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Hong Kong's Birders Are Worried, Too

Letter From Hong Kong


The narrow and unpromising road winds past a crumbling Chinese country house, whose roof caved in years ago. Littered with rusting, smashed trucks and cars and abandoned 40-foot shipping containers, the road intersects with two-lane thoroughfares clotted with tractor trailers crawling to the Chinese border. A military observation post flies the Union Jack in these last days of the British Empire. Visible above high barbed-wire fences are the skyscrapers of Shenzhen, the Chinese boomtown across the water. A scaled-down version of the Eiffel Tower shimmers in the mist at an amusement park in China, on the far side of Deep Bay. It's one of the most degraded landscapes I've seen in a decade of reporting on Asia's economic boom.

Even more appalling is that this is not just an industrial byway. It is the setting for the Mai Po marsh, a world-famous wetlands and a migratory stopover for 100,000 birds a year from as far away as Siberia and Australia. Mai Po is a wading ground for much of the world's population of the endangered black-faced spoonbill--just 450 remain--and for more than 300 other species of birds. It also plays host to about 10 other animal species, mostly invertebrates, such as the Mai Po crab and as-yet-unnamed reed moths, that are found nowhere else in the world.

As China's frenzied developers fill in other wetlands along the coast, Mai Po's importance grows--along with the number of visiting birds. It's the only major site of its type in the 1,000 miles between Hainan Island to the south and Shanghai to the north. Exhausted birds often double their weight in the two to three weeks they feed here, on their way north in the spring.

But the threats to Mai Po are growing. Earlier this year, the government lost an appeal in London's Privy Council to stop development in the ecologically sensitive buffer zone around Mai Po. That means up to eight massive high-rise apartment complexes may be built on the land. They will replace man-made fish ponds that border one of the largest mangrove forests on the China coast. The ponds are a sanctuary and source of food for migrating birds.

Then there's the water that feeds into Deep Bay. It is polluted with raw sewage that runs off of pig farms upstream. The sewage kills the marine life that feeds the birds.

Finally, birders worry about the future of the marsh after China takes over Hong Kong on July 1. The environment isn't a priority for most Chinese. Mai Po's backers hope the marsh's high international profile will help protect it. The World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong, which manages Mai Po, is training Chinese environmentalist officials in conservation management techniques. "Cooperation with the Chinese will be very, very important," says Lew Young, Mai Po's manager.

BUSY FLYWAY. Young has invited me to the Mai Po marsh to join him on the annual Big Bird Race. Sixteen teams of birders from Britain, Singapore, the Philippines, China, and Hong Kong are in the chase. The idea is to see which four-member squad can spot--or hear--the most species of birds in a 24-hour period. Near us, ornithologist Jim Flegg wolfs down sandwiches with his teammates. "This is mecca for bird lovers," he says between bites. In fact, despite a dense human population, Hong Kong provides rich pickings for birders thanks to its location on the Asian flyway and to wetlands such as Mai Po. This year, the winning team tallied 168 species.

My idea of bird-watchers as relaxed, easygoing people disappears as the teams jog off, laden with tripods and high-powered monoculars. I struggle to keep up with Young and his Hong Kong team. He stops, training his 30-power monocular on a Baya weaver, which, true to its name, has woven a stunning bright-green nest that hangs from a distant tree. We scurry from blind to blind, gaping at sandpipers and herons, kingfishers and egrets, spoonbills and mallards.

Bird-watchers must get advance permission to visit the reserve, which is just a little larger than New York's Central Park. Tour groups of serious birders from around the world book the WWF's overnight lodge just outside the sanctuary a year in advance for the peak spring migratory season. Mike Kilburn, who is competing for a team sponsored by Hong Kong-based Peregrine Investment Holdings, frets that development next to the preserve is a threat to bird-watching and "more importantly, to the birds themselves."

FOOTPRINTS. Others sneak in--not birders, but illegal immigrants. Most are from adjacent Shenzhen, and they come looking for work in Hong Kong. They move through the swamp with car jacks to pry apart the steel bars on the shrimp pond sluice gates, then squeeze under the border fence. On one of my visits here, I came across a group of four armed border soldiers inspecting a fresh footprint in a mangrove swamp. Strict border controls remain in effect even after China resumes control of Hong Kong, although that's not to protect the marsh. On one occasion, immigration officials arrested smugglers for bringing birds through the reserve--rare Amazon parrots they apparently hoped to sell in urban Hong Kong.

Birders are distraught about threats to the marsh, but the average Hong Kong resident isn't terribly concerned. The only activists appear to be those who want to protect their property rights. Owners of land in the abandoned village of Sha Lo Tung, nine miles of rugged terrain to the east of Mai Po, bulldozed sensitive upland valley that environmentalists wanted to turn into another nature reserve. Hong Kong environmentalists believe Sha Lo Tung landowners poisoned a stream there, too, in hopes of destroying wildlife and foiling the reserve designation.

Ultimately, it is the crush of people that poses the biggest threat to such sanctuaries as Mai Po. Already among the world's most congested cities, with more than 15,000 people crammed into every square mile, Hong Kong's population is expected to expand up to 25% in 15 years. In a choice between people and birds, the birds are bound to come out the losers.MARK L. CLIFFORD EDITED BY SANDRA DALLASReturn to top

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