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WWF’s losses amount to HK$1 million due to an outdated and biased closure policy

WWF-Hong Kong announces that the Mai Po Nature Reserve will re-open on 21 April 2010. This is the sixth closure in as many years at the Reserve due to the government’s closure policy, which is an outdated policy applicable to the internationally recognized Ramsar wetland and it should be reviewed urgently.

WWF-Hong Kong suffers direct losses of around $200,000 each closure period due to cancelled public visits which, over the past six years, has cumulated to over HK$1 million. Indirect financial losses are also incurred due to public wariness and slow uptake of visits following each closure.

“The losses have a significant impact on WWF’s management and education programmes in Mai Po. WWF is facing the difficulty of inadequate government funding to manage the Reserve by annually having to raise an additional HK$3.5 million to meet the management cost shortfall. Public visit revenue is therefore essential. Lost revenue from the Reserve closure translates into a reduction in our management operations at the Reserve which can affect wildlife,” said Bena Smith, Reserve Manager, WWF-Hong Kong.

“The closure of Mai Po due to single cases of dead birds with H5N1 within 3km of the boundary is woefully outdated. WWF respects the need for precautionary measures to ensure public safety, but we believe the current government policy is more about public perception, and having to be seen to do something, than actual scientific fact. There is no evidence of a human ever having contracted H5N1 from a wild bird,” added Mr Smith.

The period from November to April is traditionally the peak period for migratory waterbirds to visit Mai Po and the Deep Bay wetlands. Over the last few years, the closures have resulted in more than 13,000 public visitors and students losing the opportunity to learn and appreciate the spectacle of waterbird migration during this peak period.

Mr Smith said, “The current policy serves to only disrupt educational and recreational visits to Mai Po, reduce revenue needed to manage Mai Po, frustrate Hong Kong’s birdwatchers and send out the wrong message that Mai Po and Hong Kong is an unsafe place to visit.”

WWF also calls on the government to review the compensation policy, in which WWF sees a blatant inconsistency in policy applications. In 2007, the Mong Kok Bird Market which was closed for 18 days received government ex-gratia payments of $10,000 and a one-month waiver of rent to all the stall holders as compensation for this closure.

WWF has held several meetings with different government departments over the last few years in a bid to resolve the issue, but to date progress to revise the policy has been slow. WWF will call for further meetings with the Environment Bureau, Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department (AFCD) and Legislative councillors to propose a motion for policy review.

The Reserve will re-open on 21 April 2010 after 21 days of closure following notification by the AFCD that no further cases of H5 positive birds have been found within 3km of Mai Po. The Reserve has been closed since 31 March 2010 after a dead Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) found at the Mai Po Section of Castle Peak Road on 26 March 2010 was confirmed as H5N1 positive.

WWF places the highest priority on the health of visitors to Mai Po and our staff working in the Reserve. Since wild birds shun humans by nature, visitors to Mai Po do not come into close proximity to wild birds at the Reserve. WWF will continue to ensure its already stringent biosecurity measures are implemented to minimize risks to our staff and visitors. These measures include the provision of disinfectant hand washes and footbaths at selected points around the reserve, and regular disinfection of site infrastructure.
Since 2003, over 30,000 faecal samples from wild birds at Mai Po have been tested by the University of Hong Kong staff and Government. None of these samples tested positive for the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian flu virus. In winter 2008/09, a dead Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) found at the Reserve was found to be H5N1 positive.

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