A spate of mysterious fires have ripped through the Nam Sang Wai wetlands in recent weeks, leaving behind scorched earth and razed reedbeds in the usually idyllic haven in the northern fringes of the territory.

Dubbed the city’s “back garden,” the popular destination for bikers, hikers and wedding photographers has long been caught up in battles between conservationists, the town planning board, and developers. But it is also home to a wide variety of birds and animals, and is one of the most ecologically important sites in Hong Kong.

Fears over the habitat’s future were sparked after the area was hit with three fires last month, affecting more than 12 hectares. Most recently, a fourth blaze destroyed a boat at a ferry crossing on Monday, which firefighters believe may have been a deliberate act.

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The damaged dock seen from across the river on April 4. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

The incidents prompted speculation that they may have been arson attacks related to development, while others suggested they arose over personal disputes. Whilst police investigate, there have been renewed calls to protect the area from development.

Lawmaker Roy Kwong helped organise a rally last Sunday that was attended by around a hundred people, calling on the government to increase protection for Nam Sang Wai.

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A ribbon left tied to a tree by a protester. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

He told HKFP: “As [former Observatory chief] Lam Chiu-ying said, when there is organisation and a motive behind it, what do they want? They’re continuously creating destruction – what are they trying to accomplish through this destruction? We don’t want to speculate, but the problem is – we’re very afraid that this kind of destruction will finally take Nam Sang Wai’s life.”

Hong Kong is a key stopover and wintering site for migratory birds on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, which extends 13,000 km from the Arctic Circle through Southeast Asia to Australia and New Zealand. 50 million migratory waterbirds travel through the flyway each year, according to WWF. 

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Bikers ride past a scorched area on on April 4. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Nam Sang Wai lies just across the Kam Tin River from the Mai Po Marshes and Inner Deep Bay area, which was designated as a wetland of international importance under the 1995 Ramsar convention. Nam Sang Wai itself, while just outside of the 1,540-hectare recognised area, was designated as a Wetland Conservation Area by the Town Planning Board to prevent adverse impacts of development projects on wetland habitats, and environmentalists say it is an integral part of the Deep Bay ecosystem.

Nam Sang Wai is home to one of the largest continuous reedbeds in Hong Kong. The reeds and fishponds are an important habitat for wildlife, providing a home for migratory birds – such as the endangered black-faced spoonbill – to rest, feed, build nests and breed.

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A scorched area seen from above on April 4. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP Drone.

According to the government, no significant or long-term ecological impacts to Nam Sang Wai were observed after the fires in March, as the affected reeds and grass are fast-growing plants that will readily regenerate in the coming wet season.

Woo Ming Chuan, conservation officer at the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, told HKFP that the fires in March did not have a great impact on the great cormorant population, which were leaving the area after spending the winter there at the time. 

But she said that, if the fires continued regularly, the reedbed will not be able to recover, resulting in habitat loss.

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Grass grows in a scorched area on on April 4. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Michael Man, the owner of King Fai Farm, a business which includes a restaurant and fish ponds near the southeastern edge of Nam Sang Wai, told HKFP that if the fires continued, they would affect residents’ state of mind. “Why are there people who would do this? …We have no way of knowing.”

Another fisherman told HKFP he was worried that the fires would get closer to his property as there was dry bush nearby. “I am worried – people nowadays are always playing with fire.”

According to WWF Hong Kong, the reedbeds could take three to five years to regrow after the fire, and birds may use the nearby Mai Po Nature Reserve before the reeds recover. 

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Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP Drone.

But Hong Kong cannot rely solely on the protected Mai Po area to sustain the number of migratory birds who call it home during the winter, Woo said. 

“The many wetlands and fishponds in the whole Deep Bay area are places that birds frequently go to find food, so we think that conservation should not be limited to the wetlands in the Ramsar site. We are talking about the bigger continuous wetlands around it… we should protect it as a whole, and not only the core area.”

Woo says that Hong Kong should do its best to conserve its wetlands, as other stops on the flyway are also under threat. 

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Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

“If any of the stops disappear it would affect the birds. If they cannot replenish themselves with food or do not get enough rest, they may not live to see the next stop or their wintering and breeding sites.”

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department counted over 4,000 great cormorants roosting in Nam Sang Wai in January of last year. 

The area is also home to animals including Eurasian otters, which are rare in Hong Kong and considered a species of conservation concern by the government.

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Michael Man. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Man said otters are rare, but his staff have spotted them near the fishpond on his property. He said he may have seen one in the pond recently while he was walking by the side.

“Why was there something doing somersaults in the middle of the pond? At first I thought it was the fish doing somersaults, but then I thought that was unlikely – finally I remembered that it was probably an otter.”

He said his staff have also spotted families of weasels looking for fish near the pond.

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Michael Man’s fish pond. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

There are about dozen or so households raising fish in fishponds like Man, according to the Bird Watching Society. Conservation officer Woo said these fishermen also add to the ecological value of the area – when the fishermen adopt traditional practices of regularly draining and sun-drying the fish ponds, birds are provided with a suitable habitat for feeding and roosting.

Although the fires may not have a long-term effect on the ecosystem, the area remains under threat from development, beset by developers’ proposals to develop in the area. Although many applications have failed, Sun Hung Kai Properties received approval to build a hotel, an outlet mall, and six apartment buildings on the land it owns in Nam Sang Wai, near the wetland area. It also received approval to build 57 individual three-storey townhouses within the wetland buffer zone.

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A Bird Watching Society sign showing bird species in Nam Sang Wai. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Currently, the government owns 20 percent of Nam Sang Wai, while the other 80 per cent is privately owned. The majority of the privately owned land is held by Nam Sang Wai Development Company Limited, a company jointly controlled by Henderson Land Development and the Fu family. Some have called for the government to buy back the land in order to protect the wetland. 

Man said he believed any development would affect the ecosystem to “a certain degree.” He said that, if there was construction during their roosting period, migratory birds may be scared away. Visitors coming to take photographs or enjoy the scenery would also be less likely to visit, he said.

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Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

He said he understood that there was demand for housing in Hong Kong. “But they are building luxury residences here, it has nothing to do with it, there needs to be a beautiful environment for them to be worth a lot of money.”

Lawmaker Kwong said he believed that Hongkongers wanted to protect Nam Sang Wai and leave it as a gift for the next generation to enjoy.

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Nam Sang Wai. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“Nam Sang Wai is beautiful… this beauty may lead to its potential demise – being targeted for development such as into golf courses or mansions – but Hongkongers don’t think this is good.”

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.