Sai Kung Peninsula Biodiversity
by Thomas Gomersall
Aside from its seafood, beaches and offshore islands (see the Sai Kung Archipelago blog for more details), Sai Kung is perhaps best known for its countryside. Lying just to the northeast of Sai Kung town itself and home to not one but two country parks (Sai Kung West and East), the Sai Kung Peninsula makes up one of the largest areas of natural habitat in Hong Kong. Hundreds of people flock here for its rigorous hiking, cascading waterfalls, azure blue reservoirs and even for its wildlife, with the Peninsula also home to the famous Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park. Needless to say, such a large expanse of protected land is also home to a vast array of marine and terrestrial wildlife, a full list of which would take up several blogs. Here are the five most interesting ones:
Barracuda (Genus: Sphyraena): Hong Kong’s overfished, polluted seas may seem like the last place to find enormous schools of a predatory fish. But around the huge concrete blocks at the seaside base of High Island Reservoir East Dam, you will find barracudas gather here in schools of up to 100 strong. While not as large as the more well-known great barracuda, like all barracudas, the species in Hong Kong are still efficient predators in their own right. Despite their sleek bodies, barracuda prefer to ambush their prey instead of chasing it down, usually by hanging in the water column a short distance away from a small fish and then darting forward to grab it.
Burmese python (Python bivittatus): Barracudas aren’t the only predators to be found in surprisingly large numbers in Hong Kong. Thanks to its status as a protected species under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance (Cap. 170), the world’s second-largest snake is also abundant here. The Burmese python can grow up to six metres long and individuals as long as 4.5 metres have been recorded in Hong Kong. Its size allows it to hunt animas as big as goats and dogs, which sadly has made it unpopular with farmers and pet owners. But despite its bad public image, it plays a vital role in the ecosystem as a top predator now that the tigers and leopards are gone. It also makes a surprisingly attentive parent, with mothers wrapping their coils around their eggs to incubate them and guarding them around the clock for 2–3 months.
Screw Pine (Pandanus tectorius): Coastal environments are a tough place for plants, in part because the salty conditions make water retention difficult. This is a particular problem for fruiting plants as producing the fruits they need to reproduce is very water demanding. The screw pine solves this problem by not producing very many of its pineapple-like fruits. Despite the similar appearance of their fruits, the two plants are not related, although the screw pine’s fruit is edible and is commonly eaten in the Maldives and some Pacific islands.
Incense Tree (Aquilaria sinensis): With so much focus on the endangered animal parts being imported into Hong Kong, it is easy to forget about the endangered plant being smuggled out of Hong Kong. The incense tree has been prized in Chinese religion, art and medicine for centuries for its sweet-smelling resin, which is secreted naturally only by mature trees (100+ years) to prevent fungal and bacterial infection when damaged. The rarity of the resin has in turn driven up prices for it — HK$12,000 per gram at most — and driven poachers to hack or drill into the tree’s trunk to get it, often leading to the tree’s death. Now, with incense tree on the brink of extinction in mainland China, eyes have turned towards the Fung Shui woods of Hong Kong where it has no local protection. Poachers will often set up camp deep in the forest where they cannot be easily detected, then to slip back into the mainland unprosecuted thanks to border control having no real means to detect the resin on them. More worryingly, with most of the mature trees in Hong Kong gone, younger trees are now being targeted for what little sap they possess, seriously threatening the recovery of the population.
White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis): Kingfishers may be commonly associated with streams and wetlands, but many species such as the white-throated kingfisher can be found in habitats away from water as well, in part due to having a more generalised diet than the common kingfisher. As well as fish and crabs, the white-throated kingfisher also takes insects, lizards and even rodents, allowing it to be just as at home in the woodlands of the Sai Kung Peninsula as the fishponds of Mai Po. This bird likes to perch on exposed branches and electrical wires, so if you see any of those on a hike through the country parks, keep your eyes peeled for fluttering electric blue wings.