The triangle of busy, brackish water that separates Hong Kong from the industrial belt of southern China seems an unlikely place to look for rare wildlife. But every week conservationist Janet Walker brings tourists out among the tall ships and container terminals, the refineries and one of the world’s busiest airports, to get a glimpse of some unique creatures: bubblegum-pink dolphins.
Few in Hong Kong knew of their existence here till the early 1990s when the government started reclaiming land in the heart of their habitat for the new airport. It was too late to halt that project, but environmentalists began to campaign to preserve the dolphins – a subspecies of the Indo-Pacific humpback – and their habitat in the face of the region's development juggernaut.
“Anywhere else in the world if you had pink dolphins in the backyard, the government would be making a lot of noise and preserving it,” says Ms. Walker, spokeswoman for Hong Kong Dolphinwatch. "But this is Hong Kong."
The effort to save the pink dolphins of the Pearl River Delta is in many ways representative of a broader battle over conservation in an island city used to extracting maximum gain from its meager real estate.
Residents of a former British colony long identified with pure capitalism are increasingly asserting a claim to its more intangible assets – a unique natural and urban heritage.
In the past few years, civic groups have stopped several massive reclamation projects, campaigned to preserve old street markets, and just last month, successfully lobbied to halt redevelopment of a strip of tenements from the 1950s known as tong lau in the Central district.
“Officials in senior positions today had their idea of development shaped in the 1970s, when building hardware was what defined Hong Kong and their careers,” says Christine Loh, a former legislator and a founder of the Society for the Protection of the Harbour. “Today, it’s about the software, and they don't get it…. People want a better city to live in from every point of view – politics, education, health, and environment, and even social justice.”
Calls for preservation build
The conservation movement here stems from the civic activism that took root in the ferment of the run-up to 1997, the year Britain returned Hong Kong to China, and it has since gathered strength.
A turning point came in 2005 with the demolition of the iconic Star Ferry pier, says art curator and heritage activist John Batten. For more than 50 years, the pier hosted the ferry service that connects Hong Kong island with its mainland, a choppy seven-minute ride memorialized in countless films. The proposed relocation of the piers brought thousands of residents out to sit-ins and candlelight vigils.
The pier was not saved, but the uproar showed the government how much people cared about the city’s public spaces and history. It was, as Hong Kong’s chief executive, Donald Tsang, acknowledged, an “awakening," one that reflected a postcolonial shift in a city once described as a “borrowed time in a borrowed place.” The phrase, popularized by a 1968 book on Hong Kong, indicates the sense of transience experienced by Chinese and expat communities uncertain of the city's fate after 1997.
Now “this is home, and we are here,” says Ms. Loh.
That shift is also demographic. Those born here in the 1970s and 1980s are coming of age now, Loh points out. They are better educated and “hooked into issues” in a way their parents never were. They are also frustrated with a political system in which full direct representation is years away, though they are more optimistic about the impact of dissent on government decisionmaking. A recent survey shows that nearly half of those under 30 think the government would or might change its policies in respone to widespread public opposition.
Despite its victories, the conservation battle has been uphill. Many of Hong Kong’s public spaces have already been lost, and what is being saved – such as the tong lau of Wing Lee Street – is seen by some as minor concessions.
Similarly, conservationists were able to help avert a natural-gas terminal being built in dolphin waters, but they are now struggling to halt a proposed 26-mile bridge connecting Hong Kong, Macau, and China that could cut right through their habitat.
How well the dolphins are doing today depends on whom you ask, and is hard to verify because of the lack of scientific research. Officials claim they’re thriving, though data from the Marine Mammal Stranding Program show the number of stranded dolphins found every year rose during the 1990s. Walker says it is harder to find them now on her tours, which she has led since 1997. At best, she suggests, their numbers are holding steady.
Still, activists like Loh remain optimistic. Social movements are here to stay, she says. “[T]hey are the zeitgeist! They are irresistible.”