Just off the coast of Lantau in Hong Kong, a new mega-infrastructural project is currently being completed, as marine wildlife conservationists look on anxiously. The Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge (HKZMB) is a bridge-tunnel system which consists of a series of interconnected cable-stayed bridges, undersea tunnels, and artificial islands. The new mega-infrastructure links the three cities with its 6 lane carriageway - and will theoretically reduce high-speed commuter boat activity to free up the congested bay area.
But one area of the bay in particular is catching the attention of nervous marine conservationists, as it is home to a rare and rapidly diminishing population of pink dolphins (Inia geoffrensis). The dolphins currently reside in a small silty patch of water between Tung Chung and the HK Gold Coast - but their territory has been reduced with the construction of the Hong Kong International Airport on Chek Lap Kok (an artificially reclaimed island that has been strapped onto the north of Lantau Island). The latest reduction in territory now comes in the form of the tunnel system and artificial islands of HKZMB, which cut directly across their hunting ground. And plans to build a third runway on Chek Lap Kok will inevitably disrupt the waters further.
Marine life in the Pearl River has suffered in recent years due to overfishing, overcrowding, and offshore construction work - but with no concerted effort being made by the local government to invest in marine research, conservationists can only estimate populations and breeding grounds. I meet with Janet Walker, a local dolphin conservationist, as she takes me to observe the dolphins up close in their natural habitat. Janet has lived in Hong Kong for over 20 years, and visits the dolphins regularly to learn more about their daily activities, and to teach others how to interact with them. We set off early, and I am lucky enough to spot a few pink fins circling the boat. But Janet informs me that sightings are becoming increasingly rare, and that figures have plummeted to an estimated 29 since construction work began on the bridge. The bridge itself causes little damage to the dolphin's habitat - but the associated construction work, and increased transport activity has, and will, continue to disrupt their ability to effectively communicate and hunt.
Pollution is believed to be one of the major reasons for their declining numbers. But Janet believes that another major contributing factor is the high-speed tour boats that chase and startle the species, for the benefit of eco-tourism. Since the practice of trawler fishing was banned in Hong Kong in 2013, to allow fish stocks to recover, an entire community of local fishermen needed to find other ways to make a living. Nowadays, many ex-fishermen have revamped their boats, and are cashing in on selling dolphin tours to stay afloat. The pink dolphins are very popular amongst tourists, as the species became the official mascot of the 1997 sovereignty changing ceremonies in Hong Kong. But if the government wants to avoid the embarrassment of losing its own mascot, then it needs to act fast to protect this small patch of water.
And with eco-tourism on the rise, GovHK would be wise to start looking for new ways to drive their tourism industry forward. Earlier this year, China's President Xi Jinping, approved plans to turn the neighbouring city of Shenzhen into a new sustainable showroom and window into China. This should scare Hong Kongers. The city has long been a key transport route into China - but with the country now opening up new windows into their world, Hong Kong will need to find new and unorthodox ways to compete with Shenzhen as the most attractive place to live and work in the region.
Both cities boast beautiful surrounding mountains and vast wildlife reserves; but Hong Kong benefits from the addition of its wonderfully diverse islands and Bay Area. The new artificial islands that connect the HKZMB have clearly been designed on a tight budget though - with little to no concessions being made for new wildlife habitats to emerge. This is a missed opportunity for the government and the people of Hong Kong. With so much traffic set to pass through these islands, much more could be done to develop new miniature ecosystems that utilise the island typology. The nearby tourist destination of the Tian Tan Buddha (on Lantau Island) has already proved that there is an appetite for animal cohabitation amongst international tourists. The steep steps leading up to the Buddha statue are filled with tourists taking selfies with the wild cattle that roam the area. So why not replicate this phenomenon elsewhere?
With a little more conscious effort, and a willingness to invest in ecological research, the new islands of HKZMB could become a beacon of progressive urban ecology. For now though, the islands remain in hot water, as the pink dolphins struggle to survive.
Written by Steven Hutt