Dan Bradshaw is in his happy place: hunkered down in a birdwatching hide, his binoculars scanning the mudflats of Deep Bay, the body of water between Hong Kong’s Yuen Long district and Shenzhen in China’s Guangdong province. It’s one of southern China’s most important wetlands, says the chairman of WWF-Hong Kong, the conservation group that’s managed the Mai Po marshes since 1983, in cooperation with the Hong Kong government’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD). More than 80,000 birds rely on it for feeding, breeding and resting, he says. It’s also a refuelling station in winter for birds travelling the 13,000km East Asian – Australasian Flyway migratory path between Arctic Russia and Australia. Bradshaw has been with the global non-profit’s Hong Kong arm – which is celebrating its 40th anniversary (it was officially established in December 1981) – almost since its inception, holding finance and legal roles before taking up his current position. An avid birdwatcher, he can identify a species before most people have even spotted it. “My mother encouraged me to learn about different bird species when I was a young boy growing up in New Zealand,” says the 74-year-old. Today he easily reels off names of birds circling the bay as well as those wading in the shallow waters, some feeding on the abundance of mudskippers, crabs and other aquatic organisms. “There’s an egret, and over there are ospreys … that one there is an Eastern marsh harrier,” he says. Singapore team’s bird migration game highlights Asia’s endangered species Some species, such as the Saunders’s gull and Nordmann’s greenshank, are critically endangered, he says. The black-faced spoonbill, of which only about 5,000 remain in the wild , is also on the list. “In Mai Po and Deep Bay we have the largest congregation of black-faced spoonbills,” he says. “Up to 800 come here in winter.” Also in the camouflaged enclosure is WWF-Hong Kong chief executive Nicole Wong. Also a skilled birdwatcher, today she has pointed out something else: three red markers floating in the far distance that represent the shared bay’s borderline. Regional collaboration, she says, is vital to protect the unique aquatic ecosystem and its rich biodiversity from pollution both man-made and from animals. “This area is significant – since 1995, the Mai Po reserve, Inner Deep Bay and nearby fish ponds and mudflats have been classified as a Ramsar site,” she says, referring to an international treaty governing wetland sites of global importance to sustaining bird migrations. It’s easy to see why the Mai Po nature reserve is considered a jewel in WWF-Hong Kong’s crown. It’s recorded more than 2,050 species, including 400 species of birds and 38 mammals, such as the small Asian mongoose and Eurasian otter. The leopard cat, Hong Kong’s only wild cat, has also been spotted in the reserve, although sightings of the nocturnal creature are rare. Twenty-one indigenous reptile species (two turtles, six lizards and 13 snakes) as well as the bent-winged firefly, which was first discovered in Deep Bay in 2010, add to its rich biodiversity list. The protected site also showcases the keeping of gei wai (traditional shrimp ponds) as an example of the traditional wise use of wetlands. Along the wooden boardwalks that snake through the mangroves and a short drive away is the reserve’s education centre. Here ponds house reed beds and water lilies. Surrounding them are trees laden with large black cormorants in crucifix-like poses. “They spread their wings like that because they don’t have a lot of oil on their plumage, so it’s easily waterlogged,” explains Bradshaw. “After diving for food they expand their wings and dry them in the sun … they’re very prehistoric looking, don’t you think?” Nearby a couple of water buffalo graze in the fields. Wong says 10 buffaloes have been introduced in the past decade. The animals play a vital part in habitat management. “Cutting grassed areas manually is labour intensive, time-consuming and expensive,” Wong says. “The buffaloes help with growth control and naturally manage the area by grazing and trampling on the vegetation.” The reserve is familiar territory for Wong, who started her WWF career more than 20 years ago and spent the first 10 years in the field with a focus on developing education programmes. It’s not surprising: Mai Po is a cradle for cultivating wetlands experts. “Over the years, we’ve organised more than 400 wetland training courses at Mai Po involving more than 4,500 participants,” she says. WWF-Hong Kong recently launched a three-year Wetland Incubator project to unite conservationists, scientists, academics and other stakeholders to brainstorm solutions to secure the wetlands, which play a significant role in mitigating climate change . To save lives and livelihoods, nature-based action to fight climate change is needed now, says Bradshaw. “We need comprehensive regulations to prioritise biodiversity and climate needs, rather than have them as an afterthought,” he says. Nature is a vital part of the education curriculum and Mai Po is a very good outdoor classroom. Seeing a child’s face light up while visiting the area is very rewarding Nicole Wong, chief executive of WWF-Hong Kong “The latest IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ] report projects that without severe cuts in emissions and actions to contribute to climate mitigation, we could exceed the 1.5 degrees C threshold [for warming compared to average pre-industrial temperature] within the next two decades.” With temperature rise comes potential rises in sea level – and Hong Kong is vulnerable, with numerous studies forecasting a rise will submerge Hong Kong’s coastal areas, resulting in massive economic losses to coastal communities and of infrastructure. One international study, released in 2020, found that global sea-level rise could exceed one metre by 2100 and five metres by 2300 if the rise in carbon emissions goes unchecked. “We need to expand this reserve to the east of here, because if water levels rise as a consequence of climate change, then this area will be inundated with water,” says Bradshaw. In December 2021 an alliance of environmental groups, including WWF-Hong Kong, called on the Hong Kong government to double to 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) the size of the Ramsar wetlands site on Deep Bay’s southern shore. Policies to protect wetlands are crucial, Bradshaw says. “Wetlands act as buffers for coastal protection from storms and wave surges that will cause considerable damage,” he says. Studies have also shown that mangroves can also ameliorate the strength of typhoons by absorbing energy. But wetlands, he says, are under threat from the dumping of waste. Others have been lost to development . Another challenge is capital: like many charities, WWF-Hong Kong is struggling through the Covid-19 pandemic, with social distancing regulations forcing the cancellation of fundraisers, while revenue-generating tours of the Mai Po marshes have also been disrupted, says Wong. “Keeping the reserve free from water pollution and siltation takes a lot of hard work.” Keeping out unwanted guests – invasive species such as apple snails and red fire ants – also keeps staff busy, she adds. “We’re always looking for volunteers.” Plan to protect Hong Kong’s Northern Metropolis wetlands ‘needs improving’ Corporate and community engagement, as well as hands-on education programmes, are key components of WWF-Hong Kong’s work as it strives to nurture a new generation of conservation advocates. “Nature is a vital part of the education curriculum and Mai Po is a very good outdoor classroom,’’ says Wong. “Seeing a child’s face light up while visiting the area is very rewarding.” Over the decades, the nonprofit has cultivated public interest in conservation with a series of annual events, including Earth Hour, the Big Bird Race and the Walk for Nature. Its role in shaping government policy over the years is also impressive, says Bradshaw. “Great progress has been made in our work with government departments to protect wildlife and combat the illegal wildlife trade,” he says. Significant, he says, were changes approved in 2021 by the Legislative Council giving Hong Kong authorities new legal powers to fight wildlife trafficking. WWF-Hong Kong, along with other environmental groups, had spent years pushing for harsher penalties for trafficking. And for good reason. Hong Kong has long been a hub for wildlife trafficking, with more than 640 tonnes of items derived from rare and endangered wildlife, worth HK$207 million (US$26.6 million), seized in 2018 and 2019, according to a 2021 report by environmental group the ADM Capital Foundation . Years of work fighting the ivory trade also paid off: on December 31, 2021, Hong Kong officially banned the sale of elephant ivory. Those guilty of import, re-export or commercial possession now face a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment and a HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) fine. But loopholes remain, with concerns traders will sell remaining stock on the black market, passing it off as legal antique ivory. As of November 2021, there were 47.1 tonnes of ivory left in the Hong Kong market. “We’re working with the government to call for a ban on antique and mammoth ivory to fix the loopholes,” says Bradshaw. The organisation has also made waves in ocean conservation, helping to protect species such as the Chinese white dolphin and horseshoe crab. “We worked with the AFCD to establish Hoi Ha Wan as one of Hong Kong’s first marine parks in 1996 and campaigned for a ban on trawling in Hong Kong waters,” says Bradshaw. The ban came into effect on January 1, 2013. “The ban was an encouraging step by the government and has helped safeguard the diversity of the Hong Kong marine environment.” Stemming the tide of development in a city where property is king and developers rule remains a constant challenge, however.