Input for HK Biodiversity Conservation Action Plan

Here are answers I've provided to some questions on Hong Kong's biodiversity, following a request from Civic Exchange - which in turn is responding to Hong Kong being about to sign the Convention on Biodiversity.

Civic Exchange is reviewing Hong Kong’s biodiversity conservation policy and programmes in preparation for making a suite of policy recommendations that would bring Hong Kong up to date with global best practice.  As a part of this process we are seeking the views of experts and stakeholders to further develop a strategic framework for biodiversity conservation in Hong Kong and we would seek your views on the following questions.

As you'll see, not fully organised, but maybe of some interest. Your comments would be welcome.

Input for Biodiversity Conservation Action Plan [later known as Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan] by Civic Exchange

1. What is the value of Hong Kong’s biodiversity?

Various values, some tangible – including financial, some intangible.

Tangible values

Historically, Hong Kong’s biodiversity was vital for ensuring people could live here. Supplied or helped supply all food, water, as well as much of housing materials, timber for building fishing boats; even helped in death with timber for coffins.

Nowadays, of course, Hong Kong doesn’t – and cannot – supply the population’s food requirements. But there are still important ecosystem services (which depend on biodiversity), such as:

Water: even with water piped from the Dongjiang, forests are still important for protecting Hong Kong’s water supplies.

Flood protection: closely allied to water supplies, wooded hillsides help guard against severe flooding, by moderating runoff of rainfall (compared to, say, bare rock or concrete)

Guarding against landslides: forests and shrubland help safeguard against landslides.

Localised climate moderation: greenery, especially well wooded areas, helps moderate microclimates, notably as not susceptible to heat island effects that impact the more concreted parts of Hong Kong.

Coastal protection: especially along south shore of Deep Bay, mangroves afford some protection of coastal areas against fires.

Intangible values

There are also “values” that are less related to supporting people, and helping generate wealth.

Important, though, if we consider biodiversity is in itself important, in part as we are all part of nature, cannot survive without natural world. Then, Hong Kong supports some notable species of plants and animals: debatable if these are of real “value”, but without them Hong Kong – and our planet – would be poorer.  

International significance: Hong Kong is small, yet has a remarkable mix of species. Includes some endemics, such as Romer’s frog and Hong Kong paradise fish; also globally threatened species such as black–faced spoonbill.

Biogeography: to Dr James Lazell, Hong Kong is notable partly as it is in an area that was a “conduit” for species to spread from Asia to North America, via land bridges formed during ice ages.

History: Hong Kong has historically made contributions to biodiversity, including as several species of plants were first collected here. Helped with wildlife studies in mainland China.

Research: research into local biodiversity continues, and is far more intensive than for many parts of Asia. Knowledge increased by professionals, including academics, as well as amateur experts such as birdwatchers. Ongoing biodiversity research in Hong Kong can help with expanding information on issues including global warming.

Education resource: Hong Kong’s biodiversity is a boon for helping educate local people about the natural world.

Balance for human life: having greenery nearby, even heading to wilder places, helps reduce stress. Surely of particular importance in this densely populated territory.

2. Where are we now with biodiversity conservation in Hong Kong?  

Overall: we’re pretty much becalmed.

After local biodiversity was long ravaged by man – leading to Hong Kong Island being dubbed “a barren island” when it was ceded to the British, there were some improvements, including through reforestation to help ensure water supplies.

Perhaps the Golden Age of conservation here came as the Country Parks system was established: affording fair protection for large swathes of the countryside, albeit mostly land that was hilly, excluding farmland and villages. [Not just for conservation; protecting water catchments important.]

Country Parks system seems visionary.

Establishment of Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve also notable in history of Hong Kong conservation.

Shuffling forward, and clumsy steps backwards:

Since then, progress has been slower, and by no means consistent.

Establishment of Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site important.

Marine parks/reserves established; yet cover small area, and no no-take areas.

Against this, pollution has become serious, including water pollution so severe that black coral has become established in relatively shallow Tolo Harbour/Channel.

Various local marshes have been lost or damaged; damage often continues.

Long Valley protection was a good thing.

Wetland Park built; yet despite vast expenditure, it has small habitats and a ridiculously huge visitor centre: priorities surely very wrong when it came to allocating funding.

Despite Wetland Park, we still have only one reserve protecting an existing wetland (ie Mai Po).

The designation of (12) rural areas that are important for biodiversity as being special areas, earmarked for projects that might bring profits yet protect biodiversity seems a good idea, yet bogged down – not at all clear how real progress can be achieved.

Forest plantations have too many exotic trees. Way too few of the great variety of native tree species have been widely planted/encouraged to grow.

The situation with these areas helps show that we have some fine words Good words; yet action – emphasis on development with concrete

Urban Hong Kong is mostly dire for biodiversity. Way too much concrete; even the parks that we do have tend to be far too manicured to be valuable for wildlife.

“Conservation” has been added to functions of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Dept. Yet something like having not just poacher turned gamekeeper; but poacher who is gamekeeper at same time – such as aiming to maintain fishing, and yet conserve fish!

AFCD does not seem strong – not compared to Transport, Planning and Lands Dept, say: showing biodiversity conservation is low on list of government priorities.

Also, limited area of responsibility: seems it does not have any say in city parks, which are under different department.

Recent creation of Hong Kong Geopark has seemed far more visionary than anything that has happened recently with Biodiversity in Hong Kong.

Fear of wildlife

Doesn’t help at all that we have had some demonization of wildlife. Stems in part from Hong Kong history: farmers arriving from north, and evidently finding species like venomous snakes and tigers dangerous (to a greater extent than people more used to such species?), and many deaths by diseases such as malaria.

Mosquitoes are scary. Sharks are terrifying; yes, had some people killed by sharks, but beach closures due to small and harmless shark species being found showed massive overreaction. We’ve had fearmongering re wild birds and H5N1 flu, founded on supposition rather than science: deeply, deeply sad to warn people off feeding wild birds.

Even trees are seen as scary. Yes, one fell and killed an unlucky passer-by; yet trees also have many benefits. Sadly, seems we’ve heard more in media about trees being scary, less re positive side.

Living in the concrete city, many people are isolated from biodiversity; it’s out there somewhere. Way too many Hong Kong kids are afraid of grass, butterflies…

And yet…

Partly as Hong Kong has become home to people here, rather than viewed as a transit place for many, and the territory has become affluent, there has been massive change in attitudes, with more people sympathetic towards natural environment. (By contrast, developers and some in government seem to still believe the best thing to do with green areas is “develop” them using a lot of concrete.)

More people are also heading into wilder areas, to pursue interest in wildlife. For instance, there are more and more bird photographers.  

3. Where do we want to be?

More balanced overall: so there is more biodiversity even in city areas.

More native species notably far more native trees, which will in turn support far better biodiversity in many places.

More power to the “Conservation” in AFCD, even within the city.

More reserves, including reserves safeguarding wetlands outside Deep Bay area.

More marine reserves/parks; with no-take zones introduced.

Biodiversity in rural areas protected.

Wetland Park greatly improved; becoming really part of Deep Bay wetland complex, and nurturing something akin to ecotourism. Justifying something of its HK$500 million cost – by helping tourism here, but also by really helping protect wetlands in Hong Kong, including wetlands away from Deep Bay.

Eco/nature tourism encouraged (unlike with current over the top regulations on tourism involving overseas visitors). Recognise that the main eco/nature tourists in Hong Kong are Hongkongers – helping spread wealth within territory, and providing important source of income for many rural places.

Other ways, too, for locals to make some money from areas where biodiversity is encouraged/enhanced: easy to say, hard to achieve, especially given land prices in Hong Kong and the ever hungry developers seeking to build concrete structures, roads and so forth.

Adults and kids experiencing wildlife. No one scared of, say, butterflies.

Strong memberships for non-governmental organisations that aim to protect biodiversity, so then are not financially beholden to corporate sponsors that may seek to encourage “greenwashing” and restrict feisty conservation campaigning.

Goodbye to the small house policy; this is outdated, and leading to proliferation of buildings spreading across rural areas.

4. Why is it important to act now?  

The longer you wait, the more that gets degraded or lost, the harder it is to restore what you have lost.

It is time to act, too; Hong Kong people are surely ready for more biodiversity conservation.

Time to act, as our biodiversity is under siege. Not in wilder hilly areas, though these hold relatively little biodiversity, but on flat land in rural areas, on fringes of the city.

5. How do we get there?  

Difficult!

Education is important. But not just for young people; it should not be their job to right the wrongs of older folk, and if we wait till young people have power to oversee change, it will be too late for at least some of our biodiversity.  

Education should include helping show people the value of biodiversity. For instance, the ecosystem services: water supplies clearly vital, and nowadays there’s more pressure on the already polluted Dongjiang water - making it wise for Hong Kong to ensure and safeguard local water catchments, which in turn means ensuring forest quality.

Might also highlight some key species. Black-faced spoonbill has received attention. Bauhinia – HK emblem – is widely seen, yet how many people know much about it: can lead on to telling more re HK plants. Black kites can be flagship species in city. Chinese white dolphin used as symbol for handover, yet precious little done to help them. We also have HK paradise fish, Romer’s tree frog – stories like this can help make people aware of biodiversity here, and its importance.

Such education should be partly government’s responsibility. Requires action from various departments – and yes, Transport, Planning and Lands, this means you too; and not just scenarios as with trees – when trees suddenly an issue, then seemingly forgotten about; just as Action Blue Sky Campaign seemed to be launched and then abandoned.

Such education should be ongoing; so biodiversity is in warp and weave of Hong Kong.

Legislation: needs enforcing. Maybe more is needed.

More innovative policies. Easy to say “innovative”, yet hard. What policies can really help rural biodiversity sites where developers are keen to introduce concrete and reap profits?

These should be in tandem with a sea-change in philosophy: it’s not enough to just say “sustainable development” like a fine buzzword, and only pay lip service to it. Instead, sustainable development should be at the forefront; with biodiversity conservation as major part of such development.

Biodiversity is, then, of strategic importance to Hong Kong.  

City greening: large tracts of the city can be made greener, both at ground level and on roof tops.

Wild areas are advisable, even in city parks. Ensure park managers are free to experiment, and won’t be sacked for having untidy places that butterflies and a variety of birds (say) may be attracted to.

Chop down many exotic trees in our countryside; plant the vacant areas with native species, or allow them to colonise. A policy to do just this was recently announced; needs to be strongly implemented.

Change in mindset of government leaders would seem important. Donald Tsang is a birdwatcher, yet government policies do not reflect an understanding of the natural world. Instead, “vision” seems – to me – out-dated, with concrete seen as the way forward, whether or not the projects really make sense (Wetland Park dominated by concrete centre; Cyberport and Disneyland not at all as successful as forecast; Stonecutters Bridge seems a white elephant; and yet we have lots more developments planned.)

Concreting is of course driven by developers. Very very hard to lessen their power to extent that would be ideal for enabling sound biodiversity conservation, and balanced development of Hong Kong.

Far better for many of the developer type people to be partly redeployed to greening Hong Kong – green rooftops, green estate surroundings, better parks, a harbour front with greenery we can be proud of. This would require far more than simply some soil with a few plants and trees here and there. Many challenges to overcome.

6. How do we measure progress?  

Hard too.

Species diversity important; also populations and distributions.

Might monitor at selected sites. But better to try for overall assessments.

Unleash interested amateurs: people interested in wildlife can help monitor, comment on changes.

Media monitoring may help. How many articles related to biodiversity; tv programmes? Numbers of website forums re wildlife, and numbers of posts to them.

Area of greenery, notably in city; amount of these with native trees, with grass people can walk and sit on…

Numbers of nature reserves.

Restrictions in reserves: do we have any marine no-take zones?

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Martin Williams's picture

Civic Exchange's report titled Nature Conservation: a new policy framework for Hong Kong is now out. You can download a copy at: http://www.civic-exchange.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/110121Nature...

Reading through, seems a worthy piece of work, but horrendously dull - sad reflection on us living in a world dominated by corporate culture. No hint of passion for wildlife in here; instead we get things like:

In how many months’ time will an approved, resourced, and active BSAP that meets the principles and standards of the CBD be in place?

Ouch!

Ironic in extreme, I believe, that the report was sponsored by Exxon Mobil - one of world's most anti-biodiversity companies it seems to me, given its long-term support for funding climate sceptics. See, for instance, Guardian report from July 2009:

ExxonMobil continuing to fund climate sceptic groups, records show

Records show ExxonMobil gave hundreds of thousands of pounds to lobby groups that have published 'misleading and inaccurate information' about climate change