Sister Site Learning Exchange Programme: Incheon – Hong Kong

From January 8 to 11, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) had the privileged opportunity to join a local delegation visiting Hong Kong for a wetland management training and exchange. The 37-member delegation, which included representatives from the Incheon Metropolitan Government of South Korea representing various sectors like the Environmental Bureau, Incheon Free Economic Zone, and NGOs, as well as high school teachers and students, had a dual focus. Half of the delegation engaged in educational activities led by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)’s Hong Kong branch, while the other half exchanged conservation experiences with the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department (AFCD) as part of the EAAFP Sister Site Programme.

Obligatory group shot in front of the newly-opened Peter Scott Field Studies Centre © EAAFP

Building upon the collaborative spirit of the Flyway Site Network, the EAAFP Sister Site programme serves as a unifying force for sites in different countries that host common migratory waterbird species. This initiative seeks to heighten awareness and establish robust research and monitoring collaborations, ultimately fostering the conservation of these shared bird populations. As of January 2024, the programme has successfully established 12 Sister Site Agreements, encompassing 21 sites distributed across 7 countries. The Incheon Songdo Tidal Flat–Mai Po Inner Deep Bay Sister Site Agreement, a pivotal step in this collaborative effort, became a reality on November 27, 2019, marking the programme’s tenth agreement.

Fion Cheung, Manager of Flyway Planning and Training at WWF–Hong Kong, highlights the significance of traditional wisdom, such as gei wai (基圍 /aka intertidal ponds) operations, in the upkeep of wetlands at the Mai Po Nature Reserve. © EAAFP

Despite the considerable distance of over two thousand kilometers between Hong Kong and Incheon, these regions maintain a close conservation relationship, particularly concerning the Black-faced Spoonbill. This migratory bird, making its way as a winter visitor, establishes breeding grounds in crucial locations such as the Songdo Tidal Flat in Incheon. But once winter approaches, these Black-faced Spoonbills embark on another migration, finding refuge in wintering grounds southwards, including the Mai Po Inner Deep Bay in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Low tide reveals the fertile terrain of Mai Po Inner Deep Bay, serving as both a source of rations and a refuge for the endangered Black-faced Spoonbills in winter © EAAFP

Beyond avian interests and academica, the Sister Site programme provides a unique opportunity for a rich exchange of information and experiences among a wide range of stakeholders, spanning from grade-schoolers to government officials. On January 9, the education delegation, comprising 18 members, actively engaged in various learning activities at the Mai Po Nature Reserve under the guidance of WWF–Hong Kong. Following these activities, a fruitful exchange unfolded, as WWF–Hong Kong and students from Incheon schools shared their unique wetland education experiences. Continuing this educational exploration, on January 10, the group ventured to the Hoi Ha Marine Life Centre. There, they embarked on a captivating glass-bottomed boat ride, offering a unique perspective to observe corals. In the afternoon, the delegation visited Pui Shing Catholic Secondary School to share insights on conservation collaboration and explore the school’s environmental facilities.

All aboard a glass-bottomed boat to learn more about the fascinating underwater world of Hong Kong’s Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park © EAAFP

But it cannot be denied that at the forefront of sister site relationships is capacity building. These exchange visits represent key avenues for site managers to discover novel and innovative strategies for diverse aspects of site management, that can range from the development of visitor centers to the adoption of participatory wetland management techniques. So, during the same week, Incheon’s conservation delegation was actively taking part in the wetland management activities organised by WWF’s Hong Kong branch. Their explorations extended beyond the Mai Po Nature Reserve, encompassing visits to the Hong Kong Wetland Park, fish ponds under the Fishpond Conservation Scheme (PDF), and the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden.

Featuring the entire Incheon delegation gathered at Hong Kong Wetland Park © EAAFP

Since 2019, the collaboration between Hong Kong and Incheon has resulted in three Black-faced Spoonbill Conservation Forums, showcasing a commitment to joint conservation efforts. Students from Hong Kong Wetland Park and Incheon have actively participated in online exchange activities, fostering a strong connection between the two regions. But this trip marked a significant milestone as the first on-site exchange between the two regions. Even return visitor Ms. Mieun Kim from BfS (Black-faced Spoonbill) & Friends (an Incheon-based NGO), was particularly moved by the experience.

“I visited Mai Po Nature Reserve a long time ago, focusing solely on shorebirds and engaging in conservation activities related to them. That experience was invaluable in my efforts to protect shorebirds. However, this time in Hong Kong is different from my previous visit. While last time I came with a focus on NGOs, viewing things from the perspective of various non-profit organizations, this time we approached it more from a governmental standpoint.”

A walk down memory lane for Miss Kim at Mai Po Nature Reserve © EAAFP

“During this visit to the field, I observed that conservation efforts have significantly improved compared to my previous experience. I encountered a greater number of birds than before. The work is intricately organized, and the habitat has expanded into multiple areas, and (it is) this expansion that has led to an increase in both the number of birds and the variety of species. It was truly gratifying to see the preservation of traditional conservation methods alongside the discovery of slightly more effective approaches.”
Indeed, the Mai Po Inner Deep Bay wetlands serve as a crucial stopover and wintering destination for 100,000 birds each year. It is also renowned as one of the largest wintering grounds for the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill. Recognising its importance for migratory shorebirds, it was granted Ramsar Site status in 1995 and became an EAAFP Flyway Network Site (EAAF 003) in 1996. Under the stewardship of WWF–Hong Kong since 1983, it stands out as a well-known exemplar of successful wetland management practices in the region. Witnessing the tangible outcomes of these conservation practices has undeniably left Miss Kim feeling inspired.
“In the same way, the management of Namdong Reservoir (RoK) requires a broad perspective, encompassing not only the reservoir itself but also Songdo, Incheon, and the entire west coast. We believe that adopting a macroscopic viewpoint is crucial. It’s important to create a habitat where not only shorebirds but also other migratory birds can find proper rest, food, and coexistence. By proceeding with a more scientific and professional approach to habitat creation, I expect that we can create a significantly better environment within not just 10 years, but 5!”

The Incheon delegation’s visit to Hong Kong was anticipated to reinforce the relationship between the two regions, stimulate collaboration in wetland and migratory waterbird conservation, and elevate professional skills and experiences. It clearly has checked many of these boxes (and more!).

Special appreciation to the organiser: Fauna Conservation Division and Nature Reserve Division of the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department (AFCD) of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and heartfelt thanks to our counterparts in Hong Kong: Ms. Joyee Chan (Fauna Conservation Officer), Ms. Sandra Chow (Nature Reserve Officer), Mr. Toby Cheung (Nature Reserve Officer) from the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department, as well as Ms. Fion Cheung (Flyway Planning and Training Manager) and Mr. Yamme Leung (Education Director) from WWF–Hong Kong.

Read more from WWF–Hong Kong here: 【韓國仁川姊妹遷飛區代表團到訪香港🤩

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