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Conservation

An ecologically rich Hong Kong wetland has been trashed by off-roaders and war-gamers, leaving it 80 per cent degraded. Green group hopes to revive it

  • Sha Lo Tung valley’s woodlands have been cleared and marshes left to dry out after years of squabbles over development
PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 10:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 4:57pm

A Hong Kong green group will spend two years reviving an ecologically rich rural Tai Po enclave that has been subject to decades of neglect and wetland degradation as a result of deadlock over development.

Despite the Sha Lo Tung valley being 90 per cent privately owned, planning issues, squabbles with indigenous inhabitants and a lack of management meant its marshes and abandoned paddy fields were left to dry out and languish.

Since the 1990s, woodlands have been cleared, vegetation burned, and streams diverted. Off-road enthusiasts still pulverise the land in four-wheel-drive vehicles and the ground is littered with plastic BB pellets left behind by war-gamers. The area is also a hotspot for illegal wildlife trapping.

To the horror of ecologists in 2016, a few villagers – upset about landowners’ failure to compensate them with new houses in the 1990s – cleared their land and attempted to grow rapeseed, a non-native species, on a green belt and conservation area.

“About 80 per cent of the wetland in the Sha Lo Tung valley has been degraded,” Green Power senior environmental affairs manager Matthew Sin Kar-wah said. “The 2016 rapeseed saga dried out the land even more. Sha Lo Tung’s original hydrology has been completely altered.”

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Green Power hopes to change that, starting with a 24-month project to manage and restore the natural ecosystem until a land exchange deal between the government and landowner is completed.

The aim, Sin said, was to revive the wetland environment and bring back dragonflies.

Once a boggy valley of terraced rice farms, Sha Lo Tung’s marshes, woodlands and streams formed an important habitat for more than 80 species of dragonfly, rare butterflies, birds of prey and mammals such as civets and barking deer.

The native Romer’s tree frog and Hong Kong paradise fish have also been documented there.

“Our foremost goal is to ensure that the ecological value does not decline any further,” Sin said.

The NGO received HK$8.5 million (US$1.1 million) from the government’s Environment and Conservation Fund earlier this year to implement a two-year conservation management agreement on some 11.5 hectares (28 acres). The first stage of work – baseline ecosystem studies – began in April.

Longer-term measures include building artificial ponds and marshes, clearing the area of traps and invasive species such as the aggressive “mile-a-minute weed”, and replanting aquatic plants.

It will also bring back some organic farming with the help of some villagers.

Surveillance cameras have been installed and the firm which owns more than 90 per cent of the land – Sha Lo Tung Development Company – has hired security guards to help ward off off-roaders, war-gamers, poachers and vandals.

For the sake of the valley’s long-term conservation, the government announced last year that it would carry out an unprecedented non-in-situ land exchange with the company. The developer was offered a plot of land in the restored Shuen Wan landfill in Tai Po to build a golf course – as was originally planned in the 1990s.

Sha Lo Tung landowner may be forced to sell holdings

The two parties are still discussing details of the exchange and the firm is conducting an environmental impact assessment. They expect the Shuen Wan development to be completed by 2021.

The Environmental Protection Department said management of Sha Lo Tung would be handed to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department – or its appointed agency – when the deal went through. Green Power’s management agreement would also be terminated by then, it said.