Hong Kong, China – Barry Ma peers through the lens of his powerful telescope and raises his arm pointing excitedly.
“Here!” he says in a low voice. “Look here.”
Ma has spotted a pair of little grebes — a duck-like bird, but an unrelated species — swimming in a pond in Hong Kong’s wetlands nestled in the city’s rural New Territories.
As an eco-guide for the World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong (WWF-Hong Kong), Ma leads a small group of visitors through the Mai Po Nature Reserve under a blazing sun on a humid morning.
He identifies a number of species in the 380-acre reserve: white-breasted waterfowl; yellow-bellied prinias; black-winged stilts; Eastern magpie robins; great egrets and little egrets.
But his enthusiasm is tempered by an uncertain future for the wetlands, which are also home to frogs, violin crabs, pangolins, water buffalo and even a handful of Eurasian otters, an elusive nocturnal mammal.
Urbanization is coming to the wetlands and it remains to be seen whether the area’s biodiversity can continue to thrive along with human development.
The Hong Kong government, nominally semi-autonomous from Beijing under a system known as “one country, two systems”, has recognized the importance of protecting the wetlands and has made proposals to preserve their biodiversity. At the same time, officials and the business community are committed to expanding the city’s integration with southern China.
To get a glimpse of what’s to come, all you have to do is look across Deep Bay, the body of water that separates Mai Po from mainland China.
The gleaming high-rises of Shenzhen, with a population of more than 17 million, loom just beyond the wetlands and are a clear reminder of the region’s rapid economic industrialization.
The future of Hong Kong’s wetlands, a major stopping point for migratory birds, appears precarious. And efforts to preserve the wetlands — by both government and environmental nongovernmental organizations — are now under scrutiny.
Mai Po is deep within the Hong Kong government’s proposed Northern Metropolis – an ambitious plan to transform the largely rural area into a sprawling residential and business community that will further strengthen its link with Shenzhen, a major technology center home to companies like Tencent. will strengthen , Huawei and DJI.
The plan is part of Hong Kong’s pivot to the so-called Greater Bay Area, which includes parts of Guangdong province, including Shenzhen, as well as Macau and Hong Kong. It has a population of nearly 90 million.
The Northern Metropolis plan has been met with cautious optimism among conservationists, but they say more details are needed.
“We understand that governments are economically oriented, but we focus on what they can do about conservation,” Yu Yat-tung, director of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, told Al Jazeera. “We are waiting for more details on the conservation side.”
The Northern Metropolis proposal should be more than “words on paper,” Yu added.
“We need to see a concrete plan.”
Similarly, Billy CH Hau, a senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, said the proposal to protect the wetlands appears to be a positive step, but “there is a general lack of details on implementation.”
Whether the Northern Metropolis plan will actually benefit the overall wetlands system remains to be seen, Hau said.
“It’s very hard to say.”
The Northern Metropolis is envisaged by the cabinet as a center for the innovation and technology sector and will accommodate hundreds of thousands of new residential units.
The current population in the northern New Territories is about 960,000, according to the government, with about 390,000 housing units. The current population of Hong Kong is approximately 7.4 million.
The government says that when the northern metropolis is complete, in about 20 years, it could potentially support a population of 2.5 million and increase the total number of homes to 926,000 units.
Jobs in the region would rise from 116,000 to an estimated 650,000. While such growth is expected to put pressure on wetlands, the government has pledged to preserve the area’s biodiversity by integrating rural and urban development while promoting conservation and ecotourism.
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, the city’s leader, described the northern metropolis as “the fulcrum for Hong Kong’s strategic development” in his October policy speech.
“A number of major development projects in the area have already started,” Lee said in his speech, adding that the region will eventually become a “new international I&T city” that will promote business development with sustainable living.
Lee also pledged to protect the wetlands, saying the government would purchase privately owned wetlands and fishponds “with ecological value and develop a park system for wetland conservation, with a view to increasing environmental capacity for the development of the northern metropolis”.
Wetlands cover about 5 percent — just over 50 square kilometers (19 square miles) — of Hong Kong’s 1,110 square kilometers (425 square miles), according to government statistics. They provide numerous benefits to both humans and wildlife by mitigating climate change, providing a source of food and capturing rainwater that helps prevent flooding.
In its Northern Metropolis proposal, the government estimated that the total area for wetlands and coastal protection would be approximately 20 square kilometers, including the existing wetland park and Mai Po Nature Reserve.
WWF-Hong Kong has managed the nature reserve for nearly 40 years under the authority of the government’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation, which is itself responsible for the entire 1,540-hectare Mai Po Inner Deep Bay Ramsar site.
Eric Wikramanayake, Director of Wildlife and Wetlands at WWF-Hong Kong, said the proposal for the Northern Metropolis is expected to be “custom designed” to incorporate the wetlands into the infrastructure.
“We must work closely with the authorities,” Wikramanayake told Al Jazeera, adding that his organization also acts as a watchdog. “We cannot be against development at all costs – development must happen – but development must integrate conservation priorities.”
Conservation also helps maintain the livelihoods of workers who depend on the wetlands and its resources, Wikramanayake said.
“There must be solutions to ensure that people are fed and housed and have a stable future,” he said.