Spirit of Hong Kong

Caring for the environment is in his nature

Nature enthusiast Martin Williams is passionate about the environment

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 3:51pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 2:02pm

Martin Williams talks at a lick, so it’s hard to keep up. It’s because the British science writer, Cheung Chau resident, photographer, nature website creator and environmentalist has a lot of topics he’d like to cover.

This includes the current issue over ivory tusks: Hong Kong, among a number of territories and countries, has a stockpile, so the debate rages over whether to burn them but run the risk that ivory tusk hoarders could come into a windfall when elephants eventually become extinct.

There’s also the issue of shark fin. Following on from a video posted on YouTube of a female passenger having a tantrum in front of Cathay Pacific staff, Williams asked an actress friend to record a spoof clip about a woman unable to get shark’s fin soup at a Cheung Chau seafood restaurant. The actress recorded herself screaming and lashing out at people, before throwing herself to the floor. The clip went viral and has so far clocked up 1.4 million hits.

“I had no idea it was going to be so popular,” says Williams, who has been recognised as an “Outstanding Earth Champion” by the Earth Champions Foundation, and has other plans to create videos that target environmental issues.

Then there’s the issue of bird flu, when wild birds were sometimes blamed for outbreaks of bird flu and the Mai Po nature reserve was temporarily closed. That’s one that really vexes Williams, a keen birdwatcher since a friend who was an enthusiast persuaded him to try it out.

“Initially I thought it was a bit girly to watch birds,” says Williams, who is from Scarborough in northeast England. However he soon caught the bug, even once driving from Scarborough to south Wales to find a bird he hadn’t yet spotted.

As a student at Cambridge University studying for a doctorate in physical chemistry, Williams planned a trip in 1985 with a group to visit Beidaihe, on the east coast of China, an area renowned for its migratory birds based on studies in the 1950s by Danish researcher Dr Axel Hemmingsen.

“But we had information that this town was shut in the winter,” Williams says. There was no proper bird watching in China at the time, but encouraged by the International Crane Foundation, Williams set off for Beidaihe.

Things began quietly as they looked over a hill, and then suddenly the wind changed. “The wind had changed to the south and suddenly hundreds of geese came over honking. Then there were Siberian cranes and Red Crown cranes. We finished up in Beidaihe recording 285 species in Beidaihe.”

Twenty-six years on, and Williams is remembered in Beidaihe for his pioneering work – which not only led to some of the birds’ habitats being saved, but also to a rise in nature tourism. “We formed the Beidaihe Birdwatching Society and managed to stop some of the development,” says Williams.

Williams loves photography, and his photographs of local butterflies, birds and buffalo are arguably of National Geographic standard. He recently published a book on Hong Kong that features the city’s rural areas more than its famous urban landscape.

His website Hong Kong Outdoors includes stunning photos of Hong Kong’s countryside, suggestions for walks as well as useful ferry timetables, blogs and articles.

Williams, who has a young son, believes humans are leaving it far too late to reverse the destruction going on in all parts of the world.

“We should be decent and proper stewards of the natural world,” he says. “A lot of it is just about greed.”

While a lot of his research as a scientist gives him an insight into the level of destruction, Williams also tries to get out as much as possible to enjoy nature. “There are still great things to see in the natural environment,” he says. “So I try to balance it out and still enjoy getting out and look at birds and other things.”