Mai Po, at dusk. Can Mai Po and its wildlife be kept from harm’s way amidst the development in the Greater Bay Area? (Photo by Alex Ip)

Fireflies (Sort of) Like Lights

There are leopard cats and water buffalos, too

Alex Ip
Alex Ip
Jul 17, 2018 · 7 min read

Two sentences were printed impeccably in Times New Roman script on a steel plate next to a barred metal gate.

Mai Po lies directly next to the “FRONTIER CLOSED AREA”. (Photo by Alex Ip)

Being such a rebel, I pushed open the gate defiantly.

Not that I didn’t have the permit anyway.

After covering the City Nature Challenge in Early May, I was fortunate to have the WWF-HK return the favor. I would help carry out a large mammal and firefly census at the Mai Po Nature Reserve as a citizen scientist. I’ve never been to Mai Po before, so I expected it to be quite a secluded place. I turned out to be both right and wrong.

Amidst the longest dry spell in half a century, I walked nearly half an hour on a winding path directly under the scorching sun just to reach the Mai Po Visitor Centre. Yet the Visitor Centre was just at the Wise Use zone of the Ramsar Site. Mai Po, an undisturbed haven for birds, fireflies, and mammals, was rather hard to access, after all.

Nothing could shield us from the scorching sun on our way to Mai Po, not even the shadows of Shenzhen’s skyscrapers. (Photo by Alex Ip)

But I was foolish to believe that the Reserve was far from civilization. I was stunned to see the skyline of Shenzhen looming in the background. I admit it looked quite nice — as if Lego blocks were stacked on top of each other with chopsticks here and there. But I didn’t expect myself to distinguish one window of a skyscraper from another. What could lie under the shadows of so many towering skyscrapers?

As our small group of citizen scientists and staff crossed to the other side of the fence, we swapped calm for chaos: the gei wai shrimp breeding ponds were gone, present were overgrown bushes and prickly plants. The flying insects seemed more large and unruly too, buzzing around fiercely to ward off the bipedal intruders.

Left: Notice the two worlds separated by the fence. Right: The camouflaged camera box is rather easy to find in close proximity, but the devices inside are useful tools for conservationists. (Photos by Alex Ip)

We quickly located what we intended to find, a box painted in jungle camouflage strapped onto the trunk of a large tree. The cuboid housed cameras which would take pictures when triggered by movement or heat, both in color and in infrared.

We opened the box only to find that the batteries had long run out, but all the data had been stored in the SD card neatly tucked into the front cover of the box. It was a race against time to replace the SD card and batteries, activate the camera and get away before the sensors detected us and started burst shooting. One of us carefully pressed the button inside the box. A dim red LED light started blinking. We scurried away as if a bomb was about to explode. Blink. Blink blink. Blink blink blink.

As the imaginary bomb brought everything to smithereens, the wild descended to deafening silence, save for the occasional whirring of insects. We backtracked along our original way and retreated into a nicely camouflaged hut in the middle of the reserve, picking up a few more cameras along the way.

We formed a crescent around a computer, counting sheets in hand, anxiously awaiting for any creatures which would pop up on the screen. Kitty, whom I met last time at Island House, along with her WWF colleague, hinted us of an elusive species — the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra). As we gone through the photos, however, no otter was in sight. Another surprise was in store though, as we saw a feline creature lurking around a particular tree; it was a leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) roughly the same size as a domestic cat. (The exact location was kept confidential to prevent the creatures from being disturbed). Considering its small size, I couldn’t quite get why a few months ago, two hikers reported seeing a “tiger” in the woods when in fact it should have been a leopard cat. Perhaps they were too tired and bored? Beats me.

The main event came after a quick dinner of white bread and Japanese curry. As dusk drew near, we walked to the far end of the reserve, ready to carry out the firefly survey.

By some common sense, no lights were installed within the Reserve to avoid interfering with the biological cycles of wildlife. As night crept in, however, the ponds and shrubs did not exactly descend into darkness. There was light pollution north of the border and from households close to Mai Po. The skyscrapers in Shenzhen glowed with a colorful aura -beautiful when looking from a distance, but completely spoiling the serenity further down south.

There was a joke about how a Mainlander entered Hong Kong illegally with hopes of bombing the central business district. Enticed by the bright lights, however, he mistook Shenzhen for Central, Hong Kong, and gone back the way he had come. (He was swiftly detained before realizing his mistake.) As we walked along the boundaries of Mai Po , I started to pity the poor bloke — I would have done the same, have I not grown up in this city!

My eyes were having a hard time though. The bright lights were messing up with my night vision, making me harder to spot the faint glow of the fireflies' abdomens, if they actually existed. We walked along the border of the Reserve om one direction to avoid double counting of fireflies; as we trotted along the least disturbed areas of the reserve not a single firefly was found.

This is taken using a smartphone camera. It pretty much illustrates how serious light pollution is. (Photo by Alex Ip)

I was quickly losing hope when something odd happened: Where floodlights from nearby houses were shining, we noticed a firefly inside a shrub. We stopped and took a closer look through the leaves, revealing a paradise hidden under the bright lights. Tiny firefly larvae crawled along narrow trunks, their heads acting as tiny flashlights. Behind fireflies zipped and flickered above and within a grassy field. It was a disco bar from nature, where fireflies danced to synchronized beats, showing off moves against one another and giving all they’ve got to grab the spotlight. On the other side of our path, water buffaloes were oblivious to our presence but seemed to have grown used to the firefly parties for long.

I was at once joyous and frustrated: I was finally able to see in close proximity the endemic Mai Po Bent-winged Firefly (Pteroptyx maipo), but I kept losing track of the number of fireflies present, not just because there were too many of them, but also since my eyes were failing me.

I was became somewhat puzzled: Why did the fireflies gather around the bright lights?

For a long time, humans were fascinated by why fireflies glowed. Recently, some scientists pointed out that firefly males prefer brighter female fireflies: the stronger the glow of female fireflies, the more likely it is chosen as a mate.

So did the fireflies live there because they’ve mistaken the artificial night lighting for their own kind? How would that alter their behavior? How big is that problem? I’m just a citizen scientist; I don’t have much of a clue. It’s just my gut feeling that these tiny little lightning bugs are in big trouble, and some scientists are getting to the same conclusion.

When the buffer between city and nature shrinks, what could we do to mitigate our harmful effect and at least let the flora and fauna live like how they’re used to? How could we reduce the clashes between man and wild with animals displaced and habitats destroyed? It’s something that we have to take a long look. Unsustainable development often comes back to haunt us in many ways we couldn’t have imagined.

Just don’t screw up the places where leopard cats and water buffaloes frolic. And yes, don’t stop the firefly party.

The article is corrected on July 20 to show that the Visitor Centre is located within the Wise Use Zone of the Mai Po Nature Reserve. Previously it is written that the Centre is located outside the Reserve. Thanks to Alex WONG, Education Manager, One Planet Youth, WWF-Hong Kong for the information.

The CitizenScience.Asia Journal

Stories from the citizen science community in Asia

Alex Ip

Written by

Alex Ip

The time is always right to do what is right. Founder of @thexylom.

The CitizenScience.Asia Journal

Stories from the citizen science community in Asia

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