Little known side of Hong Kong: Conservation and Restoration work at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG)

James and Thibaud Aronson made a stop in Hong Kong recently, and post a report on what’s going on restoration-wise at the 60-year old Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Gardens.

After three weeks in New Zealand – about which we will report in our next two posts – we stopped recently in Hong Kong to visit the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG), which has just celebrated its 60th anniversary. Most visitors to Hong Kong never leave the city center, which has the second highest concentration of skyscrapers in the world and rivals London and New York for shopping, but also as a global hub for finance, trading, and marketing. But, we were lucky: through our friend Kingsley Dixon we had an introduction to Dr. Gunter Fischer, Head of the Flora Conservation Department at KFBG. Dr. Fischer came to Hong Kong from Austria, 7 years ago, and now oversees the vast – and gorgeous – botanic garden, the herbarium, the genetic and ecology laboratories and the various restoration and native plant recovery programs at the KFBG, which is the result of an exemplary public sector-private sector partnership. Behind the scenes, a key component is the large on-site tree nursery and enormous amounts of effort devoted to seed collecting and plantations of mother plant collections of rare native tree species for seed production. “In a changing world, resilience comes from diversity”, as Gunter so nicely puts it.

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Ms. Chung Yick Kwan, an employee of the garden working in the KFBG tree nursery, handling one of the many rare native species propagated here.

Other departments at KFBG include the Sustainable Living and Agriculture, Fauna Conservation, Kadoorie Conservation China, and Education. Activities are devoted to developing and demonstrating sustainable small-scale farming methods for food production in South China, including new methods such as permaculture and traditional Chinese methods that have been lost or abandoned during the Chinese cultural revolution. There is also an extensive rehabilitation program for wild animals, notably many rare and endangered turtles, mammals, and birds that were seized by Hong Kong customs or delivered by animal rescue organizations.

All of these activities stem naturally from the original raison d’être of the organization. When Sir Horace and his brother Lord Lawrence Kadoorie founded the Farm 60 years ago, their goal was to help Chinese immigrants get established as small farmers.

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Sir Horace and Lord Lawrence Kadoorie – the founders of KFBG. (Photo: KFBG archives)

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Text of one of the guiding principles of the charity work of KFBG in the early 1950s, which is still valid in the 21st century (NB. In the 1950s KFBG was called KAAA, Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association). (Photo: KFBG archives)

To this day, the Kadoorie Foundation is the main funding source of the KFBG. But with vastly greater affluence in Hong Kong today, since the mid-1990s, a decision was made to transform the property into a world-class education and conservation center with a botanic garden at its heart. The conservation work comprises numerous projects in Hong Kong and mainland China but also parts of Southeast Asia, such as poorly explored regions of Laos and Cambodia.

Originally, Hong Kong was covered in tropical and subtropical forest, but it was completely deforested after the British took over in 1841; visitors in the 19th and early 20th century called Hong Kong a “barren rock”. As a result of centuries of cultivation with crops such as rice and tea, and ongoing urbanization in combination with more and more exhausted soils, many mountain slopes were left to their fate, completely denuded of any vegetation ongoing soil erosion, and high run-off during the annual monsoon seasons caused landslides and wreaked havoc.

Starting in the 1880s, successive governments undertook massive afforestation programs, as documented by the eminent ecologist Richard Corlett. However, during the World War II Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, most of the recently recovered forests were burned or devastated by harvesting of fuel wood.

After WWII, secondary forests began to recover, but of the 450 native tree species, only ca. 100 regenerated naturally, and the other species carry on sadly towards extinction. Moreover, there are huge problems with introduced grasses, many of which carry fire far better than anyone would like.

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Upper area of KFBG’s restoration site devastated by a fire in 2004. (Photo: Dr. Billy Hau)

Thus the challenges for conservation and restoration are enormous. Indeed, the same is true at the regional scale. As Gunter told us, “most of the forests of South China have been trashed”; only tiny fragments of primary forest remain, and very little work on restoration of the original forest is going on. Since he arrived at KFBG, over 6 years ago, Gunter has done remarkable things in the botanic garden portion of the 159 hectare property, located on a steep slope of Tai Mo Shan, the highest point in Hong Kong (957 m or 3140 ft), including the launch of an ambitious restoration program on the recovering wilderness portion of the property that few visitors see. Rather than full coverage, a tree island, or assisted nucleation approach is taken, similar to that used in on-going experiments in Costa Rica, which Leighton Reid posted on last November.

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Core area of the 15 hectare (42 acre) experiment restoration site at KFBG, showing tree island plantings of 2015 and 2016, with various soil preparation techniques and tree guards being tested. (Photo : Gunter Fischer)

The focus is largely scientific and conservation-oriented, given that most of the flora of Hong Kong is highly endangered. However, horticulture and arboriculture are as important as ecology here, Gunter assures us – an observation that jives well with the Missouri Botanical Garden’s approach to restoration as well. For example, Gunter and his colleagues not only plant ten thousand trees on average each year, all produced in the experimental KFBG nursery, they also prune and shape the trees they’ve planted to encourage upward growth rather than low shrubby formatting, which is what often happens with many trees after planting.

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Structurally pruned Quercus edithiae, a rare canopy tree in South China.

A large proportion of the tree planting budget is devoted to plastic cylinders (tree guards/shelters) to protect tree saplings from barking deer and wild boar, but also from harsh climatic conditions.

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Tree guards used to protect seedlings on a ridge from strong desiccating winds.

The KFBG restoration team also makes a big effort to study soil improvement techniques that will compensate for degraded soils and improve survival and early growth of the planted trees. One of the most interesting components of this experimental work concerns the use of Biochar prepared on site, by slowly heating wood in closed containers with almost no air. Much of the wood comes from stems and trunks of intentionally introduced and now invasive fast-growing trees, such as the appropriately named Acacia confusa, that are gradually being removed from the property. This approach to invasive woody weeds has great potential in many parts of the world and should receive a lot more attention and investment.

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Invasive trees and those deemed hazardous to human safety are continuously removed and replaced with native species. The wood is used to prepare biochar.

Clearly, KFBG is one of the bright spots of plant and animal conservation, and ecological restoration in Asia today.

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Native animals such as this bamboo pit viper (Trimeresurus stejnegeri) are recolonising the restoration site. (Photo: Gunter Fischer)

For more information, see the recent article published by Gunter and his colleague Jinlong Zhang. Also, if you’re travelling to Hong Kong, be sure to stop by. Even if you don’t trek to the higher slopes to see restoration work-in-progress, the Botanic Garden is also full of interesting natural and cultural sights and stories too, such as these elevated pigeon hotels. And how many botanical gardens occasionally have to close a road because a massive python is stretched right across it, digesting a deer for a week!

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Dragon boat pigeon hotel on the KFBG grounds.

And there is the museum, theme gardens such as the Gloria Barretto orchid sanctuary, and lush forest gardens that appear to be native forest fragments but in fact are tropical gardens providing an exhilarating experience for thousands of visitors each month just a few miles from downtown Hong Kong.

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Montane streamside forest garden with trees covered in epiphytic ferns.

 

 

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Notes from a secluded Buddhist land on the brink of globalization

James and Thibaud Aronson report from the eastern Himalayas, where they journeyed in Bhutan, truly one of the Last Great Places on Earth.

The Kingdom of Bhutan, a small landlocked country the size of Switzerland, in the eastern Himalayas, is mostly known for its policy of Gross National Happiness. Its stated goal is to create the best possible living conditions for its 700,000 citizens through four pillars: good governance, equitable socio-economic development, preservation of cultural heritage, and conservation of the environment. To a cynical outsider, this could sound like just another PR gimmick. Having spent three weeks in Bhutan, we got to observe things firsthand.

The country, which lived in a nearly medieval feudal society until the late 1940s, is developing at a very fast pace – for good and possibly for bad. In thirty years, nearly the entire population, most of which lives in remote mountain villages, has received access to electricity. The country is also now crisscrossed by roads which are constantly being widened – for good and for bad. Many hydroelectric projects are in the works too, to generate income and foreign revenues from the country’s many rivers flowing through steep valleys. Exporting energy and promoting “low volume, low impact” tourism are thus the main economic drivers of this country that is opening up fast to the outside world. Mining is under development too, and that could prove to be a Pandora’s Box, environmentally, socially, and politically. However, 70% of the population still lives from subsistence farming and livestock under very tough conditions. A two-tiered economy is on the horizon.

Although most tourists come to experience the atmosphere of the last living Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, the country’s natural riches are unparalleled as well. Bhutan boasts an incredible 70% forest cover, most of it in pristine or near-pristine condition. Indeed, all over the country, from the alpine shrubberies at 4000 meters above sea level down to the subtropical forests at 150 masl, we got to observe a living ecology textbook on altitudinal zonation and see some astonishing plants, birds, and people along the way.

Alpine vegetation near Tharpaling monastery, at 3700 masl.

Alpine vegetation near Tharpaling monastery, at 3700 masl.

The transition between cool broadleaved and spruce forest near Trongsa, central Bhutan.

The transition between cool broadleaved forests with spruce near Trongsa, central Bhutan.

Oak-rhododendron forest around 2600 masl, near the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. This is some of the only remaining primary forest in this populated area, most of it having been replaced by chir pine.

Oak-rhododendron forest around 2600 masl, near the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. This is some of the only remaining primary forest in this populated area, most of it having been replaced by chir pine.

At the moment, an exemplary 51% of the territory is protected in parks and biological corridors, and new parks continue to be created, as the 2008 constitution states that no less than 60% of the total territory must be protected for “the environment”. Without a doubt, Bhutan holds the best preserved ecosystems in the entire Himalayan region. As a result, it offers some of the best habitat and long-term prospects for flagship species such as tigers, snow leopards, golden langurs, and many threatened birds, such as the satyr tragopan and the rufous-necked hornbill. Thinking long-term, this means that nature-based tourism has a great future, and that if a strong impetus for restoration were ever to develop in neighboring countries, Bhutan could serve as a reference for what the ecosystems in these countries once looked like.

The endangered golden langur (Trachypitecus geei), found only in western Assam and southern Bhutan.

The endangered golden langur (Trachypitecus geei), found only in western Assam and southern Bhutan.

The tragopans are some of the most mythical birds of Asia, and all are endangered. With much of its population found in pristine forest in Bhutan, where it is protected by law, the satyr tragopan (Tragopan satyra) is the least endangered of the five extant species, only being considered Near Threatened by the IUCN.

The tragopans are some of the most mythical birds of Asia, and all are endangered. With much of its population found in pristine forest in Bhutan, where it is protected by law, the satyr tragopan (Tragopan satyra) is the least endangered of the five extant species, only being considered Near Threatened by the IUCN.

The rufous-necked hornbill (Aceros nipalensis) is the northernmost representative of its family. Once found in mountains across southeast Asia, it has disappeared in many places, such as Nepal, and Bhutan retains the healthiest population.

The rufous-necked hornbill (Aceros nipalensis) is the northernmost representative of its family. Once found in mountains across southeast Asia, it has disappeared in many places, such as Nepal, and Bhutan retains the healthiest population.

While not as threatened as the previous species, the great hornbill (Buceros bicornis) is declining through much of its range, because of habitat loss and hunting. Again, Bhutan is one of few places where it thrives.

While not as threatened as the previous species, the great hornbill (Buceros bicornis) is declining through much of its range, because of habitat loss and hunting. Again, Bhutan is one of few places where it thrives.

However, there is work to be done within the country’s borders as well.  Slash and burn agriculture is still commonly practiced, especially in the east, though the government is developing incentives for farmers to switch to more sedentary farming practices. Once abandoned, the degraded pastureland is rapidly recolonized by pines, chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) in the east and at lower altitudes, and blue pine (Pinus wallichiana) higher up. As elsewhere, these pioneer pines are more tolerant to harsh soil conditions than almost any other tree. Following perturbation, they quickly colonize degraded lands and form monospecific stands, which support very low biodiversity and present a significant fire hazard. They are considered valuable, however, as they produce timber. However, the broadleaved forests that they replace would have higher aesthetic, spiritual, touristic, and biodiversity values – long-term. Besides, they could still provide some timber while being at considerably lesser risk from fire and pests. It’s a trade-off though, and motivation for investment in long-term ecological restoration does not yet seem to be well developed.

A typical landscape between near Thimphu, the capital, showing anthropized pastureland, and the chir pine that invades it when it is abandoned.

A typical landscape near Thimphu, the capital, showing anthropized pastureland, and the chir pine that invades it when it is abandoned.

More severe in their direct and indirect impacts at the landscape and regional scales are the hydro-electric projects already being developed, and those that are planned. As currently undertaken, these hydropower works lead to enormous disturbances in the affected river valleys. Because of the steep terrain, the dams don’t need to be enormous, it is true, but the impact of their construction, as well as the access roads  – with the heavy equipment ill-suited to the terrain, and minimal apparent concern regarding the ecological impact on rivers and mountain slopes is enormous, in sharp contrast to the highly enlightened policy on how not to manage tourism and how it can be done.  We were told that there is a clear understanding in government that watershed protection is important for maintaining their capacity to produce exportable quantities of hydropower. This apparently helps justify the remarkably high levels of set-aside areas in the mountains. It would be good, however, if the engineers charged with designing and building mountain roads and hydro-power project could proceed with a much lighter ecological footprint in mind; surely it is in the country’s long-term interest. It would also surely correspond more closely with the Buddhist philosophy that truly prevails in this unique country.

In most remote areas, such as here near Bey Langdra monastery, near Wangdi Phodrang, human occupation takes the form of small scattered farms nestled amidst pristine primary forest.

Happily, there are several state-run organizations equipped to carry out large-scale conservation planning and restoration. The forestry division already has been involved in planting native oak trees and other species in several localities, something which could be extended to the national scale and better integrated with development plans. Another institution, the Royal Botanical Garden, part of the National Biodiversity Centre in Thimphu, founded in 1999, could also participate via seedbanking, biological inventories, rescue missions for endangered species, etc. According to Ms. Sangay Dema, Principal Biodiversity Officer at the National Biodiversity Center  of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, and Curator of the Botanical Garden, emphasis for now is on collecting and banking germplasm of traditional varieties of crops, ex-situ conservation of prioritized native flora, and seed banking, as well as banking of semen (in liquid nitrogen) of traditional breeds of domestic livestock. Biological inventories are underway and interest is growing for expanding existing work and developing ecological restoration programs, possibly in collaboration with BGCI’s ERA, of which Missouri Botanical Garden is a founding member, and SER. It is noteworthy that reforestation takes place almost exclusively with native species of trees, including the glorious Himalayan Cypress, national tree of Bhutan, and other conifers, willows, poplars, and oaks.

Both Sangay Dema, and Dr. Nawang Norbu, Director of the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment, told us that ecological restoration is on the radar screen for their institutes and the government as a whole. For starters, we’d suggest  testing the direct seeding of acorns, as the native oaks and the complex communities of which they are part are at risk in several areas. One of the traditional practices here is to collect virtually all the leaf litter produced by oaks to mix it with animal manure and produce compost for field crops. While this makes fine compost, the ill effects on the oak stands and the prospects for natural regeneration are clear enough to see.

As ambassadors of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Botanical Gardens Conservation International’s new Ecological Restoration Alliance, and also the Society for Ecological Restoration, we extended a warm welcome to get involved in the international networks and growing number of commitments to large-scale restoration gathering momentum today. While it might be tempting to think that – almost alone among the world’s developing nations, Bhutan is doing very well indeed in the area of nature protection, and doesn’t need to worry about ecological restoration, we think that would be short-sighted.

Most important of all, what will the new generation of Bhutanese think about Nature Protection as one of the four pillars of Bhutanese society and the unique quest for Gross National Happiness? How will natural ecosystems survive in the face of the very rapid development that the country is experiencing?

In such rugged, mountainous terrain, much will survive, that is clear, and adapt as best it can to rapid climate change. But, which direction, and what environmental and economic policies, will the country follow going forward?

Bhutan holds some of the last stands of mature spruce forest in teh Himalayas, seen here near Kiki La Pass, at 2900 masl.

Bhutan holds some of the last stands of mature spruce forest in the Himalayas, seen here near Kiki La Pass, at 2900 masl.