Graphic by Alex Ip

Like Pokemon, but in Real Life

A first person account of the City Nature Challenge in Hong Kong

Alex Ip
Alex Ip
May 17, 2018 · 11 min read

Quotes are condensed for clarity.

It was a breezy spring afternoon, and large white birds were all over the place.

Those weren’t ordinary birds, but great egrets, with their orange, pointed beaks and black rail-thin legs, idling on marshes or gliding in the air effortlessly with the grace of a speed skater.

Now I was at the WWF-HK Island House Conservation Studies Centre on the outskirts of Tai Po, biding my time for the egret to come just a little bit closer. Island House had one of the most idyllic yet unexpected scenery you’d find in such a densely populated city: the path leading to the Centre had barely veered off the highway, public housing projects still imposing on the rearview mirror. But in front of me, mangrove shrubs lined neatly; a crude jetty cut through the narrow littoral, providing a gateway to the Tolo Harbour.

This House, at the intersection of man and wilderness, the orderly and the unruly, was the perfect setting for the City Nature Challenge.

Gradually, a small crowd gathered around the historic monument, eagerly fidgeting with their phones and setting up their iNaturalist accounts. I led them into a makeshift lecture room, where WWF-HK staff Kitty Tang and Carmen Or did the briefing. As they showed giggling children molted snakeskins and deflated honeycombs I wondered: Shouldn’t we grown-ups appreciate nature with joy and wonder, just like these kids?

Soon, it was time for us to get moving. We were led into an urban jungle: towering ferns reminded me a bygone era of dinosaurs and beasts; insects hovered around, to my mild annoyance. Who would’ve thought that nature existed at arms’ reach?

While everyone else was enjoying themselves, I noticed two taking the task at hand seriously. Designer Neo Ma and clerk Miss Wu brought along their cameras to the event. They were passionate amateur photographers, following the blossom season to capture amazing moments. This spring, the gusts have led them somewhere special.

Miss Wu found wildflowers the most appealing since they appeared without human intervention, a feat of nature. “While we’ve seen quite a bit through photography, the explanation by the WWF staff certainly deepened my understanding of how organisms are interrelated. I had no idea about that in the past since there were limited channels of knowing; all we could do was to dig ourselves. Now that I’m a citizen scientist, I’ll promote the concepts of biodiversity and environmental conservation.”

Ma now would view nature from a different perspective: “I’m quite excited when encountering species that we’ve never seen before. It’s a fresh change of scenery when compared to the same few kinds of plants that we’ve seen over and over again. We have to appreciate wildlife but not destroy them.”

“It’s like the Pokemon Go phenomenon. Gotta catch ’em all!“ — Shaun Martin, Tai Tam Tuk Foundation

We continued to move across the knoll. A winding path led us down to the mangrove and then the shore, where little kids had parked their bikes, catching fish with colorful nets. (The WWF staff did not necessarily approve of their behavior) Gradually, the colors seemed to become more vibrant, the mingling of grass and peat making me feel more… alive. Why haven’t I known this place earlier?

Participants listen to explanation by WWF-HK staff at Island House Conservation Studies Centre on 28 April, 2018 (Photo by Alex Ip)

After the BioBlitz, I sat down and talked with the two WWF officers. As co-organizers, they used their social media channels to promote their events over the week.

“WWF-HK is only one of the many co-organizing the City Nature Challenge, so we hold events to enlist the public according to our respective capacities. Activities corresponding to the Challenge (details in the infographic) are promoted through social media and email newsletters, with hopes of engaging as many citizens as possible. To kick off the events, we were given an afternoon off. In fact, around 40 staff took pictures at Mai Po (Nature Reserve), because we want to take the initiative!” said Tang. No wonder there were so many photos of rare flora and fauna taken by users whose avatars were WWF Pandas!

Both of them believed that the City Nature Challenge could change minds and spur action. “Virtually all of us live in urban areas, so we really don’t have many chances to get in touch with nature. A lot of us are unaware of the significance of (all the biodiversity) around us. We only know that there’s a tree on the sidewalk or a weed here and there. Some of us might even freak out when a bee buzzes around!” said Tang.

“Our aim is to promote the peaceful coexistence of human and nature. The City Nature Challenge encourages people to go out and understand the living things around us. We hope they could hence realize how close we are from nature,” said Or.

“This could (hopefully) change their perceptions, such as their fear of insects, how much they value insects or birds or even how to best conserve these creatures and their habitats,” said Tang.

WWF-HK staff Carmen Or (left) and Kitty Tang (right) are proud to introduce citizens to the eclectic species at Island House (Photo by Alex Ip)

I thought about my hatred of flying insects, how I would often kill mosquitoes with some sadistic humor. While they are irritating, they exist to occupy a niche. What would happen if we eradicated them? Would we really be better off? How should we treat creatures which might harm our well-being? That is some food for thought.

I’m quite excited when encountering species that we’ve never seen before. It’s a fresh change of scenery when compared to the same few kinds of plants that we’ve seen over and over again. — Neo Ma, amateur photographer

By the time I was about to leave, thoughts crowded in my head, it was already late in the afternoon. I glanced out the antique windows only to see Ms. Wu taking pictures of the flora and fauna she loved the most. It was then when I truly realized the success of the City Nature Challenge.

The WWF-HK generously lended their facilities at 1 Tramway Path for the Post-CNC identification Party. (Photo by Alex Ip)

Fast forward three days later, I sat inside a red brick hut, people around me glued to their laptop screens. Nestled beneath a flyover, the WWF-HK Visitor Centre might be little more than an afterthought for the 10 million annual visitors queuing for the Peak Tram next building, Nevertheless, it became the headquarters of an important yet deeply underappreciated task.

“Our aim is to promote the peaceful coexistence of human and nature. The City Nature Challenge encourages people to go out and understand the living things around us. We hope they could hence realize how close we are from nature.” — Carmen Or, WWF-HK

Inside the aptly-named Mangrove Room, I was surrounded by researchers hailing from local universities and institutions. Along with independent experts, they were working round the clock to identify what species citizen scientists have encountered in the previous weekend. These professionals all brought their diverse skillsets to the table for the holistic understanding of local biodiversity. They even brought along earphones to distinguish the sounds of different bats; bilingual field guides were passed around meticulously whenever in doubt.

Robert I. Ferguson was eager to join in the fun after hearing about the initiative from various Facebook nature groups and friends. “I wanted to find out more, and the best way is to participate.” A former director in various news agencies, Ferguson has since discovered his passion for wildlife photography and now runs the Wild Creatures Hong Kong blog. His expertise was helpful in identifying many species. He was writing a two-part series on local venomous land snakes around the time of the City Nature Challenge.

“(The fun part) was getting out and meeting new people, and the sense of achievement as you add new species,” said Robert. “(But it was) challenging to ID to species level all the different spiders!”

What transpired inside the room might seem intense to the outsider. In fact, the pros were munching chicken bites the whole morning, listening to muted heavy metal music seeping through the computer speakers. They always had a nice laugh whenever ridiculous things popped up, such as an organism appearing sometime in “the past” at “somewhere” without any visual or audio evidence whatsoever. Being the only person without a college degree, I triaged photos lacking prior identification using my common sense so that the scientists could focus on what they did best. At least, I had full faith in my ability to distinguish a flower from a panda.

Robert (left with glasses) works with other researchers to understand local biodiversity (Photo by Alex Ip)

For Shaun Martin of the Tai Tam Tuk Foundation, who oversees the Hong Kong event, one number was in his mind: 75%. That’s the percentage of people who have never heard of the term “biodiversity” in Cantonese, revealed while he did a paper with the Civic Exchange thinktank.

“This was just before the government released the Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, so we found that biodiversity isn’t entering any conversation with the public. And if it’s not in the conversation, you can’t expect the public to have an opinion, whether it’s good or bad, whether I like or don’t like it. Getting the public involved in order to create opinions, comments or even criticism is important.”

That’s why Martin raved about how the City Nature Challenge seamlessly fit into the lives of various stakeholders. To encourage the public to step out of their collective comfort zones, let them do so without realizing: by doing what they have always been doing.

“(The iNaturalist app) bridges the gap between the public and the experts. The communication between the two has narrowed; we can open a slight dialogue between the public and the experts.” — Shaun Martin, Tai Tam Tuk Foundation

“For every single environmental issue, the individual will always say, ‘What can I do? My contributions would be so small!’ The way that iNaturalist works, it’s a smartphone app. Virtually every single person owns a smartphone!” (The iNaturalist app has been the platform supporting the City Nature Challenge.)

“We had known that schools, both local and international, would be teaching ecology around this time of the year. We outreached to a lot of these schools and said, ‘You know, this is the City Nature Challenge. It’s basically biodiversity engagement, where you have to go out and take pictures of nature then log them. (This) closely aligns itself with what you’re trying to teach.’

“A lot of schools have actually said, ‘This is brilliant! This is actually a perfect kind of field trip to augment ecology studies.’ So we had a lot of students taking part. This is what we call ‘captive participation’; as it’s technically part of their curriculum anyway, they have to do it.”

Shaun Martin of Tai Tam Tuk Foundation believes that the City Nature Challenge can bring citizens and scientists closer (Photo by Alex Ip)

Then there is “integrated participation”.

“There are a lot of NGOs and research stations that do nature walks, camps, bioblitzes themselves. I approached many of these organizations and said, ‘The City Nature Challenge is happening; do whatever it is that you’re going to do, don’t really change anything. Just tag (the Challenge) on at the end.’”

“Thankfully there were a lot of NGOs that were like, ‘Yeah, I could do that.’ Obviously, when you mentioned how easy it is, they would go, ‘no problem!’”

The WWF exemplified how the strategies were carried out. While students were weeding American Rope (Mikania micrantha) from sites, iPads installed with iNaturalist were provided, Students could then capture any living organisms that they observed. I also recalled Miss Wu saying how fulfilling it was to learn about nature while engaging in her hobby during our bioblitz.

Furthermore, Martin had something in mind when he called the experts (and me the amateur) together: he wanted us to take care of the citizens that contributed the least quantitatively to the City Nature Challenge.

He laid bare the logic behind: Instead of just focusing on the week-long Challenge, responding to the large crowd of novice citizen scientists makes them that more likely to use iNaturalist in the long run.

“How (users) contribute to something and actually getting a response back (from fellow users and researchers) is very, very important — it solidifies and consolidates your involvement. “And if you get a response, it’s rewarding! You’ll go, ‘I didn’t know that!’ You’d get that ‘wow’ factor.”

Similar to how a lot of people find social media gratifying, this dialogue between amateurs and researchers might satisfy the human needs of recognition and connectivity, making citizen scientists come back for more and more.

“(The iNaturalist app) bridges the gap between the public and the experts. The communication between the two has narrowed; we can open a slight dialogue between the public and the experts.”

“It’s like the Pokemon Go phenomenon. Gotta catch ’em all! "

Bald cypress tree at Island House (Photo by Alex Ip)

When all the dust had settled, I realized how incredibly well we did in that whirlwind of a week: 20268 observations of 2932 species made by 755 people, Heck, Hong Kong contributed a whopping 57 out of 124 global new species (46.0%) in the iNaturalist database. Not bad for a first-timer.

Evidently, City Nature Challenge is a novel yet effective method of engaging the public, to encourage them to be inquisitive and thoughtful. But one week is not enough. We need to encourage more citizens to contribute to the cause in the long run. That’s the only feasible way of saving our environment!

That’s when I remember something that Martin said, right as we were about to conclude our conversation.

“Ultimately what the City Nature Challenge actually teaches is that it doesn’t have to be all about the destination. The journey is just as important.”

The author would like to express his deepest gratitude to the organizers and co-organizers of the City Nature Challenge for generously accomodating his interview work, without which this article would not have been written.

The City Nature Challenge 2019 is open for registration. Institutions interested in holding the City Nature Challenge in their region next year may complete this form.

If you have any enquiries, you are most welcome to contact the global co-organizers, Alison Young of The California Academy of Sciences, or Lila Higgins of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County here.

The CitizenScience.Asia Journal

Stories from the citizen science community in Asia

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