Wild child I was born in 1964 in Germany. My father was with the British Army and after Germany we lived in Cyprus and Canada and went to England when I was five years old. In 1975, when I was 10, we moved to Hong Kong and I went to KGV (King George V School). I was always interested in nature. As a schoolboy I had friends who were keen bird watchers and I went out with them. But I wasn’t just interested in the birds, I was looking for spiders, butterflies, everything.
After my O Levels I went back to the UK and went on to study environment studies at Hatfield Polytechnic. I enjoyed being a student, but it wasn’t a particularly good degree and sucked a lot of enthusiasm out of me. Fortunately, it was a sandwich degree.
My father was back in Hong Kong, working at Hong Kong Polytechnic. He helped arrange a placement for me there, in the biology department. The person in the lab next to me was the wife of my future boss. After I graduated, she said her husband, who worked at Hong Kong University, needed a research assistant and that kick-started my career.
Life through a lens Initially I was sitting in a lab in front of a microscope sorting out thousands and thousands of aquatic insect samples that my boss, Dr David Dudgeon, had collected in Papua New Guinea. That led on to work in Hong Kong streams with him. In 1990, my contract ran out and I asked if I could do an MPhil. I got a two-year scholarship, but it took me four years to do it. I studied reed beds and the insects associated with them at Mai Po Marshes.
Gurkha nights There was nowhere nearby that I could live so they put me in a wooden hut on the edge of a gei wai, a shrimp pond. The hut was heaving with mosquitoes and I could hear rats scuttling around in the night and sometimes on the bed. The first night I stayed in the hut, just before midnight, I heard a splash in the water outside followed by a grunt. I looked out the window, it was a full moon, and I could see two otters swimming across the gei wai. It was a great way to start my life there. I had a few interesting encounters with the Gurkhas. Coming home late at night, they’d jump out from the bushes thinking I might be an illegal immigrant.
Spiky issues The early 1990s was an exciting time for ecology students because there was a lot going on. I co-founded a natural history newsletter called Porcupine and it quickly expanded and was read by everyone who was interested in ecology and natural history in Hong Kong. There is so much wildlife at Mai Po: in winter it’s teeming with migratory wading birds and there are also otters, leopard cats, mongooses and many snakes. I finished the MPhil in 1994 and my boss offered me a job doing a two-year survey of freshwater wetlands all over Hong Kong. Most of the fresh water wetlands are marshes and ponds and are unmanaged, unless they are fishponds. They are hot spots for biodiversity and none of them are protected because they tend to be outside the country parks. We wanted to get some idea of the important marshes and which animals lived in them.
Nature trails I went all over Hong Kong, from southwest Lantau to northeast New Territories. At Sham Chung, in Sai Kung, there was a huge marsh in the mid-90s. It turned out to be home to an undescribed fish species, which was later named the Hong Kong Paradise fish. It apparently evolved in Hong Kong. A couple of years later, a developer tried to make a golf course there and drained the marsh, so that was a downer. Some of these places you have to walk hours to get to and I was always encountering wild boar, porcupines, king cobras.
I taught myself how to identify dragonflies and butterflies and that put me in good stead for the next stage of my career. Chris Patten had set up an Environmental Conservation Fund and there was money from that to do a biodiversity survey of Hong Kong and I was taken on as a senior research assistant. I went to the far corners of the territory, the farthest flung islands, surveying mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. There are approximately 100 amphibian and reptile species and 36 terrestrial mammal species, including 26 species of bat, two civet cats, two mongooses and two barking deer, otter, leopard cat, ferret badger, yellow-bellied weasel and porcupine.
Reels’ beauties I was never an academic, I was always good at field work. I like being outdoors. I eventually specialised in dragonflies and discovered more than 20 dragonfly species in China, in Guangdong and Hainan Island, and also in Borneo. I have had quite a few insects named after me. Four beetles and a moth in Hong Kong and a dragonfly from South China – it is called Atratothemis reelsi – and a damselfly from Borneo called Bornargiolestes reelsi. Tony Galsworthy, the former head of the British Liaison Group, named the moth after me, calling it Microcalicha reelsi, the common name is Reels’ Beauty, but it’s a brown little thing.
Tony was a moth expert in his spare time. When he went back to London, I used to send him specimens of moth I’d collected. He’d identify them and send them back by diplomatic bag to Government House. One time I drove up in my old field car to collect them and was lounging about in the forecourt waiting for the package. Chris Patten came out with an aid discussing something animatedly. He looked at me, scowled, and said to his aid, “Who is that?” The guy must have said something like, “That’s Tony’s moth nerd,” because Patten went, “Ahh.”
It was during that time on the biodiversity survey that I met Moni, she was an assistant on the project. We got married in 1999 and we’ve got two kids.
Confessions of a naturalist When the biodiversity project was over I worked at Kadoorie Farm as the senior conservation officer for a few years. In 2000, I took a job as an ecological consultant, doing environmental impact assessment reports for developers. I did it because it paid well and I’d just got married and was starting a family, but I didn’t really enjoy it. It was never going to be as good as doing the biodiversity survey – that was my dream job.
I started writing Confessions of a Hong Kong Naturalist in 2000, but it went on the backburner and it was only recently that I finished the book. It’s the first informal, non-academic book about the wildlife of Hong Kong since Geoffrey Herklots wrote The Hong Kong Countryside in 1951.
I moved to Winchester, in the UK, with my family in 2012. Just before I left Hong Kong, I’d begun working as a copy editor; I’d always enjoyed editing since my days at Porcupine.
Recently I’ve been pulled back into natural history because, in the past few years, I’ve been coming back to repeat the wetlands survey of 1994-95 and conduct a territory-wide dragonfly survey. We plan to return to Hong Kong eventually, it’s a difficult place to leave and we miss it.
Confessions of a Hong Kong Naturalist, by G.T. Reels, published by Atratothemis Books is available in book shops.