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Recreating the lost woodlands: How deforestation is impacting Lantau’s biodiversity

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Lantau’s once great biodiversity continues to decline and deforestation is at the heart of the problem. Henry Benjamin reports.

Lantau is one of the most beautiful parts of Hong Kong, although to the trained eye and mind all is not well. The hill fires and clearing of forests that stretches far back has the island’s plant and animal life teetering on a knife-edge. The destruction of its native forests is at the heart of the problem but there is still hope that Lantau can return to its glory days.

Two long-time Lantau conservationists in particular, Ark Eden’s Jenny Quinton and Paul Melsom of Eagle Owl on Lantau, are determined to right the situation and increase islanders’ awareness of the problem.

A vicious circle

There are a number of reasons why Lantau is currently facing a biodiversity crisis, with nearly all of its primary forest lost over thousands of years. Clearing has long been an issue, and now there is the additional pressure caused by the demand for new developments and infrastructure projects. Hill fires, largely caused by the grave cleaning associated with the Ching Ming and Chung Yeung festivals, continue to cause damage to the countryside.

“Awareness is growing, so we are seeing fewer fires,” 28-year Mui Wo resident Jenny says. “But still people go up with candles and incense and they leave them burning, with potentially catastrophic results. It’s very easy to start a fire. When I was first here, that’s what everyone did to clear a grave because nobody cared if the hillsides burnt down all the time. If you want to clear around a grave you just light a match and there are no repercussions.”

While the government has attempted to reinvigorate the lost forests, earlier attempts saw too many non-native trees planted, which has affectively been detrimental when it comes to increasing native biodiversity.

“In forests of planted non-native trees, you are unlikely to hear many insects or birds,” opens Mui Wo resident Paul. “Birds and insects won’t visit these ‘silent forests’ of non-native trees because they haven’t evolved with those species of tree and they can’t adapt fast enough to live off them. These alien forests have fruit that the birds can’t eat and leaves that the insects can’t feed on.

“The degradation of the forests will actually accelerate because we are losing the animal seed dispersers and insect pollinators,” Paul adds. “Forests are unable to spread and re-grow naturally. It’s a vicious circle, an accelerating cycle of degradation. We are continuing to lose more and more flora and fauna species.”

Making a difference

Jenny, a former teacher, has been involved in reforesting the hills behind Mui Wo for roughly 20 years. At Ark Eden, an eco-education and permaculture community, which she started 12 years ago, she runs nature-based camps, experiential workshops, courses and restorative projects. The aim is to educate people about conservation, preservation and sustainability. Through her work with Ark Eden, Jenny has planted many native trees (112 different species) with the help of student groups, religious groups and other volunteers.

“I never realised why the hills were bare and then I had an awakening when my house nearly burnt down,” she says. “Unbelievably, this nearly happened four times and I became… a crusader. Paul and I, our stories intertwine very much because it would be him and I on the hills with our homemade fire-beaters trying to stop these raging fires.”

As a horticulturalist, Paul could see just how much the Lantau countryside was suffering. “Planting many species of native trees significantly enhances the biodiversity, reduces erosion and makes the hills more beautiful,” he says. “In the last decade, the government has been making much more of an effort to do this.”

Paul recalls a watershed moment back in November 2004: “A huge hill fire burnt nearly 200 hectares of countryside between Mui Wo and Hong Kong Disneyland. The Civil Engineering Development Department proposed for this area to be planted with 1.5 million non-native trees. I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Through top-level meetings in LEGCO with former environmentalist legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip, Professor Richard Corlett of the University of Hong Kong, and concerned NGOs, like WWF and Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG), we managed to awaken the government to plant 20% native trees on this project. That was a start at least!

“More native trees are being planted nowadays, but still certain government departments need to embrace the importance of including species that are indigenous to Hong Kong in their projects,” Paul adds.

Paul and Jenny can only do so much, and there are vast areas on Lantau that require the same love and care. “The area between Discovery Bay when you walk towards Tung Chung, it’s like being on the moon,” Jenny says. “The trees are literally falling down and being washed away.”

Paul points out that the longer areas of land remain bare, the harder they become to reforest. “If we don’t have native trees to hold the soil in place then the soil is going to become lost and it is going to be increasingly more difficult to restore,” he says. “The hills are going to become poorer and poorer, eventually getting down to degraded granite and bedrock, which is a point of no return, a ground zero scenario.”

Spreading the word

Through Eagle Owl on Lantau, Paul holds tree-reforestation talks in schools and arranges forest fieldtrips for students, as well as volunteers. Inspired by KFBG’s contribution to native biodiversity in the New Territories, he is determined to enhance the biodiversity on Lantau. But he knows there needs to be a bigger-picture view taken to ensure sustainable reforestation.

“In a perfect world, we would like to see more about trees and native ecosystems in school curriculums,” says Paul. “Children need an awareness of how important native forests are for Hong Kong’s future. If we lose the biodiversity, we are never going to get it back. And unfortunately, most people lack basic local ecological knowledge – they don’t appreciate the seriousness of the accelerating local flora and fauna extinctions. We need to save biodiversity for the long-term health of Hong Kong. By failing to do so, we are putting the survival of our own species at risk.”

Through their years of conservation education, Jenny and Paul have established a real awareness among the community. Their work has ensured hill fires are far less frequent, and the biodiversity above Mui Wo has been significantly enhanced.

“We’ve got fire-beater racks and fire breaks there,” Jenny says. “Lantau District Councilor Rainbow Wong was instrumental in having a stone path put in between Wang Tong Cemetery and Wo Tin village, and now there are uniformed personnel stationed there every Chung Yeung and Chung Ming. At least on those days, the people are very careful.

“If we didn’t have the government authorities helping, none of this would have happened,” Jenny adds. “Many more systems have been put in place, the situation is so different now to what it was 20 years ago.”

Despite this, there are still plenty of issues to overcome. The government is committed to reforestation but it appears to lack the manpower or resources to expand its ecological reforestation process. Nonetheless, Jenny and Paul remain hopeful and active.

“I want people to understand what a treasure trove of biodiversity we have in Hong Kong, especially on Lantau, and how we must protect it,” Jenny says. “I want to see the students in schools and universities learning about our native trees and biodiversity, and getting out there and protecting it. To me, that would be the next big place that we need to get to. It would be amazing if we could actually do that.”

If you spot smoke rising in the Lantau countryside or suspect you see a hill fire, call 999 immediately to alert the emergency services.


Photos by Paul and River Melsom, and courtesy of Jenny Quinton

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