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Getting to know Hong Kong through sustainable ecotourism

Chow Kwok-pun (in the red cap) organizes eco-tours for the blind association, Po Leung Kuk Children and Hong Kong Bird Watching Society.

Stepping into the forest, a symphony of bird songs filled the air. Chow Kwok-pun, 57, could practically name every bird in Hong Kong just from their songs.  

“The best way to teach people about conservation and creating a sustainable environment is to bring them to nature and feel it with their hearts,” said Chow, a secondary school laboratory technician.

Apart from his regular job as a teacher, Chow has been an eco-tour guide for 11 years with a passion for promoting environmental sustainability. Every weekend, he runs bird watching and stargazing tours all over Hong Kong, spanning both rural and urban areas.

Ecotourism, according to the International Eco-tourism Society, is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”

Tours, like the ones run by Chow, became popular during the pandemic since many people opted for outdoor activities.  According to the World Tourism Organization, the market value of ecotourism is projected to increase from $219.53 billion in 2023 to $249.16 billion in 2024.

The growth, according to UNWTO, is the result of rising demand for authentic experiences, government initiatives and policies, the emergence of responsible travel, and efforts on biodiversity conservation, along with the integration of educational components.

“Nature does not need humans to protect it. The best continuity of nature is not to touch it,” Chow said.

On weekends, Chow’s eco-tours start at 8 am at early Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve, a popular spot among naturalists, biologists and locals who crave serenity.

The Reserve covers 440 hectares of forest on the steep catchment area of a stream. The forest extends from 50 metres above sea level to the top of Grassy Hill (Tso Shan), at  647 metrest. “It is the best forest left in Hong Kong. You can see the well-grown canopy,” Chow said.

“People think that there are no birds and stars in the city, I’m here to prove them wrong,” Chow said.  He loves exploring tracks of nature through the “concrete jungle” and watching birds in Ho Man Tin Mountain where he works at nearby school. 

An albino sparrow, observed at Hong Kong Island.
Chow runs an ecological society at the school where he teaches. He discusses all matters of nature with students during lunchtime.

Chow's student Sherborn Leung, 14, has been joining the tours for two years. He has a passion for birdwatching and is particularly fascinated by the majestic nature of the mountains. 

“I can keep records of birds and contribute to science by becoming a citizen scientist,” he said. Leung appreciates the magnificence of nature through the tour. “We can also observe other creatures such as butterflies and insects. It helps me understand that every species has its value,” he said. Leung is also fascinated by mountains. He said that nature makes his worries go away. 

Chow said participants can learn about ecosystems through birdwatching. “There is a lot of knowledge required in bird-watching. We study fungi, plants, weather conditions, soil, etc,” Chow explained. Birds stick to specific kinds of plants, and fungi play an important role in nature. Some plants rely on the nutrients provided by fungi.

“Nature is way more intelligent than we thought,” Chow said. Every living thing is connected in the ecosystem.

Leung also follows Chow to go stargazing, allowing him to have a better understanding of the ecosystem. “The Earth's axis is tilted at more than 23 degrees as it revolves around the Sun, causing the changes in seasons throughout the year. This phenomenon leads to the migration of birds, hibernation of animals, and the seasonal blooming of plants, among other cycles,” Chow explained, adding that living things are just a small part of the universe. The balance of ecosystems is also a part of the 13.8 billion years of cosmic evolution.

“Therefore, it is important to have a mindset of appreciation,” said Chow. 

Birds can detect the magnetic force of the earth.

Birds play significant ecological roles, including pollination, seed dispersal, and insect control. They contribute to the balance and health of ecosystems.

“In Hong Kong, when people encounter a forest, they often perceive it as a chance to gain money and thus covering it with concrete,” Chow said., “We need to blend in with the untouched nature, and understand the value of it. Eventually we will be willing to protect it,” Chow said. 

According to Legislative Council statistics, 75% of Hong Kong is conserved in its natural state, while protected areas encompass 44,300 hectares, constituting 40% of the total land area. Despite its small size, Hong Kong possesses remarkable biodiversity. It is home to approximately 3,300 species of plants, 55 species of terrestrial mammals, 115 species of amphibians and reptiles, 194 species of freshwater fish, over 130 dragonfly species, and about 245 butterfly species. What's more, Hong Kong proudly hosts over 570 recorded bird species, which accounts for one third of the total bird species found in China.

“Many people are not aware of the biodiversity in Hong Kong, they think Ocean Park is the only place to visit animals,” said Benita Chick, 41, a part-time lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, teaching “Working Toward Sustainable Development Goals Through Experiential Learning”. Chick is also the founder of Encompass Hong Kong, a social enterprise emphasizing sustainability.

Her group organizes various eco-tours, including nature hikes, night walks, and guided tours on the sea. Participants can engage in activities such as kayaking and snorkeling. 

Chick said that the biggest difficulty of promoting eco-tourism was that people didn’t realize the ecological value in Hong Kong. “People lack awareness of the ecology, thinking that they must go far away to see the natural ecological environment,” she said. She suggested that people should experience the diversity of life in nature with real people, rather than rely on green films and books. 

Encompass HK also holds community lectures, in which they provide free explanations about the characteristics of animals and help raise awareness about the importance of conservation.

“The ratio of instructors to participants will always be maintained to ensure in-depth explanations so that we can address any questions raised by participants, ensuring clear visibility of encountered animals,” Chick said. 

Encompass Hong Kong also emphasizes the importance of minimizing disturbance to wildlife while enjoying their presence. 

 “We will remind participants to shine their lights clearly on the ground during night walks to avoid stepping on organisms, and also not to touch animals after applying mosquito repellent, as the chemicals can harm them,” Chick said.

Chick believes that Hong Kong is suitable for ecological tours because the city is very close to nature.

The Conservancy Association, an environmental NGO, also holds tours related to sustainable travel in Hong Kong.  Among the eight selected trails,  it offers hikes of different levels of difficulty and length, with some passing through historical sites and buildings, ancient paths, and popular camping spots.

“The rich biodiversity of Hong Kong's mountains attracts many visitors. Participants on these hikes clean up litter along the way, explore the mountain and beach landscapes of Hong Kong, and understand the close relationship between Hong Kong's abundant biodiversity and the conservation of natural resources,”  said Lingli, the branding manager, at Conservancy Association.

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.

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