Exploring wildlife in the time of COVID-19
by Thomas Gomersall
With COVID-19 disrupting all areas of life, the 24–27 April global City Nature Challenge (CNC) was among the countless events affected by the pandemic. But despite the event’s cancellation in parts of North America and Europe, more than 240 cities, including Hong Kong, participated. But rather than focus on the event’s competition aspect, this year’s CNC emphasised community collaboration.
Given strict adherence to social distancing measure guidelines, WWF-Hong Kong’s main CNC event this year, the Mai Po Bioblitz, had to be scaled down. Originally, it was intended to be a guided tour around five checkpoints within Mai Po Nature Reserve, during which participants would be given 35-minute lectures about iNaturalist and the mammals, birds, spiders and invasive species of Mai Po, as well as interactive, practical demonstrations of surveying techniques for each of these groups.
Instead, the number of available group bookings for the bioblitz was reduced and the attending groups were strictly limited to four people, transported to Mai Po in half-full shuttle buses, and sent into the reserve in intervals to minimise contact with each other. Interactions with WWF staff (who all wore masks) were also heavily limited: tours were unguided, time spent at checkpoints was cut to just five minutes and surveying demonstrations were cancelled altogether.
Not surprisingly, the number of participants at the Mai Po Bioblitz was lower than expected even when accounting for reduced booking availability. And for some, the lack of a tour guide made it harder to fully engage with the wildlife around them.
“We are not familiar with the plants or other species inside the reserve, so if we could have had a guide to introduce us to these things, that would have been better,” said participant Jessie Liu.
Despite the constraints, there appeared to be greater CNC engagement this year based on the higher average number of pictures taken per person. Participants found opportunities to put survey techniques into practice, such as searching for birds tagged with leg rings or identifying different spider species under a microscope. “The staff were very comprehensive and gave us a very detailed introduction [to iNaturalist and the species of Mai Po]” said Liu.
The staff’s enthusiasm easily rubbed off on the participants, who with each checkpoint grew increasingly interested in their surroundings, stopping more frequently to photograph species with iNaturalist. Their enthusiasm was reflected in the CNC results. On the Saturday of the bioblitz, 768 observations of 219 species were made at Mai Po and on the Sunday, 384 observations of 148 species were recorded.
Hong Kong’s overall CNC performance was something of a mixed bag. While the city didn’t do as well as last year, coming in 12th place for observations (logging 17,137) and 27th place for number of observers (460), it still managed the impressive feat of coming in third for number of species logged (3,007), including the endangered wattle-necked softshell turtle, a species that has only recorded been recorded once before in Hong Kong on iNaturalist.
“Despite all of the COVID restrictions, we found a huge amount of species in such a short amount of time, rivalling anywhere in the world” said Shaun Martin, Head of Community Education, WWF-Hong Kong. “It’s incredible for 460 people to log around 3,000 species.”
Martin predicts that in the long run, the COVID restrictions may even be good for the engagement of people and nature in Hong Kong.
“Once restrictions have gone down, I fully foresee people wanting to get out that little bit more […] Working from home has ramifications for your own physical and mental health so I think people will want to go out a bit more and when they do that, the potential for iNaturalist use is obviously heightened.”
It’s also a good opportunity, he said to use the CNC results, which show Hong Kong’s rich biodiversity, to encourage greater connection to nature.
“It’s a push factor. You never know what you’re going to find, but what you do find is part of an amazing community of species that live here.”