Hong Kong birdwatchers ignore embassy warnings to "help save the environment"

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/25 September) — Ignoring their government’s advisory against visiting the Philippines, Hong Kong birdwatchers are in Davao for the 1st Asian Bird Fair, claiming they are on a mission for the environment.

“Bird watching is no pure enjoyment,” said Samson So, 27, a member of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society. “It is also a mission to protect and conserve environment.”

Shum Ting Wing, who calls himself “Bond,” said more people in Hong Kong are increasingly interested in protecting the environment but natural habitats are still being threatened every time new highways are built.

They said some friends discouraged them from coming to the Philippines after the hostage-taking tragedy that took the lives of eight Hong Kong tourists in Manila in August but they said they were determined to come for their “mission.”

So said he chose to ignore the “advice of one person,” referring to the Hong Kong embassy, against the “greater interest” of protecting the environment.

Shum and So were two of three Hong Kong birdwatchers who joined Asia’s first Bird Fair and 6th Philippine Bird Festival, which opened at the Waterfront Hotel on Friday, September 24 and will end on Sunday with a tour to bird watching sites in Eden and Malagos.

At least 18 foreign birdwatchers and conservationists from Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Taiwan and the United Kingdom, joined close to 300 participants in the festival organized by the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines.

“Birds are good indicators of the health of the environment,” said So, “Through bird watching, we can promote the importance of conservation. Where we can see a large number of birds means that the ecosystem is still healthy.”

He said the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society lobbied in 2004 against the conversion of Hong Kong’s Long Valley marshland into a railway station and won. Shum said the government was forced to build the railway underground to appease the environment group’s lobby against the destruction of the 25-hectare marshland, which is the habitat of over 200 species of birds.

From Hongkong and Taiwan to Burma, Thailand and Nepal, bird watchers shared a common concern over the destruction of bird habitats because of the entry of plantations, illegal logging, and even large-scale environment disasters such as climate change.

Htin Hla of the Biodiversity and Nature conservation Association, also said his group had lobbied for the declaration of an area in Tenintharyi Division in Burma as a sanctuary for the bird Gurney’s Pitta, an endangered species of bird in Thailand. Hla said there were only 12 pairs of Gurney’s Pitta left in Thailand but in 2003, the birds were discovered in Tenintharyi Division in Burma. When his group lobbied for the declaration of the site into a natural sanctuary to protect the birds, the government turned down the proposal, saying the area has already been reserved for an oil palm plantation.

Hla said he is hopeful that the upcoming elections in Burma in November will bring about change that will augur well for their conservation works.

In Nepal, climate change has brought about changes in the behavior of birds, said Hum Gurung, chief executive officer of the Bird Conservation Nepal. He said snow coming from the mountains has been melting rapidly, swelling the rivers and destroying the habitats of river birds. Changes in weather pattern are also changing the behavior of birds. Before they used to wait for the Sarus crane to come down the mountain to signal the change of the season and the time for the Nepalese village people to plant rice but now the bird often gets delayed and sometimes does not show up at all. “Because of climate change, birds are shifting habitats,” he said.

Among the endemic species of birds displayed by Filipino wildlife photographers in an exhibit here were the cattle egret sighted in San Juan, Batangas, the Mindanao Tarictic Hornbill photographed by Kaakbay’s Alain Pascua in Bislig, Surigao del Sur and the Philippine Frogmouth, photographed by Rey Sta Ana also in Bislig, Surigao del Sur.

So and Shum said they look forward to seeing the birds in Malagos. “We’re interested to see where the birds live but we also want to find out what they need,” said So. (Germelina Lacorte/MindaNews)