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Originally published by Rory Mackay. Last updated by Kelly Eng.
Fancy exploring the outermost reaches of Hong Kong? Buckle up we take you on a journey to the most northern areas of the New Territories. With a variety of landscapes, lakes, and mountains, as well as world-class wildlife sanctuaries on offer, Hong Kong’s wet and wild wonderland, the Mai Po Nature Reserve, has it all. Here’s what you can see, do, and explore in these incredible wetlands of Hong Kong.
Sitting immediately to the north, the ever-intensifying skyline of Shenzhen provides an astonishing visual and environmental contrast to what lies on the Hong Kong side of the border. Running from Lo Wu in the east to Deep Bay in the west, the northern plains of Hong Kong are home to a whole host of beautiful wetlands. Conveniently reachable via the Tuen Ma line on the MTR, there are a couple of enjoyable options for a fun day out in the wild.
Managed by WWF Hong Kong since 1983, the Mai Po Nature Reserve is a 380-hectare protected zone, comprised of intertidal mudflats, freshwater ponds, and mangroves. Offering an extensive habitat for resident and migratory birds, the Mai Po Nature Reserve is a must-visit destination for any aspiring ornithologist. Home to approximately 72 percent of birdlife in the territory, the avian biodiversity here is particularly impressive.
However, it’s not all just flocks and feathers, as the Mai Po Nature Reserve also provides sight-seeing opportunities for many other animal species, including amphibians, reptiles, fish, and mammals. Not to forget the simple tranquillity of the place—you do not have to be big on wildlife to appreciate the calmness and visual beauty of these peaceful backwaters, and the serene, whistling sounds of long grasses blowing in the breeze.
Dating back to post-World War Two, immigrants from mainland China took up residency near Deep Bay and reared shrimps using gei wai (基圍), the traditional fish farming method used in the 1940s, which is now under the management of WWF Hong Kong. In September 1995, Mai Po was listed as a “Wetland of International Importance” under the Ramsar Convention.
Serving as a rich feeding region for waterbirds, the Mai Po Nature Reserve supports several endangered species, like the black-faced spoonbill. It also allows agricultural practices to flourish, such as shrimp farming, oyster cultivation, and algae collection. Mai Po has a high diversity of habitat types, which is only increasing through ongoing conservation measures.
In order to reach the Mai Po Nature Reserve, you will need to journey from Yuen Long—easily reachable via public transportation. One of the few snags with the destination is that entry to the area is controlled, and you will have to join a tour or obtain a permit to go in.
Unless you are a serious enthusiast with affiliations to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and other such organisations, we would recommend joining a guided tour that is rewarding and affordable, with a range of offerings. Visit the WWF website for more information on how you can join the tours, which are usually led by experienced naturalists and conducted in Cantonese, but guides in English are available as well.
For more than three decades, over 100,000 migratory birds and around 400 other species have resided here. Hence, maintaining the biodiversity in Mai Po requires an exceptional amount of effort to ensure that the wetland condition is suitable for the inhabitants.
Mai Po Nature Reserve has done extensive research and projects to combat challenges such as natural succession, water pollution, siltation, and invasive species. For example, due to excessive greenhouse gas emissions, the annual mean sea level in Hong Kong has been rising, leading to an intrusion of salt into the Mai Po Nature Reserve. Visitors have the opportunity to attend public awareness programmes or learn from wetland conservationists to understand measures taken to counter these external threats.
Other than these educational activities, hop on a mangrove boardwalk adventure to be entirely embraced by the other-worldly land. You can also enjoy the view over inner Deep Bay and explore the flourishing mudflat ecology. If you like getting your hands dirty, then sign up for gei wai harvesting. While harvesting shrimp at the tidal ponds, you will also learn about the traditional management practices of gei wai amidst the warm sky during sunset!
Another unique offer from the Nature Reserve is the night safari, which starts at sunset when flocking birds are heading back to their resting spots. Meanwhile, you will find nocturnal animals like fireflies and leopard cats roaming around! Away from the city and light pollution, take some time to admire a sea of stars dancing through the night during your walk.