Earth Chat

Conserving Hong Kong wetlands for migratory birds

World Migratory Bird Day is coming up tomorrow on May 13, and this year’s theme highlights the significance of water for migratory birds. Wetlands serve as a crucial environment for the birds to rest and replenish during their extensive travels.[1] Did you know that Hong Kong is a favored destination among migratory birds? We are situated along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, a prominent migratory pathway that connects bird breeding grounds and their non-breeding habitats.[2]

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway (Image Source: Hong Kong Bird Watching Society)

During the autumn season when their breeding area turn cold, migratory bird species, including Black-faced spoonbill, Saunders’s gull, Nordmann’s greenshank, and others, frequently visit Hong Kong’s wetlands, such as Mai Po and Long Valley.[3] Although migratory birds may not stay for extended periods, they play significant roles in the ecosystem like pest control, seed dispersal and serving as food sources for other wildlife.[4][5][6]

A Saunders’s gull (Image Source: CGTN)

Despite their critical role in the ecosystem, the population of migratory birds in Hong Kong has significantly declined. According to a joint study conducted by Lingnan University and the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, there has been an average of 80% drop in the abundance of 12 waterfowl species, such as the black-headed gull and common sandpiper, between 1998 and 2017.[7]Additionally, the population of black-faced spoonbills in Hong Kong has declined from 369 in 2022 to 299 in early-2023, the lowest level in eight years.[8]What factors are leading to this decline in migratory bird numbers?

Black-faced spoonbills at the Hong Kong Wetland Park (Image Source: HKSAR Government)

Migratory birds rely on wetlands as a crucial habitat, but in Mai Po, these wetlands are under threat due to illegal developments in the surrounding areas.[9] Despite the intended purpose of the Wetland Buffer Area, which is to safeguard the Deep Bay wetlands and other conservation areas from human activities, brownfield sites such as open storage and parking spaces for container trucks can still be found operating within the protected zone.

According to a report by the Planning Department, there are 49 hectares of brownfield sites in the Pok Wai, Tai Sang Wai and San Tin area, with many of these sites situated within the Wetland Buffer Area.[10]The presence of human activities in the vicinity of the Wetland Conservation Area has shaped an unfavorable environment for migratory birds to stay.

A map showing the boundaries of the Wetland Conservation Area (blue line) and Wetland Buffer Area (purple line) (Image Source: MingPao)

Urban development is also posing a significant threat to wetlands in Hong Kong. In 2021, for instance, the Development Bureau proposed to relax the plot ratio for housing development within the Wetland Buffer Area to increase housing supply.[11] Moreover, the "Land Sharing Pilot Scheme” puts nearby conservation areas to potential private development, with high-rises creating a risk of blocking migratory bird flight path and causing light disturbance to these species.[12]

Residential developments next to the Hong Kong Wetland Park (Image Source: SCMP)

"Life on Land” is one of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, encompassing the conservation and restoration of inland freshwater ecosystems, particularly wetlands, to protect life on land.[13] As we commemorate World Migratory Bird Day, it is a good time for us to recognise the significance of migratory birds to the ecosystem and our society. Birds share the same planet with us, and it is our shared responsibility to protect their habitat.

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