Po Toi merits country park status

Po Toi: Magnet for Migratory Birds and Potential Ecotourism Hotspot

Though close to southeastern Hong Kong Island, Po Toi is an island that the modern world has mostly passed by. The population has fallen from around a thousand in the 1970s, to well under a hundred residents, most of whom also live in or near Aberdeen. Perhaps the last main news event here was a fire in 1991, which destroyed most of a row of restaurants and houses at the main village, Wan Tsai.

            Yet in recent weeks, Po Toi has featured in news reports following a halt to a columbarium project, which led to the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society spearheading calls for protection of the island as country park. Arguments in favour of conservation include the island’s splendid scenery, local culture, and importance for wildlife – especially migratory birds.

po toi buddha's hand

            Po Toi is fashioned from granite, which rises to around 200 metres, and is two kilometres wide, with Wan Tsai cradled in an inlet on the west coast, near which a wild, rocky headland is the southernmost land in Hong Kong. Many visitors come solely to enjoy seafood at Wan Tsai, but you can follow trails to the headland, up and over Po Toi’s hilly interior, and past natural rock sculptures such as Buddha’s Hand and Turtle Climbing the Hill.

Magnetic appeal for migratory birds

            Though for some years there have been indications that Po Toi could be good for seeing migratory birds, it was not until a Briton, Geoff Welch, began a bird study that it was found to be a real hotspot – as if it has magnetic appeal for birds travelling flyways along the south China coast.

            Welch says he started his study in 2006, after retiring. A keen birdwatcher as a boy, he had retained a lifelong interest in birds, and as he lives in Ap Lei Chau, Po Toi appeared a promising place to focus his efforts. Even in February that year, before spring migration really began, Welch found a Chinese Song Thrush on the island. It was only the second record of this species in Hong Kong, and Welch was soon to make more remarkable discoveries, leading to further visits by birdwatchers and bird photographers – and a host of notable sightings.

             To date, over 300 bird species have been recorded on Po Toi or at sea nearby: that’s more than 60 percent of Hong Kong’s total. Ten have been confirmed as new species for Hong Kong; at least seven are believed threatened with extinction. Po Toi is Hong Kong’s best place for seeing gorgeous forest birds that pass through Hong Kong – especially in spring, when there’s a good chance of finding Narcissus flycatchers that are black above, incandescent orange below, and Japanese paradise flycatchers with extravagantly long central tail feathers.

            Welch explains that Po Toi’s location is key to the numbers of migrants – with only open sea between here and the Philippines, it’s one of the first places birds can make landfall. Plus, there is a good mix of habitats; the landbirds are mainly found in fung shui woods, shrubs and patches of old farmland beside the village.

"Memorial Garden" - and Country Park Proposal

Late last year, workers began removing low vegetation along a small valley, and soon the cleared land was dotted with hundreds of ash cement squares, ready for a columbarium billed as a “memorial garden”. The project was reportedly illegal, and the Town Planning Board soon made Po Toi a Development Permission Area, putting a halt to the columbarium – though the owners may appeal in court.

In response, the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society has called for Po Toi to be designated as country park – which the government had recommended in 2001, though no action has been taken since. The society has a Facebook page to promote the campaign (支持蒲台郊野公園 Support Po Toi Country Park) and is proposing that southwest Po Toi become a Site of Special Scientific Interest, further protecting the key habitats for birds. Other wildlife is also found here, such as Burmese pythons, and the tiny Romer’s tree frog, which was known to naturally occur on only four islands in the world, all in Hong Kong (one of these islands, Chek Lap Kok, was all but destroyed to make way for the airport).

HKBWS conservation officer Beetle Cheng Nok-ming notes that protection of Po Toi could benefit islanders, including those running restaurants and small cafes for visitors: “It may be possible to develop Po Toi as an eco-tourism hotspot, which would bring more people.”

By late May this year, a series of rainstorms had created a small marsh in part of the columbarium, where ash cement patches were crumbling, and long grass had grown. Little bitterns – tiny members of the heron family – were among migrants that sought shelter there, encouraging birdwatchers such as Welch to dream of creating a mini wetland reserve.

Welch often stays overnight on Po Toi, and though conditions are tough – recently, a generator had burnt out so he spent several days and nights without electricity – he says, “The birds make it worthwhile.”

Reflecting on Po Toi’s significance for biodiversity, Welch remarks that the surrounding waters are also good for marine life: “In March, I see families of porpoises with young ones swimming by.” These are globally endangered finless porpoises – among the many species for which Po Toi and its surroundings are a haven that deserves lasting protection.

- written for Ming Pao Weekly; a translated version (below) was published on 23 June 2012







         雖然在近年不少人士都曾經指出蒲台島可以成為觀賞候鳥的理想地點,小島卻是在英國人Geoff Welch展開一項鳥類研究後,才被視為真正的賞鳥勝地。小島對飛往南中國海岸的雀鳥來說,有著磁石一樣的吸引力。













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Martin Williams's picture

I wrote to govt departments (Lands?) to support proposal for Po Toi Country Park; received this reply:

Our ref:  AF GR CPA 10/29

Dear Sir/Madam,

I refer to your recent e-mail to this Department concerning Po Toi.

Please be advised that whether an area is suitable for designation as a country park should be assessed against the established principles and criteria, which include conservation value, landscape and aesthetic value, recreation potential, size, proximity to existing country parks, land status and existing land use.  Views of the Country and Marine Parks Board (the Board) on the assessment should also be sought.

Po Toi was first identified to have potential for country park designation by the Planning Department in 1993. This Department commissioned a study in 1999 which concluded that Po Toi would be suitable for country park designation.  The study was also endorsed by the Board in 2000. Due to the priority of the various designation proposals, the designation of Po Toi as a country park has yet to be initiated. Nevertheless, we have conducted various biodiversity surveys on Po Toi during the past decade, and confirm the ecological value of the Island.   

This Department would take the views and comments from members of the public, the latest development and planning of Po Toi, as well as the resource availability to consider the priority of the proposal to designate Po Toi as a country park.  At present, there is no definite plan to designate Po Toi as a new country park.

Thank you for your care towards countryside conservation.


Country Parks Officer
Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department








(葉國樑  代行)

Martin Williams's picture

Good news in SCM Post on 29 Sept:

Town planners to impose controls on Po Toi Island developments

Despite decision, town planners face court challenge from developers over island project
The Town Planning Board upheld its decision to impose controls on any development on Po Toi Island yesterday, but now faces a legal challenge from developers who are building a memorial garden there.

Splendid Resources and Sky Pacific, which have planned 4,400 funeral urn niches in a columbarium, said the hearing process was unfair.

"We wrote to the board four times before the hearing, asking for a deferral, but we were ignored," Splendid Resources spokesman Mak Chi-yeung said. "Many of the public submissions accepted by the board lack personal details. People did not provide their full names or contact details, which violates the town planning rules."

He said the company would take legal action contesting the board's decision.

Mak was referring to yesterday's hearing, at which board members examined public views on the move to impose a development permission area plan covering more than 90 per cent of the island. This would mean nearly all developments must obtain prior board approval.

The decision was welcomed by Eddie Tse Sai-kit, convenor of a concern group that focuses on illegal columbariums.

Po Toi Island is home to several rare butterflies and the endangered Romer's tree frog, and has rock carvings that are 3,500 years old.

But since last December, the columbarium developer has been installing memorial stones on the island. Two thousand niches have already been developed as part of the memorial garden. This triggered strong opposition from green groups and the concern group opposing illegal columbariums.

The developers said a government consultation paper on regulating private columbarium facilities, released in July 2010, made them believe that the memorial garden was legal.

But the Lands Department said the developer breached land leases and it may still repossess the site.

The department asked the developers to remove the concrete slabs on the site by February 28, but they did not comply with the order and filed a request with the Court of First Instance to clarify details of the breaches.

The island's indigenous residents said they were against a columbarium for fear that it may disturb their lifestyle, but some said they hoped any development would bring better electricity and water supply....

Martin Williams's picture

email from Town Planning Board:

Draft Po Toi Islands Development Permission Area Plan No. DPA/I-PTI/1
(Representation No. R82)

        I refer to my letter to you dated 21.9.2012.

        After giving consideration to the representations and related comments, the Town Planning Board (TPB) noted on 28.9.2012 the views of the representations in support of the draft Development Permission Area (DPA) Plan and agreed to advise you that:

the DPA Plan is an interim plan which can be replaced by an Outline Zoning Plan (OZP) within 3 years.  In the preparation of the OZP, land use zonings for the Area will be comprehensively reviewed subject to a more detailed analysis of the land use pattern, infrastructural provisions, environmental and ecological values and local need.  Relevant stakeholders including green groups, the concerned government departments, Islands District Council, and the Lamma Island South Rural Committee will also be consulted.

        The TPB also decided not to propose amendments to the above Plan to meet the representations for the following reasons:

Designation of Conservation Zonings (R1 to R7, R9 to R74, R76 to R79, R82 and R83)

(a)        whilst there is potential to designate conservation zonings, including “Conservation Area” (“CA”), “Coastal Protection Area” (“CPA”) and/or “Site of Special Scientific Interest” (“SSSI”), in the Area (especially in Po Toi), the details of the designation need to be carefully studied in the course of OZP preparation to ensure a balance between the rights of indigenous villagers of Po Toi and nature conservation should be struck.  Relevant assessments/studies on various aspects including ecology, environment, landscape, geology, etc. will be conducted in consultation with the government departments concerned.  Relevant stakeholders will be consulted during the process;

Designation of Country Park / Marine Mark (R1 to R7, R9 to R74, R76 to R79, R82 and R83)

(b)        designation of Country Park and Marine Park is under the jurisdiction of the Country and Marine Parks Authority (CMPA) governed by the Country Parks Ordinance (Cap. 208) and Marine Parks Ordinance (Cap. 476) which are outside the purview of the TPB;
        Boundary of the “Village Type Development” (“V”) zone (R2 and R3)
(c)        the current “V” zone boundary has primarily reflected the existing village clusters and has excluded the sandy beach at Tai Wan.  It has also taken the coastline, existing man-made features, the high water mark level, ‘village environs’, local topography and site characteristics into account, avoiding any ecologically sensitive areas and stream courses;   
Proposals not directly related to the DPA Plan

        Provision of facilities in the Area (R4 and R8)

(d)        the appropriateness to provide tourist, infrastructure and utility facilities for tourism and recreational purposes in the Area requires detailed consideration and assessments in consultation with relevant government departments.  As such, the need for providing such facilities in the Area and designation of appropriate zonings, if required, will be further studied at the preparation of the OZP stage;

        Resumption of village layout plans preparation (R1)

(e)        the preparation of new village layout plans for villages covered by existing OZPs will depend on a number of factors such as implementation prospect of the village layout plans, manpower and priority of work within Planning Department (PlanD).  For the new DPA Plans which has just been completed such as this DPA Plan, OZPs with specific land use zonings should be prepared before layout plans can be contemplated.  As the boundary of the “V” zone will be further reviewed and defined at the preparation of OZP stage, the need for preparation of new village layout plans for the “V” zone to be covered by the OZP will then be reviewed as appropriate;
Preparation of statutory plans for other areas (R1)

(f)        it has been the Government’s long-term target to prepare statutory plans for all areas of Hong Kong except areas covered / to be covered by Country Park (CP).  Such task will be undertaken having regard to development pressure, priorities and resource availability; and

        Suspend the processing of Small House applications (R1)

(g)        processing of land grant applications under the Small House policy is outside the purview of the TPB.

        The TPB also agreed to advise the representations that:

(a)        the issue of “Destroy First, Build Later” had been thoroughly discussed by the TPB on 24.6.2011.  The TPB is determined to conserve the rural and natural environment and will not tolerate any deliberate action to destroy the rural and natural environment in the hope that the TPB would give sympathetic consideration to subsequent development on the site concerned.  Since then, the TPB has adopted a practice to defer consideration of a planning application which may involve an unauthorised development (UD) so as to allow time for Planning Department (PlanD) to carry out full investigation into whether there is UD on the site; (R1, R2, R4, R7, R9, R75, R80 and R83) and

(b)        the DPA Plan is prepared to empower the Planning Authority to undertake enforcement action against any UD and undesirable change of use in the Area.  Should UD be identified in the future, enforcement action will be instigated under the Town Planning Ordinance. (R1, R2, R4, R7, R9, R75, R80 and R83)

        A copy of the relevant extract of minutes of the TPB meeting held on 28.9.2012 is enclosed herewith for your reference.

        In accordance with section 8 of the Town Planning Ordinance, the above Plan together with a schedule of the representation(s) and comment(s), if any, will be submitted to the Chief Executive in Council for a decision.

        If you wish to seek further clarification/information on matters relating to the above decision, please contact Mr. Tim Fung of Sai Kung & Islands District Planning Office at 2158 6157.

Yours faithfully,
for Secretary, Town Planning Board