There was a reason why Hong Kong was dismissed as a “barren island” by the British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, in 1841: it really was barren. Thousands of years ago, Hong Kong was carpeted by lush rainforest, but centuries of cutting and burning destroyed much of the original vegetation, leaving only one-sixth of the land forested. Greenery only made a comeback in the colonial era, when the government established a Tree Planting Department in 1873 and began planting a mix of native trees and exotic species such as from Australia. World War II posed a setback, as many forests were cleared once again during the Japanese occupation, but the planting resumed after the war, this time with the goal of controlling soil erosion and improving water supplies.
You can see this history first-hand at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden. Just 45 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong Island, the streams and birds have their say. It is hard to imagine that this green hillside sheltering streams, woodlands, orchards and organic vegetable gardens was once a desert.
The farm spans 148 hectares of land on the northern slopes of Tai Mo Shan. It was established 1956 by two brothers, Sir Horace and Lord Lawrence Kadoorie, at a time when Hong Kong was coping with a surge of refugees fleeing the aftermath of the Communist victory in mainland China. As most of the refugees were farmers, the Kadoories had the idea of launching an Agricultural Aid Association. “The aim was to encourage the people to help themselves,” says Petra Fischer, an Austrian-born biologist who is our guide around the farm. Her husband, Gunter, heads the farm’s Flora Conservation Department. Refugees received training, were provided with agricultural input and interest-free loans. While the Aid Association was launched in September of 1951, it took another five years until an experimental farm was established at Pak Ngau Shek – the present-day site of the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden.
Since then a lot has changed – first and foremost the focus of the farm. “The mission is no longer only supporting farmers, but to conserve nature,” says Petra. Urban expansion, pollution, erosion, mining, agriculture and human recreational activities have caused great losses to the earth’s natural ecosystems, species and genetic diversity. Weather extremes caused by climate change poses great risks. “This winter was extraordinarily strong,” says Petra. “In January we had minus two degrees and heavy wind gusts. It felt like minus 14.” Many trees, bushes and flowers died.
The journey from the farm’s entrance to the Kwun Yum Shan Summit takes up to an hour and a half, depending on how many stops you take – and there are plenty of diversions. Next to the entrance plaza is the Piers Jacobs Wildlife Sanctuary, home of Hong Kong’s native barking deers, fruit bats, and wild boars. The wild boar is an ancestor of the domestic pig. It is one of the largest mammals still living wild in the Hong Kong countryside where one can easily encounter them while hiking on the hills and valleys. The animals in the sanctuary were orphaned when young and were raised by the farm’s Wild Animal Rescue Centre. They became too comfortable around people and, as a result, cannot be released back to the wild.
Between 1994 and 2015, the Rescue Centre received over 36,000 animals. Some of them were injured, such as raptors who had a unfortunate encounter with one of Hong Kong’s curtain glass skyscrapers. Others were confiscated from illegal trade or held as illegal pets. About half of the animals have successfully been nursed back to health and returned to the wild. The farm’s largest single rescue operation happened in December 2001, when the Centre received over 8,000 Asian freshwater turtles that had been seized by the authorities while being shipped illegally from Malaysia to China, likely destined for food markets.
After lingering in the sanctuary, Petra crosses into the Eco-Garden. “Sometimes children who visit the farm are walking on non-cemented ground for the first time of their lives,” she says. One of Kadoorie Farm’s missions is to re-connect people with nature. “If we do not feel that we are part of nature we do not feel any pain when we are playing a part in damaging nature,” says Petra.
Now we begin the steep ascent to the summit. The Butterfly Path is especially beautiful as it meanders along a small stream under a dense leaf canopy. Every so often there is a small bridge or little stone table that welcome the visitor to pause and rest. “That’s my favourite part of the trail,” says Petra. After passing the Rainbow Pavilion – one of five pavilions on the site – we encounter the Orchid Haven. Hong Kong is home to over 125 native species of orchid.
I notice a small surveillance camera lurking in one of the trees nearby. “That’s for guarding the incense tree,” Petra explains. Aquilaria sinensis is what gave Hong Kong its name, the Fragrant Harbour The tree is close to extinction – not because of the destruction of the environment but because its scent is so irresistible. When infected with a special fungus, the tree produces a resinous substance that is used is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Due to the declining number of trees, a single kilo sells for more than HK$10,000 in mainland China. Thieves are eager to pillage the farm for its incense tree. Elsewhere in Hong Kong, they enter country parks and private gardens under the cover of darkness, chopping down the trees and smuggling them back across the border. There were 134 incense tree thefts in 2014, compared to 15 in 2009 – and those are only the cases that are reported. Up, up, up – that’s the only direction. After a diversion into the Enkianthus Walk, dedicated to a popular Chinese New Year flower that grows on the enkianthus tree, the summit finally comes into sight. For centuries, nearby villagers have climbed up to Kwun Yum Shan — 550 metres above sea level — to seek blessings from the goddess of mercy, Kwun Yum. A statue of Kwun Yum stands on the mountain next to one of four “hot pots” – cracks in the ground that release warm air. Sometimes the air condenses into swirling mists, a phenomenon known as “dragon’s breath.” The view from the summit is stunning. You can see Hong Kong’s highest peak, Tai Mo Shan, and a lot of green slopes and fields, beyond which are the skyscrapers of Shenzhen.
Kwun Yum Shan is not the highest point on the farm premises, though. After a few steps down the road, Petra enters the Sky Trail, a small, steep path that levels out at 625 metres above sea level. The whole hill serves as a planting area for native trees. Many thousands of trees have been planted in the last 15 years. Many of them are still tiny. “It takes longer for them to grow than we thought,” says Petra. “That shows how important conservation is. You can’t replace nature easily.”
Kadoorie Farm can be reached by bus 64K from Kam Sheung Road MTR station. Click here for opening hours and admission fees.