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Students document Hong Kong’s connection to wildlife

For nearly 10 weeks, Hannah Sorenson ’19 and Dorinda Stryker ’19 immersed themselves in hands-on work in Hong Kong’s Mai Po Nature Reserve.

“Many of our days were spent outdoors at Mai Po in a bird hide for hours at a time recording nesting behavior, knee-deep in a lily pond clearing invasive snail species, or carefully recording damselfly populations in the mangrove,” the pair says.

The work was part of their internship with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Hong Kong (WWF-HK). In addition to the active participatory learning they did as part of the internship, the two St. Olaf College seniors conducted in-depth interviews with experts at WWF-HK, engaged in participant observation, and gathered footage of the city as well as Hong Kong’s natural landscape. They are using this experience and material to create a documentary and interactive website titledBeyond the Concrete Jungle: City, Nature, and Environmentalism in Hong Kong that shows the outreach efforts of the WWF-HK and how it positively influences the largely urban community of Hong Kong.

Hannah Sorenson ’19 (right) and Dorinda Stryker ’19 capture the waterfront skyline on video for their documentary film project.

Sorenson and Stryker have created a trailer highlighting their project, and they plan to continue working on the documentary film. They have been invited to present their work at the 2019 ASIANetwork Conference, which will be held in San Diego, California, April 12-14.

Their work is part of St. Olaf College’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program. The CURI project, overseen by St. Olaf Associate Professor of Asian Studies Ka Wong, received additional funding from the Luce Initiative for Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE). The students’ time as interns was supported by the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career.

Sorenson says presenting at the ASIANetwork Conference “will provide our team with the opportunity to share not only our findings, but our engagement with digital humanities and experience as a part of St. Olaf’s unique CURI opportunity.”

Dorinda Stryker ’19 (left) and Hannah Sorenson ’19 used their summer research opportunity in Hong Kong as a way to educate others about the effects of industrialization on nature in China.

Hong Kong acts as a unique setting for Sorenson and Stryker’s research and film project. Although it is a large industrialized city, Hong Kong has an abundance of natural landscape. Given the city’s dense population and unimaginably high housing prices, Hong Kong citizens live daily at the intersection of economic development and environmental sustainability. This tension is what fueled Sorenson and Stryker’s research.

“In addition to grappling with the precarious balance of economic development in a limited territory and preserving countless threatened local species, WWF-HK actively uses education as a way to engage not only with people, but with their behavior as well,” Sorenson says. “In doing so, WWF-HK is an organization focused on both environmental protection and the empowerment of local communities and individuals to knowledgeably engage with and care for their environment.”

Watch the trailer for “Beyond the Concrete Jungle” here:

Not only learning, but doing
Their time in Hong Kong enabled them to aid in WWF-HK’s community outreach to protect the environment, particularly helping preserve government-owned Mai Po Nature Reserve. In addition to working in the wetlands, they assisted with the organization’s outreach efforts in classrooms, tours, and exhibitions at Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park, Island House Conservation Studies Center, and throughout the city.

Interning at WWF-HK for Stryker (left) and Sorenson meant learning about the importance of such an organization focused on preserving nature in the midst of an ever-growing industrialized setting.

“Mai Po is a major stopover for thousands of migratory birds, whose path spans from Russia all the way down to Australia and New Zealand, cutting through the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan along the way,” Stryker says. “In its role, WWF-HK is protecting a natural environment and species whose livelihoods have implications for the entire region.”

When they weren’t at WWF sites, Sorenson and Stryker spent time traveling to and documenting different parts of Hong Kong. They have been organizing and analyzing their collected data, which includes interviews with the WWF-HK experts and film and photo footage; building an interactive and informative website; and editing their documentary — which is the culmination of their digital documentation.

Applying education to real life
Stryker, an Asian studies major, and Sorenson, a Chinese and political science major, have studied the Chinese language and social sciences during their years on the Hill, all of which immensely prepared them for carrying out interdisciplinary research in Hong Kong. Putting these skills and passions to the test, Sorenson and Stryker were able to fully immerse themselves in WWF-HK’s cultural, organizational, and economic contexts.

Sorenson (right) checks the camera angle while Stryker adjusts a microphone before interviewing a WWF-HK employee for their documentary.

Both say that their language studies enabled them to form deeper connections on an individual level and understand distinct historical and cultural contexts that would have otherwise been overlooked. “This is especially significant in Hong Kong, where the legacy of British colonization is very pronounced and a recent reality,” the pair says.

Hannah Sorenson ’19The ability to employ pre-existing skills such as language study while gaining new experiences with field research, digital humanities, and documentation has challenged us to view academic work in a new way that is more accessible and exciting.

The pair sees their research as broadening their studies to life beyond St. Olaf.

“Working directly with experts at WWF-HK is essential in humanizing many of the major, abstract topics we discuss daily in our courses such as environmental degradation, colonial legacies, urbanization, and development,” Sorenson says. “The ability to employ pre-existing skills such as language study while gaining new experiences with field research, digital humanities, and documentation has challenged us to view academic work in a new way that is more accessible and exciting, while further pushing us to use our resources to produce an honest, intriguing, and engaging picture of environmental issues in the context of Hong Kong.”