for a shot; and the Tsuen Wan-based policeman John Holmes.

One of the wildlife subjects - a porcupine - even turned unwitting photographer when it fired off the shutter of amateur wildlife enthusiast Joshua Barton's camera and took its own picture, after walking through an infra-red beam left to capture images of wildlife in a woodland overnight.

The book, which costs $295, has been sponsored by Sino Land Property developers, which Dr Williams, said reflected a more 'green' trend among companies within the territory.

A small royalty from the sale of all books sold will go to the World Wide Fund for Nature. Books are also on sale from the World Wide Fund for Nature office near the Lower Peak Tram Station.