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Though much of Hong Kong’s natural environment is protected inside country parks, many valuable conservation areas remain vulnerable and exposed.
Tai Long Sai Wan is one of Hong Kong’s most magnificent natural areas. Tree-clad hills curve around a beautiful bay with shimmering sea. Standing on the wide empty sand, there is silence, except for the crash of the waves. Behind the beach lies an area of lush trees where birds and butterflies flit busily and a few cows laze in long grass.
One day in July 2010, an excavator dug down into a patch of this paradise, tearing up the green grass and threatening to cause irreversible damage. The land had been bought from local villagers by billionaire Simon Lo Lin-shing who planned to develop it for personal use. He could do this because the area was privately owned and so hadn’t been included in the surrounding country park.
Conservationists soon spotted the damage being done and rushed to protect the area. A Facebook group condemning the development gathered over 40,000 members and a petition called on the government to take action. Facing such an outcry, the government responded rapidly and Tai Long Sai Wan was given a Development Permission Area plan preventing unapproved development activities for three years.
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The Tai Long Sai Wan incident pointed to the much wider problems that exist for the protection of Hong Kong’s environment. Hong Kong has some very valuable natural areas which are habitats to a staggering amount of species. But many of these areas currently lie outside the country parks protective boundaries and are under threat from developers. Even areas included in protected zones are never completely safe. Management of the areas is often lacking and not conducive to conservation.
Hong Kong is spectacularly rich in nature. It has a greater number of wild species than the UK, which is over 200 times its size. These include 1,920 species of flowering plants and over 2,000 species of moths. Several of these species can be found only in Hong Kong, such as the recently discovered Chinese Grassbird. Many are considered to be of great importance worldwide.
“People may not be aware that Hong Kong has very rich biodiversity,” said Alan Leung, a conservation officer with WWF Hong Kong. “Some of the species are of very high conservation importance, not just locally but globally.”
Protecting such biodiversity is a key concern of the region’s green groups. Last year, Hong Kong also signed on to the Convention on Biological Diversity, increasing its obligation to make efforts to preserve its different species and their habitats.
Hong Kong’s primary means of protecting this biodiversity are the country parks, established in 1976, which seal off areas from development and restrict their use. These parks cover an impressive 41 percent of the territory. But for many conservationists, the problem is that they do not protect the right areas.
Because the parks were formed with the aim of protecting Hong Kong’s water supply, they were located mostly around reservoirs and high-elevation areas. Drawing their boundaries, the government also sought to respect villagers’ rights and so excluded private land.