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The Wild Side of Hong Kong

Intrepid snake watchers trudged through dense vegetation in northern Hong Kong, New Territory. Holding flashlights and expensive cameras, they trekked through wet grass and heavy mud in search of slithering snakes and vicious vipers.

Leading them is William Sargent, a grizzled tour guide. He used to be the snake catcher who was authorised by Hong Kong police. Since 2017, he has been organising "Snake Safaris", nighttime excursions in the lush and diverse landscapes of Hong Kong. Sargent’s groups venture into areas such as Tai Mo Shan Country Park, where some of Hong Kong’s highest peaks are located.

Every year from May to August, Sargent leads hundreds of adventurous visitors on these exciting expeditions.

A Red-necked Keelback at Lantau Island sinks its fangs into its favourite prey, an Asian Common Toad.

Snake Safari is a way for Sargent to improve awareness and build appreciation of snakes among the public. He sees it as a privilege to help people explore Hong Kong’s venomous, nocturnal wildlife.

“Some people are very scared of snakes but they want to learn more. Some people are very interested. Some people want to introduce their children to wildlife to make them more interested,” Sargent said. “People that come on are very positive.”

Apart from the reputation of being a metropolitan and financial hub, Hong Kong is rich and dense in biodiversity. These attributes have attracted people worldwide to appreciate its unique charm and strive to protect its teeming wildlife.

According to government data, Hong Kong boasts a rich biodiversity with around 3,300 plant species, 55 species of land-dwelling mammals, 115 species of amphibians and reptiles, 194 species of freshwater fish, and over 375 species of insects.

Two wild boars at Wong Nai Chung Gap on Hong Kong Island.

Professor Timothy Bonebrake, a Hong Kong University professor in biological sciences who studied snakes in Hong Kong, said snakes, being the main predators of many species, play an important role in the local ecosystem.

“The diversity of snakes in Hong Kong is very high, with more than 50 species, for such a small area. The subtropical environment attracts various snake species,” he said.

Mock vipers are diurnal, meaning they are more active during the day.

Bond Shum, founder of Outdoor Wildlife Learning Hong Kong, felt this dense biodiversity was overlooked.

After graduating from the Ecology and Biodiversity Department at Hong Kong University, he founded Outdoor Wildlife Learning Hong Kong with two others in 2016. The non-government organisation focuses specifically on educating audiences of all ages about the beauty of nature in Hong Kong through interest-tailored projects.

“Education is the root of environmental conservation. Exposing children to nature will make them more open to conservation.” Shum said. He believed it is especially important for young kids to be exposed to nature.

"In Hong Kong, it’s still a very early stage if you are talking about environmental education," said Bond Shum, Founder and Conservation Director of Outdoor Wildlife Learning Hong Kong.

Martin Williams, a nature photographer who came to Hong Kong more than eight years ago to write stories about local wildlife and conservation issues, said that more people could appreciate the rich biodiversity of Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is impressively rich as a place for biodiversity, but a lot of people do think it is just a metropolis,” said Williams.

With over 570 species of birds recorded, Hong Kong boasts one-third of the total recorded bird species in China. Williams said that bird watchers and experts from many places used to join his wildlife tours.

Williams thinks many local people are not aware of the rich biodiversity here. “For locals, they don't go hiking and see much of it, which is a real shame because they live so close by,” Williams said.

Many wild feral cattle in Hong Kong were abandoned as Hong Kong moved away from agriculture.

Professor Alice Hughes, Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong in biodiversity and wildlife, believed tours are a great way to enthuse and engage people.

"Most people are simply unaware of the fact that there's a huge amount of biodiversity on their doorstep, while they should be celebrating that because it adds colour to the city," she said.

Hughes is concerned that the loss of habitat as a result of the city’s development poses a threat to local wildlife.

One example is the Black-faced Spoonbill. A study by Greenpeace and the Conservancy Association found that the Northern Metropolis scheme has damaged 78.7 hectares (195 acres) of wetlands in the New Territories. These wetlands are winter home to 78 Black-faced Spoonbills. Black-faced Spoonbills are a globally endangered migratory bird with an estimated global population of 6,162 individuals, according to the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society.

The Black-faced Spoonbill may lose its wintering ground due to city development. Photo by James Modesto

Negative legacies, like the destruction of wetlands from the Northern Metropolis scheme and the potential loss of reefs from Lantau Tomorrow Vision, a postponed mega land reclamation project in the eastern waters of Lantau Island, are often seen as secondary or left out of the environmental impact assessment, Hughes said.

"We need to stop the loss of any future habitats, build on brownfield sites rather than greenfield sites, and think about the efficiency of land use," she added. She suggested that Hong Kong should plan the land in use better while following the mainland's footsteps in using solar power energy and establishing ecological conservation redlines.

"Biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are like a Jenga tower. When we pull out one piece, nothing happens. When we lose this species, nothing happens. But as we progressively lose more, everything becomes more unstable, and at some point, it collapses,” says Prof. Alice Hughes.

《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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