Will Hong Kong First Biodiversity Strategy & Action Plan Sustain Our City's Natural Heritage? | WWF Hong Kong

Will Hong Kong First Biodiversity Strategy & Action Plan Sustain Our City's Natural Heritage?

06 April 2016

Hong Kong’s sub-tropical climate and unique position at the mouth of the Pearl River mean that our city is blessed with an amazingly large diversity of plant and animal life. The essential need to protect the diversity of life on earth is enshrined in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which also extends to Hong Kong. In his 2013 policy address, Chief Executive CY Leung committed to develop a Biodiversity Strategy & Action Plan (BSAP) to help implement the Convention locally. Unusually for Hong Kong, a participatory approach was embraced inviting academics, environmental NGOs, professionals and other stakeholders to develop a set of recommendations for Hong Kong’s first BSAP that covers 2016-2020.
After more than a year of intense work by more than one hundred experts and stakeholders, over 400 recommendations have been produced and then grouped, compiled and prioritized into 33 draft Key Actions. They’re all aimed at strengthening conservation across the territory, so that Hong Kong can find a better balance between urban development and the environment. Government has now produced a public consultation document and is inviting comments until 7 April, before producing a final action plan.
However most of the 400 recommendations that were drafted have been omitted from the consultation document, and most of the 33 draft key actions have not been directly incorporated – instead there are 25 pages summarizing previous or ongoing initiatives to conserve biodiversity, and only 17 pages on an action plan. A closer inspection of the consultation document reveals a mixture of vague ‘possible actions’ and restating of existing government commitments such as implementing ongoing Species Actions Plans even though current Species Actions Plans are falling short - for example the Chinese White Dolphin has failed to halt the decline of this important species. This is in stark contrast to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which states that parties should develop an effective action plan, and in particular at the city level that it should be practical. Much more specificity will be needed in Hong Kong’s BSAP.
There is also a danger that government will be tempted to take the easy route in formulating its action plan, by prioritizing research and awareness raising and de-prioritizing new direct conservation actions. This deflects some of the responsibility away from government – for example research can be undertaken by academics, NGOs etc., whereas only government can lead on policy formulation and implementation. Also, research won’t directly result in improving our natural environment – it is an essential component of conservation, but doesn’t by itself ensure conservation. Such an approach is also contrary to the UN Conventions' Precautionary Principle which states that ‘…where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, then lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat.’ More worryingly, the BSAP consultation document emphasizes enhancing existing conservation measures, and implies government has no interest in new measures to protect our natural heritage.
So what more specifically should Hong Kong’s first Action Plan contain?  The answers lies within those 400 specific recommendations made to government. For example less than 2% of our seas currently receive some form of protection and are under increasing threats from reclamation, contaminated mud deposits, pollution and unsustainable fisheries. Governments around the world have identified marine conservation as lagging behind, and have adopted a specific target to ensure that at least 10% of the marine environment should be protected globally by 2020. Such a target could easily be achieved for Hong Kong.
Another recommended priority is more coordinated preservation of the Inner Deep Bay wetlands, which are of international importance to the tens of thousands of migratory water birds. There are a growing number of wetland reserves that are being created as mitigation of urban development around Deep Bay. A statutory Wetland Trust needs to be set up to ensure long-term conservation of these wetlands, and a holistic management plan developed across the landscape to coordinate conservation efforts.
Effective Species Action Plans are urgently needed to halt and reverse the decline of species such as the Chinese white dolphin. A comprehensive list of Threatened Species based on an assessment of the conservation status of species should also be produced. Also importantly, Hong Kong’s impact on global biodiversity is considerable thanks to unsustainable consumption such as shark fin and Bluefin tuna, and must also be addressed.
We are confident that government can adopt these and other measures into the BSAP while continuing to develop the city, because Hong Kong has a history of doing just that. For example we can draw some inspiration from the city’s previous success in turning a treeless landscape into a recognized biodiversity hotspot. Accounts from visitors arriving in Hong Kong in the 1800’s described the place as “barren” and “sterile”. During the Second World War when Hong  Kong was occupied by the Japanese, nearly all the plantations and regenerated forests were cut down to provide firewood. Since then, a dedicated effort involving decades of reforestation and protection and allowing natural regeneration and recolonization has resulted in a flourishing landscape, with over 1,900 species of flowering plants (over 5% of China total) and over 500 bird species recorded (some 40% of China total). This demonstrates that, when the  government is there to pursue dedicated conservation efforts by working with nature, a decline in biodiversity can be reversed.
We urge the Hong Kong Government to incorporate our suggested actions and targets into the final BSAP. By implementing these actions, and by continuing to work with experts and stakeholders, some vital gaps in conservation can be addressed.
Previous governments have left a legacy of a world class country park system, afforested our barren hillsides and protected an internationally important wetland. What legacy will our current government leave for the plants, animals and 7 million citizens that inhabit Hong Kong?
Dr. Michael Lau is Assistant Director, Conservation at WWF-Hong Kong
Gavin Edwards is Director, Conservation at WWF–Hong Kong

The article is published on South China Morning Post on 26 February 2016