The Biodiversity of ‘Asia’s World City’

Jonas Kelsch — Hong Kong

July 13, 2017

Few world-class cities have a skyline where glistening business towers and lush green mountains compete for attention, but only Hong Kong has designated over 40 percent of its land area for nature conservation.

Hong Kong View
Hong Kong Central and Victoria Harbour, with Kowloon in the distance. Photo taken from Lugard Road, a pedestrian path that runs along the north face of Victoria Peak.

This extensive environmental protection is in stark contrast to the region’s tumultuous ecological history. Hong Kong lost its original forests due to timber and firewood harvesting well before the first British ships moored at Victoria Harbour over 150 years ago. As recently as the 1950s, mature trees were rare on Hong Kong Island. Judging from the dense forests that now blanket much of Hong Kong’s upland areas, it seems that the region’s 40-year-old Country Parks system has been a success.

“To be honest, actually Hong Kong has done quite a good job”, said Dr Michael Lau, Director of the city’s World Wildlife Fund for Nature branch. “I mean, 40 percent of the land in such a small, highly dense city…, that’s quite a big achievement”.

Orientation

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Well over half of Hong Kong’s land area is green space. About 40 percent of the territory is protected in country parks.

But Dr Lau is aware that government protection is not a failsafe conservation measure. In 2014, he contributed to a WWF report that showed how 12 nominally protected and ecologically valuable plots of land within and adjacent to country parks were damaged, probably so that the land could be developed.

Hong Kong is, after all, among the most crowded cities in the world, and it is situated in China’s Pearl River Delta, one of the world’s largest urban agglomerations. As a result, its natural environment is  degraded and faces development pressures. 

Still, the region supports a relatively rich variety of plants and animals, notes Professor David Dudgeon, chair of Ecology and Biodiversity at The University of Hong Kong (HKU). Over 250 species of butterfly have been recorded in Hong Kong, and it is not uncommon to encounter wild boars in the mountains. However, Prof Dudgeon believes active environmental stewardship is necessary to optimize the species richness.

P1470555 Cham Wat Wan Butterfly 3

“Biological conservation is not just like leaving things alone and hoping they’ll be ok”, he said. “That’s fine if you have a big chunk of pristine rainforest in the middle of the Amazon, but that’s not ok if you have a human-dominated environment like the Pearl River Delta, or the Hong Kong SAR”.

Prof Dudgeon’s colleague, entomologist Dr Benoit Guénard, sees both sadness and opportunity in Hong Kong’s ecological situation. He said the SAR resembles similarly degraded environments throughout Asia and around the world, “where huge areas are being deforested and we have limited knowledge of what the outcome for biodiversity will be”. He thinks the regrowth of Hong Kong’s forests since the 1950s can provide insights into what other deforested areas may look like in about 60 or 70 years’ time.

Forest stream near Central

Several factors can help explain Hong Kong’s persistent biodiversity, as well as its interest to biology researchers. The city is located in the tropics, more specifically, within the Indo-Burma Hotspot, among the 25 most biodiverse areas of the world. The city’s position at the northern fringe of the tropics is also significant. Many scientists consider Hong Kong to be within a subtropical climate, which is characterized by more extreme changes in temperature, including lower minimum temperatures, than in places closer to the equator (Sunset Peak on Lantau Island sometimes gets frost in the wintertime). This more dynamic weather may play a part in making Hong Kong a suitable habitat for species that are usually restricted to temperate or tropical climate zones, for instance, the bumblebee, which is not normally found below the Tropic of Cancer.

An additional benefit of Hong Kong as a location for ecology and biodiversity research, Guénard said, is its warm climate, which allows for field work all year. “There may be a short break in January or February, but that’s pretty much it”, he said, adding that field work can persist even during these relatively cool months.

A complex maritime environment also contributes to Hong Kong’s abundant biodiversity, said Vriko Yu, a coral researcher at HKU. 

The SAR is on the edge of the Western Pacific, a marine biodiversity hotspot, and the city’s waters are influenced by three oceanic currents throughout the year. The summertime brings the Hainan current, and the Taiwan and Kuroshio currents reach Hong Kong in the winter. These flows “bring marine organisms from everywhere in the Pacific area”, Yu said.

Hong Kong Zhuhai Macau Bridge (2)

The Pearl River Estuary brings in another element of complexity, she added. This mixing zone of fresh and salt water, combined with the three oceanic currents, means that Hong Kong has “a very great diversity of the environment[al] conditions and also the habitats” Yu said. Nearly six thousand marine species have been recorded in Hong Kong, according to a survey conducted last year by the Swire Institute of Marine Science and HKU’s School of Biological Sciences.

Yu has been helping restore corals in Hoi Ha Wan, after a mass bleaching event two years ago resulted in high rates of mortality among the corals there. She and her colleagues are still investigating the cause of the bleaching, but she remains optimistic. “Well, it’s really interesting to study corals in Hong Kong”, Yu said, explaining that the local waters are characterized by low clarity, considerable temperature variation and excess nutrients (which eventually reduce oxygen levels in the water).

“So environmental-wise it’s not the best place for corals to live, but they’re still here. It’s like the spirit of the Lion Rock, the Hong Kong spirit”, Yu said, smiling and forming air quotes. She was referring to the value of hard work and resilience shared by many Hongkongers. The term derives from an iconic mountain in the center of Hong Kong that has also been designated  as a country park.

Elephant bug 2
Lanternfly on Lantau Island. This tropic insect’s protruding snout does not actually light up.

Certain elements of the city’s biodiversity have proven durable, but ecosystems are complex and fragile. So preserving biodiversity requires a sensitive and inquisitive approach.

Hong Kong’s abundance of protected area, converging climate zones and marine environments, and a rugged terrain, means that there is still plenty to discover about the region’s ecology and biodiversity. Last August, Dr Guénard and one of his research assistants, Ying Luo, discovered a new insect species, the Golden Tree Ant (Paratopula bauhinia), which is likely endemic to the region.

“I’ve always wanted to discover a new species and I was lucky enough to actually do it!” said Luo, who is currently doing insect imaging for the Australian government.   

With around 16,000 new species described each year, finding new species is not uncommon, Dr Guénard explained. Scientists currently estimate that around 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial species have yet to be described, “which means we don’t even know they exist”, he said.  

Describing the Golden Tree Ant may seem like a drop in the bucket, but for Luo “it was a very big achievement”, Guénard said. “And she has a right to feel so because it’s a contribution; it’s a contribution for the rest of time now”.

Paratopula bauhinia_Property of HKU School of Biological Sciences
Frontal view of the Golden Tree Ant (Paratopula bauhinia). Coutesy of Dr Benoit Guénard, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong.

The ant discovery shows that much biodiversity research can happen “even in places where there is a high amount of human impact”, Luo explained.

Species are probably being lost faster than they are being discovered, Dr Guénard said. He estimated that there are likely several hundreds, maybe thousands, of species yet to record in Hong Kong.

The ant discovered by Dr Guénard and Ms Luo was located about 300 meters from Hong Kong University campus, in Lung Fu Shan Country Park. Some parts of this well-trodden protected area feature barbecue sites and public exercise equipment, which give it a closer resemblance to a city park than a country park. Yet even this modest patch of forest, not two kilometers from the world-renown skyscrapers of Hong Kong’s CBD, provides remarkably convenient solace from the city’s hustle and bustle. It is one of 25 country parks in Hong Kong.

Dr Benoi Guenard_School of Biological Sciences

The country parks are valuable from both an aesthetic and ecological standpoint. During a field visit, HKU Ph.D. student Roger Lee said the biodiversity that exists in Hong Kong is “partly or mostly due to the country parks system”, which he described as “relatively good protection” in comparison to nearby areas such as Mainland China’s Guangdong province, as it has given species “time to thrive again”. As Roger was explaining this, a bluish, exotic-looking insect made its way up the collar of his field shirt. He acknowledged the insect in passing as it disappeared around his neck and he continued the interview.

Rhesus Macaque monkey
Rhesus Macaque monkey at Shing Mun Country Park.

Although a veritable treasure trove of life in Hong Kong, the company Bret parks do not contain the kind of mature primary forests that support the greatest diversity of species. Lee’s colleague, Mac Pierce, said that primary forests are something of a holy grail for environmental preservation. “But given where we’re at in the world in terms of conservation”, he said, “the whole ‘save the rainforest’ kind of initiative, it’s noble but it’s not exactly working. So I think the future of conservation is going to be regeneration as opposed to conservation exactly”.

Some of the most mature secondary (regenerated) forest in Hong Kong is at Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve, which has an even higher protection status than a country park. The only patches of primary forest left in the greater Pearl River Delta region are those at the Dinghushan Biosphere Reserve in China’s Guangdong province.

Pierce and Lee often go on field trips to catalogue insect species throughout Hong Kong. Pierce is currently conducting research on invasive ant species through a grant provided by Hong Kong’s Environment and Conservation Fund, the main government source of financial aid for environmental protection. He said that defying tropical heat and copious mosquitos on these expeditions only makes up a fraction of the work yet to be done in cataloguing the region’s ant biodiversity.

“As far as fieldwork goes, it takes some level of dedication to come out here and brave the mosquitoes and the sweat”, Pierce said, adding that in the lab, “seeing all these really cool tiny little things” that would be impossible to see in the field, is an essential and rewarding part of the work. “It’s really cool, like a treasure hunt”, he said, turning to Lee.

“A treasure hunt, yeah, maybe that is the word”, replied his colleague, both chuckling.

That day in early May, Pierce was helping Lee collect samples of leaf litter at a field site where Lee had recently identified an ant specimen of particular interest. He thought the creature might represent a new genus record for Hong Kong.  

Lee has been re-sampling field sites first recorded by Dr John Fellowes, who, while completing a Ph.D. in Hong Kong in the 1990s, documented over 100 sites and created a detailed catalogue of the region’s ant species. “I would say it is the first comprehensive ant inventory activit[y] in Hong Kong”, Lee said. Two decades later, Lee is studying how the ant communities of these sites have changed. For those sites within Country Parks, he is trying to see how the communities have responded to regenerating forest. For sites in unprotected areas, such as the plot of feng shui woods we visited on Lantau, he is looking for possible effects of urbanization.

Creating a magnified photograph of an insect specimen

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Lee said that when he tells his friends about his work, they are quick to mention cockroaches and other pesky insects. He insists there is more to the creatures he studies, but acknowledged there is a considerable lack of ecological consciousness among the public in urban areas like Hong Kong. People who live in a city “do not have a very close connection with the natural environment”, Lee said. He juxtaposed this lack of awareness with farmers, who know well that if they cut down the forest, they will reap the consequences by having a poor harvest. “These kind of connections are kind of missing right now in urban areas and in Hong Kong”, he said.

Roger Lee relaxing after collecting leaf litter

Responding to my layman’s question of why investment bankers in Central should care about efforts to catalogue biodiversity, Pierce said field research of the kind he and Lee are engaged in is funded by taxes, “much of which come from investment bankers”, he said. “So they are actually directly supporting the discovery of new species already”.

Biodiversity surveys help show Hongkongers “what’s available” in the countryside, Pierce said, “and kind of the more beautiful side of things that they’re already supporting”. He hopes their work will persuade more people in Hong Kong to come visit and appreciate the city’s biodiversity. Lee added that this should be done in a sustainable way.

Last December, the Hong Kong government pledged HK $150m (over US $19m) for preserving and enhancing biodiversity. The funding, which supplements the government’s regular budget for nature conservation, is to be spent over the next three years. The pledge was announced concurrently with the commencement of Hong Kong’s first five-year Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (BSAP), in accordance with the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which the People’s Republic of China extended to Hong Kong in 2011.

Black and yellow spider
Female Northern Golden Orb Weaver spider clinging to its web in Sai Kung West Country Park. These forest-dwelling spiders can be seen after the rain repairing their beautifully spun webs, which are among the strongest in the world.

Prof Dudgeon, who served on the steering committee for the BSAP, said that because the plan very clearly states “Government’s commitment to preserve biodiversity as a value in and of itself”, the BSAP “is worthy of celebration”. He did acknowledge, however, that at the end of the day, the plan belongs to the government. So the necessity to get the various bureaus to agree means that “the document is very much a compromise”, he said, and that the plan could be more specific about the kinds of research and conservation work that might be considered for government grants.

He appeared familiar with counterarguments to environmental conservation, “but we have to keep in mind also that humans are dependent on biodiversity”, Dudgeon said, “because biodiversity drives ecosystems and ecosystems provide supporting services, for humans”. He presented examples like sequestering carbon (reducing CO2 in the atmosphere) and generating oxygen. “There’s no Plan B if you destroy your natural environment, and humans cannot survive either”, he added.

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But what exactly is the purpose of trying to document and protect thousands of miniscule creatures, some of which the average Hongkonger might find revolting?

Dudgeon admitted: “you could say it doesn’t actually matter if you lose this small frog or this particular butterfly or this particular insect, except for that fact that it is our heritage and the heritage that we pass on to the next generation. So you could argue that for an ethical responsibility, you shouldn’t really be destroying stuff that your descendants might value”.

Roger in the lab
Roger Lee examining leaf litter in the lab. In the foreground are tiny insect specimens he is meticulously cataloguing.

He believes one prominent barrier to public understanding of Hong Kong’s species richness is the city’s lack of a dedicated natural history museum, which is a major omission considering the city’s abundant nature, along with its status as a major tourist destination and ecology research hub in subtropical Asia.

The BSAP says that over the next five years, the government will look into the long-term possibility of establishing a natural history museum, but as with a number of objectives stated in the plan, specificity is lacking. Dr Lau of the Hong Kong WWF, who also sat on the BSAP steering committee, said he was “still hopeful” about the plan, which is still in its early stages, because it includes many of the recommendations put forth by the committee and working council focus groups. He did note that some people, including himself, “would say a lot of the details or the targets are missing”, which makes it difficult to assess whether the goals are being achieved. Perhaps an example of this is in ‘Specific Action 6b’, which merely states intentions to form more specific plans for protecting “species that require immediate conservation actions”, such as the critically endangered Chinese Pangolin.

Development on Lantau Island

At first glance, Hong Kong has unusually healthy biodiversity for a heavily urbanized area. Cities of similar economic status and high population density like New York, London and Shanghai do not have such a variety of species within their administrative borders. But appearances may be misleading. With continuing development pressure and a wide gap in ecological awareness between experts and the public, Hong Kong’s resilient biodiversity is not guaranteed to persist in abundance.

“I think one of the important things to understand is that biodiversity in Hong Kong is our biodiversity”, said Prof Dudgeon. “If we don’t protect it, no one else will”.

Flower (1)

[Updated: 4:37pm (HKT), 14 July, 2017]

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