Hong Kong’s Internationally Significant Wetland: What You Should Know

A grey heron resides in the grass (Photo by Emily Peng)

Last week, two fires broke out in Nam Sang Wai, Yuen Long, putting the wildlife in the neighboring Mai Po Nature Reserve in perilous danger. The police and environmental protection groups, suspecting arson, have been conducting in-depth investigation on the cause of the incident. In the meantime, it is worth learning more about the Mai Po Nature Reserve, Hong Kong’s backyard treasure known to few but indeed valuable to the world.

What is Mai Po?

Part of the Deep Bay, Mai Po is a wetland where approximately 120,000 migrating waterbirds stop at their global “flyways” between New Zealand and Siberia every year.  Birds visit mainly during Winter and sometimes in Spring and Autumn. It is also the home for hundreds of other species, including dragonflies, shrimp, otters, bats and leopard cats.

Occupying 1800 acres, Mai Po is managed by World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong (WWF Hong Kong), and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department also shares the responsibility of taking care of it. The managing experience is an excellent example demonstrating the balance of human action and nature preservation: there are education centres and bird-watching hides; tour guides are professionally knowledgeable, turning the sightseeing and school trips to meaningful and fun journeys. At the same time, to minimize the harm on human activities, it only allows 40,000 visitors each year, and keep infrastructures far away from the birds’ habitat.

The water lilies in Mai Po are a common place to find dragonflies (Photo by Emily Peng)

 Why is Mai Po so important?

Birds could be found everywhere in the trees. (Photo by Emily Peng)

Wetlands are important for human survival. They filter water from pollution and provide protection from flooding. Mai Po is also the home to local sustainable fishing which revivifies traditional fishing practices. Wetlands are also critical to the survival of many species of animals, insects, birds, and plants. Mai Po is a vital way-station for many migrating birds, as they restore the food and energy needed for the journey ahead. Among these birds are critically endangered and internationally concerned species, such as the black-faced spoonbill and the spoon-billed sandpiper, which only 200 pairs are still existing on record.

What are some threats Mai Po and its ecosystem face?

One-off incidents like the fire last week has brought great risk to the reserve’s flying, swimming, and growing residents. While the fire has been suspected to be arbitrary, awareness should be raised so that such incidents can be prevented from happening again.

There are many long-term, and sometimes global and multi-faceted issues contributing to the endangerment of the Mai Po ecosystem. According to the WWF’s records, visits by wader species to wetlands in the South China region has been declining in the past few years. The “rampant development in East Asia affecting many coastal wetlands” have contributed to the decline of threatened species, as WWF put in a statement. Although the land of the reserve is protected, it cannot prevent the pollution caused by urban development and industrial construction from outside the protected areas. Mai Po is specifically affected by the development of the neighboring Shenzhen, a rapidly growing industrial port city, its own wetland shrunk by half in the past 20 years or so. According to a government report, the waters inside Shenzhen’s conservation areas had failed to meet the lowest measurement of quality. A research from the City University of Hong Kong has shown that high levels of heavy metals in the Deep Bay area hamper the birds’ ability to raise the young.

Right across the border is Shenzhen, its skyscrapers backdropping the reserve. (Photo by Emily Peng)

Illegal human activities, such as catching birds and harvesting fish inside the protected areas also interrupt the natural ecology and disturb the birds. While visiting the reserve in early March, I encountered a fisher catching fish in the protected areas of the reserve. Hundreds of birds flew away from the areas she traveled. Despite illegal, such activities are hard to control and prosecute.

A fisher catches fish the protected areas of Mai Po illegally. (Photo by Emily Peng)

Can I Visit Mai Po?

Yes! Living in Hong Kong, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to visit this vast land, witness and hear many of the precious species. Registration advance with WWF is required and could be completed online. Tours would be led by experienced guides and conservationists. For more information, visit their website: https://www.wwf.org.hk/en/your_support/gomaipo/


Reporter: Emily Peng

Editor: Siya

Copy Editor: Sarah Wong

Content Manager: Evelyn Ye

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