Protecting biodiversity should involve all Hong Kong people

I’ve been unusually slow to start writing this science column. Not because it covers arcane quantum physics that boggles my mind, but because its topic is so grand as to prove hard to put into words.

There is a word for the topic – “biodiversity”, a contraction of biological diversity. And Hong Kong government is currently working on a Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, as part of obligations to the Convention on Biodiversity. Which seems fine and dandy, until you ask: What does this really mean?

While founded on fieldwork like finding frogs in muddy marshes, “biodiversity” is too often obscured by the jargon of Powerpoint presentations in cloistered conferences. For example: “Successful management of biodiversity and ecosystem services must be based on multi-scale, multi-sectoral, and multi-stakeholder involvement,” to quote from among reams of well-meaning mumbo jumbo.

But does this matter? Isn’t it okay to leave biodiversity to besuited conference attendees, and greenies who are overly fond of frogs?

Well, it matters a lot. After all, biodiversity spans life as we know it, which includes you and me. Here is E.O. Wilson, a great biologist and one of the most eloquent writers on the subject, telling of the difference it will make if some species are extinguished: “New sources of scientific information will be lost. Vast potential biological wealth will be destroyed. Still undeveloped medicines, crops, pharmaceuticals, timber fibers, pulp, soil-restoring vegetation, petroleum substitutes, and other products and amenities will never come to light.”

New-fangled yet intuitively understood

Though biodiversity is a new-fangled term, coined in 1985, humans have surely long had an intuitive grasp of its meaning. Even our earliest ancestors would have noticed the marked differences between forested lakeshores with abundant plants and animals, and places like nearby deserts where food and shelter were harder to come by.

Deteriorations in biodiversity would have also attracted attention, even causing severe impacts on human societies. The collapse of Central America’s Maya Civilization, from AD800-900, may have resulted from a succession of droughts. There is evidence that humans living on Easter Island, in the Pacific, caused so much deforestation that living there became extremely tough, perhaps involving cannibalism. To people such as American scientist Jared Diamond, this is a cautionary tale for what might happen planet-wide if we devastate Earth’s biodiversity.

Here in Hong Kong, I believe that along with superstition, fung shui encodes information on how to site a village for rice farming, complete with meandering stream passing by. The fung shui woods that are typically seen on uphill slopes beside villages may have arisen partly through the wisdom of guarding against landslides on otherwise deforested hillsides.

An orgy of destruction

The local deforestation was just a small part of what the Economist has called “an orgy of destruction” that humans are inflicting on the rest of the natural world. E.O. Wilson is among biologists who believe this is resulting in an ongoing Sixth Extinction, akin to prehistoric extinction events such as the one involving the demise of the dinosaurs, with species being extinguished at least 1000 times faster than the normal rate.

In response, there have been calls for and some action towards protecting plants and animals, through organisations like the World Wildlife Fund – now World Wide Fund for Nature or simply WWF, which was founded in 1961. As WWF’s giant panda logo indicates, these conservation measures have often focused on charismatic species.

Though Hong Kong lacks such wild megastars as pandas, some species have become standard bearers for conservation. The globally rare black-faced spoonbill is often cited as an indicator of the international importance of the Deep Bay wetland, including Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve – since around 20 percent of the world population occurs here each year. The tiny Romer’s tree frog was unique to just four islands in Hong Kong, including Chek Lap Kok. When the new airport was built, it achieved a measure of fame as individuals were rescued, and bred in captivity before new populations were established.

Arguably the most charismatic Hong Kong species is Chinese white dolphin, which despite the name is bubble gum pink when adult. Thanks partly to being the official mascot of Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997, the dolphin has emerged from obscurity to minor celebrity status. Meanwhile, however, its numbers have plummetted. Following construction of the airport, and with intense boat traffic plus work on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, numbers recorded in local waters fell from around 158 in 2003 to just 61 last year.

This and countless other examples from around the world show that being charismatic, perhaps even cute, is rarely enough to safeguard a species form the orgy of destruction. People need more reasons to be persuaded that biodiversity is really worth protecting.

Ecosystem services - and economics

This leads to conservationists espousing “ecosystem services”, which cover a range of benefits such as food, medicines, erosion control, recreation, and maintaining genetic diversity. Though it’s hard to quantify the value of these – for instance, how much is clean air worth? – in 1997 a team of scientists and ecologists estimated that the Earth’s ecosystem services were worth at least US$33 trillion per year, almost double total gross national product.

Five years later, Lisa Hopkinson and Rachel Stern produced a Civic Exchange report, estimating that the quantifiable conservation value of Hong Kong’s natural resources was between HK$1.8 billion and HK$6.5 billion per year. HK$880 million of this was for watershed protection, reflecting the role of planted forests in ensuring high quality water enters reservoirs used for water supplies.

This data, plus a wealth of other information, shows that even for highly urbanised Hong Kong it’s crucial to protect and nurture biodiversity. Not simply for spoonbills, frogs and dolphins, but for everyone here, even hard-nosed construction-loving tycoons.

Yet right now, work on the Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan proceeds out of the limelight, in backrooms. It’s too important for this; drawing up a strong, workable plan will require input from far more people. Unlike many a topic covered on science pages, biodiversity is inextricably linked with you and me, and needs understanding and robust support.

The government, too, needs guiding and encouraging – more trees, less bridges! – to avoid the surely tempting trap of producing something that’s all plan, and no action.

Written for the Sunday Morning Post; published on 10 November 2013

Martin Williams
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