The combined impact of illegal dirt bike riders and wildfires has led to the rapid destruction of a popular Hong Kong hiking spot, prompting a local green group to call for stricter enforcement and reforestation. Once covered with silver grass, the slopes of Kai Kung Leng in Lam Tsuen Country Park in the New Territories are now sandy and barren, with dirt bike tires digging deep scars into the landscape and creating an increased risk of landslides. “Hikers are typically able to take their face masks off in the countryside, but that isn’t possible here, as every footstep raises a sandy cloud,” said Vivien Cheng Yu-wai, director of community partnerships at NGO The Green Earth. Although dirt biking has been an ongoing problem at Kai Kung Leng, travel bans since the coronavirus pandemic broke out last year have led to an increase in both bikers and hikers. “They may not necessarily know it’s illegal, but we know they’re not registered, as they don’t have number plates,” Cheng said. The NGO had spotted bikers almost every weekend since mid-November, she said, adding she had personally seen as many as 10 at the same time. Under the Country Parks and Special Areas Regulations, any vehicles, including dirt bikes, are prohibited from entering country parks without a permit. Anyone caught violating the rules can be fined a maximum of HK$2,000 (US$258) and face three months’ jail. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said it had been conducting regular patrols of all country parks, issuing seven fines in 2018, 18 in 2019 and four last year, while another 14 cases remain under investigation. It said violators were fined between HK$300 and HK$600. Cheng noted that the fines would be more effective if the maximum was handed out more frequently. “The penalty is definitely too light, but that does not mean it should not be enforced,” she said. The department also said it had put up a sign to remind residents about the rule, and would step up patrols of country parks as well as cooperation with other law enforcement agencies to stop the illegal dirt biking. Mountain biking for beginners: everything you need to know In addition, Kai Kung Leng has averaged two to three wildfires a year since 2016, affecting a total of 911 hectares over the past five years. Last year saw the largest area – 334 hectares – burned. Cheng said the loss of soil nutrients from the two threats has made it hard for plants to take root again, leading to faster deterioration of the natural environment. The AFCD said its fire control teams were at the ready 24 hours a day during peak wildfire season, and that it planned to set up a fire break in Kai Kung Leng to slow the spread of any blazes. It added that it had prioritised areas affected by fires for reforestation, utilising fast-growing plants resistant to burning and suitable for barren soil. While the AFCD had previously tried to reforest the area, those efforts were undone by the fires, Cheng said. And without plants providing moisture to stabilise the underlying soil, the risk of both landslides and wildfires would grow, creating a vicious cycle. “With the increase in visitors, the landscape has even less of a chance to heal from the damage. Every step they take on it just makes it worse.” The dirt bikers also posed threats to the safety of hikers, said Admond Yau, founder of local hiking blog FolloMe. The loose soil had made the already challenging hiking trail at Kai Kung Leng even more slippery, he said, upping the likelihood that visitors injure themselves. “The dirt bikers also start new trails, and there is the possibility inexperienced hikers could follow the wrong track and get lost,” he added. Yau, who along with other hikers has been helping The Green Earth record the damage, said he hoped the AFCD could step up patrols of the area and catch bikers before they made it up the hill. “Hikers can’t do much, because the bikers are wearing helmets and have no number plates, so we can’t lodge proper complaints,” he said. But even if attempts to repair the damaged areas were successful, Professor Ng Sai-leung of Chinese University’s department of geography and resource management said the local ecology and grass species would not be the same, as commercially available grass in Hong Kong was different from what naturally grew in Kai Kung Leng. “Of course, if you do not restore it, the problem becomes worse,” Ng said. “They is likely to have to grow some primitive vegetation such as grass first, and then later on plant some tree saplings to prevent further soil erosion.” Ultimately, Ng added, the onus is on authorities to enforce regulations and limit biking to specific areas to prevent any further destruction, while motorised vehicles should not be allowed at any time. “This doesn’t just end with restoration,” he said.