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Illegal development at Hong Kong wetlands threatens bird life, activists say

Illegal development at Hong Kong wetlands threatens bird life, activists say

Originally published at the South China Morning Post on March 29. 2016.

Hong Kong’s bird life is being threatened by unauthorised development in sensitive wetland areas, yet the government is not doing enough to combat the trend, say bird watchers.

Illegal activities including dumping and pond-filling in rural areas has escalated in recent years but cases are rarely prosecuted, according to a report released on Tuesday by the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society.

It says such practices are destroying wetlands and decreasing biodiversity, causing the peak count of water birds to fall from 80,108 in 2006 to 51,313 in 2013, and the number of species to decline about five. The common shelduck has seen an average annual decline of 22 per cent.

“All the birds and other wildlife are dependent on these wetlands, so if these unauthorised activities continue, I’m afraid this will have a significant impact on Hong Kong’s biodiversity,” said Woo Ming-chuan, conservation officer at the society. “We may even lose our international wetland status.”

Legislative loopholes and bureaucracy prevented the government from tackling cases of illegal development effectively, Woo said. From 2009 to 2013, there were 158 known cases of unauthorised activity but only six successful prosecutions. None of the sites was successfully restored to its original ecological function.

One case last year involved illegal dumping at a fish pond in San Tin, a village north of Yuen Long near Mai Po nature reserve.

The owner only removed part of the dumped materials and increased the pond’s water level. “This is a trick some fish pond owners use to cover up what they’ve done,” Woo said.

The organisation called on the government to establish an interdepartmental committee to coordinate biodiversity conservation efforts, strengthen the protection and management of sites with high ecological value and revise regulations to enhance enforcement capabilities.

The government is planning to create a biodiversity strategy and action plan to support sustainable development over the next five years. It is seeking public feedback on the proposal until April 7.

But Woo said it did not address issues of illegal development in rural areas. “If there’s no coordination between departments or bureaus, we’re afraid that this is just going to be another ‘business as usual’ action plan,” she added.

In another development on Tuesday, environment undersecretary Christine Loh Kung-wai was pressed on the issue of illegal felling and theft of incense trees in rural areas at a special meeting of the Legislative Council’s environmental affairs panel.

Panel member Cyd Ho Sau-lan urged the Environmental Protection Department to take a leading role in tackling the issue and to bring the matter to the administration’s policy committee chaired by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to better coordinate the responsibilities and work of different government departments.

Loh said a report on how the government planned to combat the threat of incense tree felling would be released within the coming two month.

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