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Experiencing wild Lantau: Celebrating our island’s incredible biodiversity

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In celebrating the island’s incredible biodiversity, Samantha Wong reminds us exactly what is at stake should the developers have their way.

The variety of wildlife on Lantau, and how easy it is to experience, is one of the best things about being an islander. One of the most worrying is that Hong Kong is a biodiversity hotspot – a biogeographic region that is both a significant reservoir of biodiversity and one that is threatened with destruction. The term biodiversity hotspot, according to WWF, specifically refers to 25 biologically rich areas around the world that have lost at least 70% of their original habitat.

Protecting Lantau from further development has become a crusade for many islanders. Thanks to the dedication of local and regional green groups like Ark Eden, Eagle Owl, Green Lantau Association, Tai O Community Cattle Group, Living Islands Movement and Save Lantau Alliance, the island remains, at least for now, a rural oasis packed full of incredible wildlife.

Hong Kong’s green lung

Local nature lovers make the trip to Lantau to see species that are extinct or have gone to ground elsewhere in the SAR. We residents, meanwhile, can get up close and personal with a rich variety of wildlife, on a day-to-day basis, right on our doorsteps. “Known as Hong Kong’s ‘green lung’, Lantau and its islands have a rich ecology unique to the whole of South China,” Jenny Quinton of Ark Eden opens. “It’s the garden island of China, a treasure trove of a myriad amazing and beautiful creatures. Much of its 144 square kilometres are unspoilt and uninhabited, and the overall  impression is of an area where human habitation sits lightly on the natural setting.”

To protect it from development, over half of the island has been designated as Country Park for nature conservation and recreational pursuits, such as camping and hiking. “In conservation terms, Lantau is highly rated,” says Jenny. “There are several areas of unique ecological value including wetlands, natural streams and woodland valleys.

“Local activists are working tirelessly to sustain and bring back Lantau’s biodiversity,” Jenny adds. “Ark Eden has planted over 32,000 native trees over the last 10 years, while Paul Melsom of Eagle Owl is gradually creating one of the best arboretums on the island.”

Of course, Lantau’s satellite islands also have much to offer the nature lover, in particular the small islands off its southern coast – Hei Ling Chau, Sunshine Island, Shek Kwu Chau and the Soko Islands. Several species, such as the worm-like Bogadek’s burrowing lizard, are unique to these islands.

Wildlife on our doorsteps

Lantau is perhaps best known to the outside world for its wild yellow cattle and water buffaloes. While they inhabit the remaining wetlands, they roam freely throughout South Lantau, where you can spot them relaxing on the beaches and even on the roads. Once bred for meat or used by farmers as working animals, they are feral but friendly.

Get a little further off the beaten track, and you’ll experience a plethora of rare wildlife. On a less frequented hike, you may be lucky enough to come across (or at least hear) one of Lantau’s few remaining Muntjac (or barking) deer. These pretty, little herbivores are notoriously shy and stand just 0.5-metres high at the shoulder.

Less of a draw for some, 70% of all locally recorded amphibians and reptiles live on Lantau, including the short-legged toad and tiny, blunt-snouted Romer’s tree frog, which are only found in Hong Kong. Lantau is also home to 50 types of indigenous snake, including pythons. To put that in perspective, the Amazon region – one of the most ecologically diverse spots on the planet – is home to 150 species.

Lantau also has a rich insect fauna, homing 60% of the 110 dragonfly species and 240 butterfly species found in Hong Kong. The beautiful Swallowtail and Birdwing butterflies are the most common. Of over 2,000 moth species recorded, the Atlas moth is known for its large wingspan of up to 30 centimetres, while the Chinese Moon moth is recognised by its long and elegant back wing tails. Lantau also has 235 species of ants, 17 species of praying mantis, 31 species of cockroaches, six species of fleas, 78 species of mosquitoes and 124 species of grasshoppers.

Of the hundreds of species of resident and migratory birds that flock to Lantau, it’s easy to spot black kites along all local shorelines, hunting for fish. They fly in ever-decreasing circles when they spy something to eat. One of the rarer winter visitors, a prized find by ornithologists, is the boldly hued Siberian rubythroat.

Fork-tailed sunbirds, the nectar-feeding hummingbirds of Hong Kong, are still quite common in Lantau but they move so quickly people often miss them. It’s easier to spot a harem of dog-faced fruit bats nestled in the vegetation. The dominant male makes a home for them by cutting a palm leaf so that it collapses into an umbrella-shaped shelter. Stand directly underneath, and you’ll see their eyes staring down at you.

Marine nature tour

While fishing is a favourite local pastime, and still a livelihood for some villagers, ‘crabbing’ is one of the joys of island life. You’ll find plenty of semi-terrestrial marine crabs at low tide in the inter-tidal mangrove near Tung Chung. The males’ major claw is much larger than the minor claw, while the females’ claws are the same size. When feeding, Fiddler crabs look as if they are playing a violin with their claws; they communicate through a sequence of waves and gestures, and so they are also known as Calling crabs.

In the waters surrounding Lantau, there’s as much biodiversity as there is on land but again its existence is under threat. “Coastal development, marine pollution, overfishing and increased boat traffic is wiping out entire species or at best driving them away,” explains director for South East Asia at Sea Shepherd Global, Gary Stokes, a DB resident.

The Chinese white dolphins still found near our shores are a real draw for visitors and residents alike. Sightings have, however, diminished rapidly in recent years, from an estimated 160 in the early 2000s to just 60 today.

Little is known of Lantau’s western waters, mostly due to the bad visibility caused by the Pearl River Delta. But on a clear day, snorkelers and shallow divers can still discover a rich and vibrant underwater community elsewhere. “There are 84 species of coral in Hong Kong waters – more than in the Philippines,” says Gary. “You won’t find complete structures, like coral reefs, but rather clusters of coral grouped together. You can spot glorious specimens, including cup coral and brilliantly coloured cauliflower coral, while snorkelling along the Chi Ma Wan Peninsula or in one of the bays near the Trappist Dairy.”

Happily too, you can still find Nemo just offshore. “Aggressive and territorial, yellowtail clownfish, also known as Clark’s anemone fish, are dependent on sea anemones for their habitat and nesting sites,” Gary says. “Young specimens, including bubble-tip anemone, are often located in groups or colonies near the surface, as they get most of their energy from solar radiation.”

One critter to steer clear of when you’re snorkelling is the Bristle worm. “Its body is made up of 37 visible segments, covered laterally with calcareous spines (or bristles), which are sharp and venomous,” Gary explains. “Scavengers of meaty foods, like clams or fish, bristle worms range in size from under an inch to over 2-foot long.”

It’s easy to see why wildlife lovers flock to Lantau and why so many of us delight in living here. But if you want to see the island’s biodiversity preserved, it’s time to get involved with the local activists. What better time could there be to join a green group than at the start of the New Year?

Find it

Images: Kevin Laurie, Jason Pagliari, Gary Stokes and wwf.org.uk

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