Jeffery Chan is a graduated Ecologist working at an environmental consultancy firm in Hong Kong. His fieldwork spans largely across the wetlands and hillstreams of Hong Kong. To the world, these are two lesser-known sides of Hong Kong, normally known for its cityscapes and bustle. As a surfer, we seek balance. So as a former ecologist, I decided to shine a spotlight on scientists in startups, since the startup scene is increasingly dominated by tech-oriented topics and ventures. Hereafter, I interview Jeff in the headings; with his response in prose. Enjoy!
Tell us a little about you.
I’m a young ecologist, with a love for fish and aquatic life, who created a Freshwater Biodiversity Database in my free time, aiming to inspire others out of the scientific field to appreciate the freshwater ecology of Hong Kong.
Jeff in his usual gear for stream expeditions.
What got you into Science?
Unlike most children who grew up in Hong Kong, I didn’t spend a lot of time in playgrounds or arcades. Instead, I spent countless hours wading around sandy beaches or hill streams in the lesser known of Hong Kong, thanks to my sporty parents. Being exposed to nature from a young age really developed my love and curiosity for ecology- which is the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and their physical surroundings.
However, the path from my childhood passion to where I am now wasn’t a straight road, as much as I wish it were. I wasn’t always the brightest in school, in fact I would often get C’s and D’s in all my science and math subjects during middle school. Not to mention I fell into a heavy gaming addiction for a good 5 years, which derailed all my knowledge and contact with nature.
It wasn’t until I received my poor GCSE results that I realized I would never make it into science with the mindset and grades I had. I wasn’t ready to sacrifice my childhood dream of being an ecologist for a few uninterrupted years of gaming. So during highschool, I reignited my focus towards ecology and worked overtime in my studies and extracurriculars to make up for lost time, eventually ending up in HKU majoring in Environmental Science.
After going through those hard times it made me realize why passion is so valued in all sorts of jobs and positions- It’s what got me into ecology and what sucked me out of the rut I was in during middle school. So to all those people trying to get into science or other fields, find what motivates you and what you’re passionate about, and the hard work will come naturally.
Can you share some photos of your favorite close encounters? Underwater, herp, birds etc a variety with quick captions if possible (mini stories on encounter)
Hong Kong Newt, the only amphibian with a tail in Hong Kong! They’re largely terrestrial but return to streams to spawn.
Chinese Watersnake, they’re quite an uncommon snake and feisty snake. Luckily this one stayed relatively still!
Stiphodon percnopterygionus, This is my favourite shot of all time, and the rarest animal I’ve ever found myself and photographed. They’re only found in 2 small streams in Hong Kong, and only ever 1 to 2 individuals at a time.
Red-eared Slider, this is one of the most widespread invasive species in the world, brought around by the pet trade. They are carnivores and can decimate native fish and invertebrates, as well as increase competition with our critically endangered native turtles.
How do you take those beautiful underwater shots? What do you shoot with? For all the photographers out there.
The most expensive item for underwater photography isn’t the camera itself, but the underwater housing it’s in.
Starting out as a broke student, I was quite limited by my choices. The usual way would’ve been to purchase one of those in-built digital zoom cameras that come with a cheap housing like an Olympus TG-5 or Sony RX-100, however the quality of the image and versatility of the camera really suffers. I wanted a camera that had the ability to swap lenses and take higher quality photos, but at the same time not having to sell a body part to afford housing! By chance, I stumbled across a third-party underwater housing website called Meikon, which sells many underwater housings at a third of the big-brand prices.
So my go-to setup is the Olympus EM-5 Mark 2 with the 60mm F2.8 macro lens in the Meikon EM-5 Mark 2 Underwater Housing, as I discovered Olympus cameras are lightweight and have affordable cameras and second hand lenses! I hope more people utilize the method of shopping third-party equipment, as getting into underwater photography is a huge commitment- and purchasing the wrong items can really cost you!
How does entrepreneurship/creating your own opportunities in science or conservation work?
The first thing to note for entrepreneurship in ecology is that it will never be profitable. The purpose of ecology is to understand the relations of the organisms towards each other and their surroundings- and such a specific field doesn’t open much for goods, as compared to broader branches like microbiology and chemistry. As such, a large portion of start-ups are education-based, hoping to introduce ecology as more than just a chapter in your highschool biology textbook, e.g. NGO’s such as Outdoor Wildlife Learning Hong Kong (OWLHK)- which started as a trio of passionate ecology students from HKU.
Because money is less involved, I personally found it much easier to create opportunities and my website, as my central goal was education and not profit. With passion and dedication you’re already halfway there, and of course a small amount of funding was required for my camera gear and cost of running the website. However, with proper research it can be attained without a huge cost. In fact, everything was easily self-funded from part-timing during university and my full time job as an ecological consultant now. The most important factor is dedicating time towards your goal and learning from mistakes!
Why do you think Ecology is important for humanity?
With such a small portion of people appreciating and acknowledging the biodiverse ecology of Hong Kong, it has created an image that hong kong is nothing but a financial hub, packed with highrises and pollution. Unfortunately, this negative narrow perception of our environment has manufactured severe consequences. Such as, the Development of Lung Mei Beach in Tai Po, where an important habitat demolished due to the perception it barely had any wildlife. In reality, over 200 marine and bird species were discovered there. Unfortunately it was too late. By the time ecological research on the beach was released, and the public realized the urgency and raised their voices, the beach was already slated for development, and is presently nearing completion.
Mitigating impacts is not a sustainable solution in the modern age of lightning fast development. You can replant as many trees as you chop down the forest, but you can’t make up the hundreds of years it took the forest to mature, not to mention the different organisms that rely on those habitats. If we were to continue the destructive trend we are on now, it will take Earth at least 3 million years to recover from the species that are projected to go extinct.
From my perspective, starting from the root of the problem is the only way to create proper long-term change. As such, environmental education is in its highest demand and need right now. It is paramount to educate the youth and people of all ages the importance and irreplaceability of ecology, and I am doing that one step at a time, hoping to captivate some curiosity by showcasing images and information of our stunning freshwater wildlife.
What I focus on is just a small portion of ecology in Hong Kong, and I hope many others will join me to bring our biodiverse city to light.
What are some of the perks of your job?
I know the first thought most people would have in mind is how free ecologists are, not being shackled to desks. To the contrary, although we do get to go out to nature, we still spend half the time stuck indoors writing reports or sheltering from Hong Kong's terrible weather!
The real perk for me is the constant opportunity for knowledge. Being an ecologist, you can really take "the world is your oyster" to new heights! Imagine walking towards a stream in the woods. You pass through countless plants, trees, insects, birds and maybe the occasional snake or leopard cat if you’re lucky, before you reach your destination. Everything around has some sort of relationship and part to play, and you just want to learn what it does, why it does those things and what part it plays in the ecosystem!
Anything in your field you wish people would know and care more about?
When you ask someone to describe Hong Kong, they would probably spend the first few minutes discussing the economy and the dense infrastructure of the city. What they don’t know is only 24% of the entire region is built-up land, where the remaining 76% is undeveloped (Legco, 2015)!
The ecology of Hong Kong has been historically underappreciated, by most of our own population and outsiders. What makes our city so unique is the sheer number of varying habitats in such a tiny space, for example for freshwater habitats alone we have: hill streams, lowland streams, ponds, marshes, reservoirs, rivers and even man-made concrete channels.
The biodiversity of Hong Kong is no joke. In this tiny dot on the map, you can find over 3,000 species of flower plants, 235 butterfly species, 184 freshwater fish species, 123 dragonfly species and many more. In fact, Hong Kong boasts one third of the total bird species in China, with over 530 species being recorded in the region (AFCD, 2019).
With so much more to offer in the backdoor of our concrete jungle, I hope more people can learn to appreciate and conserve our very biodiverse city.
- Anything else you wanna tell? (Shameless plug, check out my ig, this that etc wherever you wanna direct attention)
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