Masterplan for a More Sustainable Future for Mai Po, Deep Bay Wetland and Beyond

Phase 3 map: spanning Mai Po, Lut Chau, Nam Sang Wai and Wo Sang Wai

Yes, this is may seem impossible, ridiculous; but continuing with current state of affairs doesn’t look good for long term future of Deep Bay wetlands.

The government is currently planning to establish “a system of wetland conservation parks for the proactive conservation of the wetlands in Deep Bay under the Northern Metropolis Development Strategy”. Perhaps some ideas here can be considered during planning these parks. And of course, hope these wetland conservation parks will prove well planned, managed and worthwhile; not just akin to greenwashing, as a sop to environmentalists while the emphasis is more on concrete metropolis [in itself a scary word to me, for an area like this!].

Right now, the Deep Bay area is oddly fragmented – with Mai Po, the Wetland Park, various fishpond areas: all physically connected, yet also kind of isolated from one another – for instance, the Wetland Park is right beside Fung Lok Wai, but you have to travel several kilometres to go between one and the other.

It’s hardly unique to suggest there should be more holistic planning and development – see, for instance, Green Groups Call for Holistic Conservation Policy and Roadmap of Wetland Conservation; and from WWF Hong Kong, CONCEPT NOTE ON INTEGRATED CONSERVATION FOR MAI PO & DEEP BAY WETLANDS: EXTEND [SIC] THE MAI PO & INNER DEEP BAY RAMSAR SITE.

Mai Po at 40 years old: frozen in time?

I arrived in Hong Kong in 1987, just as Mai Po was rocketing to worldwide fame; after the reserve had been established in 1983.

What a great reserve; so many birds! And with an innovative boardwalk – for local birders, allowing previously impossible views of the many birds feeding on the Deep Bay mudflats.

It did strike me, as a British birder used to various wetland birds, there were few visitors.

Fast forward to today and really, not so much has changed within Mai Po. Great it has been protected through the years, but still hard for most people to visit, and what of its influence elsewhere in Hong Kong; why is it still Hong Kong’s only wetland reserve?

Especially given the severe damage to and threats facing wetlands nearby and elsewhere in Hong Kong, shouldn’t Mai Po play a better role nowadays? Yes, I know there’s the Wetland Park; but really, the habitat is tiny and woeful given all the monies spent on it (it’s weird but not wonderful, I reckon).

Here, then, some ideas for what just might be possible for Mai Po – to become a reserve more suiting the 21st century; and Deep Bay. Improbable, but not impossible (and my expectation is that nothing will really change).

Visitors are important – often vital – for wetland reserves

Heading and sub-heading in The Guardian:

Heading and sub-heading in The Guardian

Even the best intentioned interpretation plans will fail if visitors are denied access. 

Handbook on Best Practices for the Planning, Design and Operation of Wetland Education Centres

We just don’t want to see Hong Kong residents “paying” the “HKD250” as the “entrance fee”, like what they do at Hong Kong Wetland Park at the price of HKD30.

Mai Po team – seeking to justify charge of HK$3350 for HK resident visiting Mai Po for 5hrs

While wetland reserves internationally may welcome and even seek to attract visitors – see related article with some information on reserves elsewhere in the world, this is not the case with Mai Po: it’s challenging for regular Hongkongers to visit. 

This is set to remain true even with the construction of a large [vainglorious?] visitor centre, somewhat ironically called the Peter Scott Field Studies Centre.

Such a grand[iose] new centre for so few visitors!

Of course it’s great that Mai Po facilities enable access for people with disabilities; yet very few people can get into Mai Po in the first place!

There, fixed the heading for ya!

Of course it’s great that Mai Po facilities enable access for people with disabilities; yet very few people can get into Mai Po in the first place

Notes from the Handbook on Best Practices for the Planning, Design and Operation of Wetland Education Centres

As a preamble to ideas for the masterplan phases (below), some notes from the Handbook on Best Practices for the Planning, Design and Operation of Wetland Education Centres, available on the Ramsar website:

Zoning, including less disturbed areas:

Disturbance caused by visitors can be concentrated and then zoned across the rest of the site. One model is to ensure that with greater distance from the main entre facilities the activities become quieter allowing visitors that wish to observe wildlife in relatively low levels of disturbance the chance to do so. This approach also provides for the needs of wildlife. 

To a large extent this can be self-regulating due to the fact that families with young children may not venture as far from the hub of the centre and its facilities and those seeking a wilder experience will expect and be happy to adventure further afield. Not only can this be good practice in terms of wildlife but the zoning of activities also reinforces the different audience segments which often prefer to have some separation.

Buffer zones, and consider flow of visitors

Within a zoning scheme it may also be possible to establish buffer zones which protect areas from disturbance. Native tree planting or scrub can be used as natural barriers and can also provide valuable habitats for wildlife. Understanding which types of visitors will be moving around different parts of the centre is crucial. Access routes, paths, boardwalks and the overall flow of visitors around the centre need to be considered when integrating disturbance zones.

Wetland brand, marketing and income

Once the ‘brand’ of the wetland education centre has been established it needs to be maintained. …

Marketing will also benefit from visitor feedback

Mai Po was a strong brand; but I’ve learned it has maybe faded somewhat, especially with the Wetland Park being open to all, and Mai Po shut to most.

Considering how income can be generated by partnership or membership schemes can be important. It is advisable to maintain good networks with private companies and members or supporters.

Regarding that latter point, it seems WWF Hong Kong and Mai Po now emphasise networks with private companies.

As for members or supporters, well maybe now just seen as either a nuisance to be kept out; or as providers of money: consider the membership fee of HK$1800 [after a massive hike around end of 2021 I believe; I stopped my membership, over 30 years after being an annual member], the notions re charging as much as HK$3600 for one person to visit Mai Po, even HK$400 to join tours that I’m told are not good for birding.  Which, of course, gives me little hope there will be any real change for the better, just kind of continuing in the same way.

Anyhoo, onwards to some ideas for people to perhaps pillory; and, alas, for almost everyone to simply ignore!:

Towards Sustainable Mai Po: Phase 1 – The Mai Po Experience Trail for Self-guided Ecovisits

I have long wondered about the scarcity of visitors to Mai Po. Believing this was not so good for conservation, I’ve sometimes asked if it is possible to increase visitor numbers. 

Back around the late 1980s, Dr Kenneth Searle – who I believe was important in supporting/ guiding WWF Hong Kong and Mai Po in the early days – told me there were ideas for a simple trail that many visitors could follow, independently. This would take them along the main trail into the reserve, towards the centre within Mai Po itself, and to the southern hide at the main “scrape”, before heading back through the adjacent fishponds: hence a one-way circuit, to help the visitor circulation.

This has long seemed to me a good idea. For a reasonable entry fee – HK$80-100 for adult, reduced rates for senior citizens, children, families? Discounted price if WWF Hong Kong member – with a non-exorbitant membership fee (yes, another dream)!

Aiming to generate some more revenue from, say, shop and café within the Peter Scott centre, perhaps also WWF HK membership [affordable fee]; and see if possible to encourage any spending in neighbouring communities, if any businesses are interested.

While some might think visiting a reserve independently means learning nothing, anyone at all familiar with exploring nature knows this is not true. Plus, for good reserve visit like this, can of course include the fancy new Peter Scott Centre – make actual use of it; along with greatly improving signage from the rather tired signs etc at present. Might have an accompanying smartphone app, QR codes on signs that lead to further information. More ideas can be employed, perhaps even adapting ideas from museums, other reserves.

Since Ken Searle told me this idea, the fishponds for the return route have been restricted to visits (I remember walking there, to look for birds): but the small paths/ road there remain. Perhaps the owner would allow ecovisitors to pass through, if given even small part of the ecovisitor fee. Plus perhaps chance to sell their fish to visitors, even set up stall/café or something… 

This trail, or something similar, might be popular with visitors who aren’t expert birders but would like to experience something of Mai Po, seeing some birds, walking between reeds and mangroves, and with water lilies etc to photograph and giving Instagram opportunities.

As other reserves, and Mai Po to some extent, clearly marking the route, and paths that are off limits to these ecovisitors: so birders, researchers etc can still access the “inner sanctum” in the western area, and the Boardwalk.

Would seem important to employ someone to oversee the ecovisitors: maybe check at times if they’re doing ok, need help; and ensure they aren’t wandering off to closed places.

Then, as monies come in, enhance habitats and facilities along the ecovisitor route: new/ expanded ponds, posts for kingfishers, restart feeding grain to wintering ducks (if permissible) … Hence, more to see and experience for visitors. And With more money from visitors, better management should mean more birds and other wildlife.

Note: I first wrote this a day after a Mai Po visit when I saw a group including brightly dressed children who were laughing and talking loudly; and at one time both Black-faced and Eurasian spoonbills were landing at a drained fishpond perhaps 100m away. Some wildlife can become very accustomed to people, and readily seen. While for those that are shy, there’s the “inner sanctum”. [And if you can’t go to Mai Po, can see such “friendly” waterbirds accustomed to people in other places; for instance, Black-crowned Night Herons nesting in Kowloon Park.]

While this means visitors will not be able to directly experience the bird flocks, mudskippers etc of the Deep Bay mudflats, it would be possible to set up cameras with live feeds that can be viewed on a screen in the Peter Scott Field Studies Centre (idea from Nene Wetlands in the UK).

Unchanged system for birders, other experts

Meanwhile, can retain the current system enabling annual permits for dedicated birders and other naturalists – with free entry, and not restricted to opening times. Seems to work well; and birders have played a massive role in protecting Mai Po and Inner Deep Bay; their goodwill, records, photos and publicity they generate will be important in future too, and are priceless, really.

Towards Sustainable Mai Po: Phase 2 – Incorporating Lut Chau

Just south of Mai Po, there’s an area of fishponds at Lut Chau; physically separated only by a creek, which some years ago could be readily crossed by a footbridge (now impassable I think).

Great Cormorants passing Fung Lok Wai, evidently en route from roost in trees at Nam Sang Wai, heading to the waters of Deep Bay to feed

Lut Chau and nearby Nam Sang Wai are evidently owned by KHI Holdings, which has produced A Balanced Master Plan for Responsive Conservation Nam Sang Wai & Lut Chau. This includes conservation-related management work at Lut Chau; yet currently, as associated video Cherish Nam Sang Wai and Lut Chaumakes clear, the area is now languishing with habitats deteriorating, problems including rubble dumping.

Alas, even though KHI Holdings appears to be doing well (“Our property holdings have spanned several submarkets, including Hong Kong, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Australia, United States and the United Kingdom“), and chief executive Adrian Fu being listed by Forbes among Hong Kong’s 2013 50 Richest Net Worth, there is no money available for any work to improve the habitats.

Hence, once there are sufficient proceeds from Mai Po ecovisitors, KHI and Mr Fu would surely welcome funding so work can commence on realising plans for Lut Chau, as they greatly cherish this area. Indeed, it could be linked to Mai Po by a new footbridge, allowing ecovisitors to head from Mai Po to Lut Chau to experience this area and the wildlife it attracts as management efforts pay off. From Lut Chau, it would be possible to leave the area – I’m not sure of the optimum route; and for visitors to arrive this way. 

Indeed, a new centre for ecovisitors might be worthwhile at Lut Chau: it could be more commercial than at Mai Po, with restaurant serving dishes including local fish, vegetables etc, maybe attractive accommodation for visitors wanting to stay overnight; perhaps offering more activities.

Might also include some access, perhaps a simple route, at fishponds along the Mai Po access road: near Wo Shang Wai on this map. Perhaps even a route through these ponds to the Peter Scott centre? Again, with some monies from ecovisitor revenue.

Hong Kong Wetland Park – for birders too

Hong Kong Wetland Park is a curious place; established as a Millennium Project, it’s akin to a combo of reserve and theme park, without being ideal in either role. 

View from the Mudflat Hide at the Wetland Park: the only really good habitat in the park; so small, plus the margin is so distant from the hide so visitors tend to have only distant views of birds.

Habitat improvements may result in more birds – especially if significantly reduce the seemingly excessive amount of dry land with wetland akin to the “mudflat”; but if it’s to become a place for keen birders to visit, perhaps they should be allowed access outside the 10am to 5pm opening hours – which may suit employing park staff, but exclude the early mornings and late afternoons that can be the best times for birding (and photography), while also covering the hottest time of day.

Artificial mangroves inside visitor centre of the Wetland Park, which is itself in one of the best mangrove areas along the China coast. WTF and Why?! Surely monies could have been better spent on habitats, and facilities for experiencing actual mangroves and wildlife.

Towards Sustainable Mai Po: Phase 3 – to Deep Bay Environs, and Beyond!

As Phase 2 progresses, it becomes time to move on to Phase 3, to encompass more of the wetlands on the Hong Kong side of Deep Bay. For instance, including Nam Sang Wai – with management including planting more trees for Great Cormorants to roost in; along with Fung Lok Wai, where ponds can likewise be reinvigorated. [At least part of Fung Lok Wai is to be included in an expanded version of the Wetland Park; hope that’s not a death knell for its birdlife etc!] .

A new boardwalk can also be built to where the mangroves meet the mudflats of Inner Deep Bay, along with a viewing platform enabling people who can’t access the Mai Po Boardwalk to admire the mudflats, and the great flocks of birds that feed here. Also interconnections, with footpaths, maybe footbridges, cycle tracks where appropriate; and incorporate the Wetland Park, so there’s a more integrated area rather than a mishmash of separate places.

Can also include the ponds at San Tin and more.

There are plans for “wetland conservation parks”, but as yet these seem very sketchy, with little to give confidence they will be better than the Wetland Park; and a Powerpoint presentation by Aecom – Strategic Feasibility Study on the Development of Wetland Conservation Parks System under the Northern Metropolis Development Strategy – is every bit as BORING as its title suggests: not at all inspirational; and has an unproven belief in modern aquaculture [whatever that is] can really work in tandem with nature conservation.

Plus, wetland conservation and enhancement efforts can be expanded to also include other sites in Hong Kong, such as Pui O and Shui Hau on Lantau, along with Sham Chung etc. Yes, a little is happening on Lantau; but indeed little, and disconnected from Deep Bay when there could be inter-relationships.

These areas need not – and should not – be managed exactly as per Mai Po; there can be more “freedom” here, maybe with more fun activities. Wildlife less “cossetted”, yet habitats safeguarded, and improved.

Might it be worthwhile connecting fishponds together, to create larger lakes with deeper middle areas along with islands, hoping to attract more Tufted Duck, Great Crested Grebes and more? Areas of lilies, where Pheasant-tailed Jacanas might nest; swampy places for snipe, nesting Painted Snipe? What else could be done?

Further activities

As to activities, in the afore-mentioned Handbook:

Consider developing creative programmes around diverse areas such as: 

* Health and fitness activities and ‘green gyms’. 

* Photography or art courses.
* Meditation and retreat programmes.
* Outdoor dance and theatre. 

* Star gazing and astronomy.
* School holiday clubs.
* Local food and local produce.
* Citizen science.
* Nature nurture sessions for children with learning special needs. 

* National or local eco-tourism initiatives.
* Political campaigns or local or national current affairs.
* Partnerships with non-usual suspects such as local businesses.
* Corporate team-building days.
* Weddings and other family occasions.
* Celebrating cultural diversity.

Also perhaps fishing in some ponds, to bring revenue; or simple boating? Wetland safaris, on foot and even by small boats passing mangroves?

Deep Bay Safari bus

The Ulsan [South Korea] Migratory Bird Travel Bus (medium-sized electric bus) has been reborn as a riding vehicle tailored to children’s eye level by adjusting the existing 23-seater seats to 16-seater and directing crow and egret characters on the exterior of the vehicle to increase the convenience of travelers… The interior of the vehicle is equipped with a migratory bird-finding camera, telescope, laptop, and video equipment, and the interior ceiling and window coverings are equipped with paintings of local migratory birds to create an atmosphere of a migratory bird bus and to become a place of constant learning and education.

Ulsan Migratory Bird Travel Bus Begins Operations

Hard to believe it can happen here; but imagine something like a Deep Bay Safari bus allowing people to get on/get off at times, connecting Wetland Park, Mai Po, some fishpond areas…

– which reminds me of an electric vehicle I’ve been on in mangrove reserve in Beihai, Guangxi province; this reserve has walkways, even an image with Xi Jinping visiting – so to the local government, it’s something to be proud of and show off.

“Thinking outside the box” is too often a cliché; but here, should be thinking outside the confines of Mai Po that we’ve become too used to.

Even see if can get developers on board: some revenue can be generated from wetlands without smothering large areas of them with concrete.

Is it worth at least trying something like this? Or just stick with current situation: few visitors to Mai Po, too often deteriorating fishponds nearby, various plans for wetland developments ie concreting … 

For some comparisons especially on visitors to other wetland reserves around the world, see related article here: Mai Po Marshes Upgrade Project: Big Money, Few Visitors.

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