Photo credit: Thomas Gomersall

One Planet Youth: Class of 2020

by Thomas Gomersall

It was a proud day for the 150 participants of this year’s One Planet Youth (OPY) Leadership programme as they gathered (partially over Zoom) on 12 July at Island House to celebrate the accomplishments of their individual group conservation projects. While some of the projects were recognised with individual awards, all of them helped to advance important local environmental causes, as I found out when I sat down with the leaders of three teams:

All the Bats (Most Adaptable Team award)

OPY members explain their project to raise greater awareness on bats. Photo credit: Thomas Gomersall

The importance of bats as pollinators and mosquito predators tends to be overlooked by many because of their bad association with disease. “When I asked people about how they feel about bats, most of them had negative feelings and linked them to COVID-19 immediately,” said project participant Karmen Wong.

Photo credit: Gary Ades

To help dispel these misunderstandings, the ‘All the Bats’ project designed a social experiment inviting visitors to observe real bats in their roost at urban parks, learn more about them, and record any changes in feelings towards them. But the pandemic forced the experiment to be moved online, with people expressing their feelings on bats using emojis.

In total, 90 people took part in the experiment, with highly promising results. Only three per cent retained negative feelings on bats, while 51 per cent reported positive feelings after taking part in the observations. Additionally, 100 per cent agreed to not harm bats, to keep their distance from them and not support the wildlife trade, highlighting the value of educational efforts like this.

The project team developed guidelines for a harmonious existence with bats, which include not eating them, not harming them and not supporting the wildlife trade. Photo credit: Thomas Gomersall

“We believe that an inadequate understanding of bats is the main barrier to a harmonious relationship with them,” said Wong. “Education and providing important information is the first step we need to take [to achieve that].”

Eel-Pro-Road (Best Team award)

Eel_Pro-Road project seeks to promote eel conservation. Photo credit: Thomas Gomersall
Photo credit: Erling Svensen WWF

We’ve all seen eel for sale in sushi restaurants and supermarkets. But unbeknownst to many, 90 per cent of the eel meat sold in Hong Kong comes from endangered species, especially the critically endangered European eel.

To address this, the ‘Eel-Pro-Road’ project first surveyed over 130 people to gauge their eel conservation awareness and eating habits, finding that most had little awareness of the former.

“More than half of them did not know that eels are endangered, so they keep eating eel in restaurants or at home,” said project participant, Liliian Lam.

Consumers may like the dish for the sauce rather than the eel itself. Photo credit: Thomas Gomersall

But in a more surprising twist, the survey also revealed that many consumers ate eel primarily for the taste of the sauce it was cooked in, not the flesh itself.

Armed with this information, the project set up an interactive booth at a recent Hoi Ha Wan Festival to educate attendees about eel conservation and the need to eat less of them. They also produced a cooking video showing how to make the sauce typically used for eels and replace them with alternatives like eggplant.

A Taste of Hong Kong (Runner-up: Best Team award)

Team members of the A Taste of Hong Kong project challenged themselves to only eat locally sourced food. Photo credit: Thomas Gomersall

One of the best ways to fight the climate crisis as individuals is to change our eating habits, including sourcing food from within the countries we live in. But Hong Kong, which imports 90 per cent of its food from overseas, has yet to adopt this practice.

To help reduce the city’s reliance on imported food and the associated carbon emissions, the ‘A Taste of Hong Kong’ project aimed to raise awareness of the environmental cost of food imports, the benefits of eating more locally sourced food and how to obtain it.

Setting an example, the participants challenged themselves to only eat locally sourced food for five days, which they soon discovered isn’t easy as many food outlets primarily stock imported food. To help ease this difficulty for others, they created a local food market MTR map (which you can find on their Instagram page) showing which MTR stations that have markets selling locally sourced food nearby.

Consumers may be willing to pay more for locally sourced food if they know about the health benefits. Photo credit: Thomas Gomersall

Locally sourced food is usually more expensive than imported food. However, in a survey conducted by the team in March through July, it found that people would be more willing to pay extra for organic, locally sourced food if they knew about its health benefits, such as a higher nutritional content. So to encourage people to eat more locally, the project also informed them of these and other benefits.

Of course, Hong Kong is still a long way off from choosing locally sourced food over imported food. Nonetheless, project participant Aris Mok believes there’s growing interest among young people. “I’ve found that my peers have a very strong local awareness; they want to support local industries. […]. If we can tell them more about the benefits of local food, I think there will be a trend of people wanting to buy more.”

Apart from their projects, this year’s OPY leaders could also take great pride in the results of the citizen scientist programme they took part in, including the 144 black-faced spoonbills (half of Hong Kong’s population) they recorded from the gei wai at Mai Po Nature Reserve.

But this ceremony need not be the end of the OPY participants’ environmental activism. The skills and expertise gained through this experience have allowed many to go on to be part or full-time employees and researchers for WWF, doing important work such as environmental monitoring at Mai Po Nature Reserve. It can also allow them to continue their OPY projects either independently or even as actual WWF projects, something Eel-Pro-Road participant SY Wong aspires for her project.

“Restaurants can do better,” Wong says. “If they don’t sell eel meat, they can sell other fish to replace eel. We have the results showing what kind of fish can replace eel, so I would like to do a project to suggest to restaurants to change their menu.”

You can learn more about the five OPY projects here.

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