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Jetsetting with ... conservationist Laurel Chor

SINGAPORE — It is almost ironic that it took an emergency somewhere in the Central African Republic before conservationist and National Geographic Young Explorer Laurel Chor decide to explore her own hometown of Hong Kong.

SINGAPORE — It is almost ironic that it took an emergency somewhere in the Central African Republic before conservationist and National Geographic Young Explorer Laurel Chor decide to explore her own hometown of Hong Kong.

“I was doing an internship with the World Wildlife Fund to study gorillas, after graduating from Georgetown University, for about six months, when we were suddenly told we had to evacuate as the rebel forces were closing in,” shared the 26-year-old, who was here last week to hold a talk at the Nanyang Technological University as part of the National Geographic Live series.

“I found myself back in Hong Kong, not quite sure what to do. After being away for so long, it also made me see my hometown with fresh eyes.”

That was how she was inspired to set up the Hong Kong Explorers Initiative, with a grant from National Geographic to promote and document the city’s wildlife.

“Hong Kong and Singapore share several similarities in that we’re very dense, highly built-up cities but there’s also significant wildlife,” said Chor, who added that she started Hong Kong Explorers Initiative to get people to “appreciate and explore Hong Kong’s wild side”.

“It was something I had to discover for myself as no one told me — it was not part of Hong Kong culture when I was growing up there. I think the education in Hong Kong, perhaps because of an East Asian culture, emphasises the studying of books. It’s a narrow way of thinking about education.”

She continued: “All cities have its native wildlife which might sound surprising but it’s there. There are cougars in Los Angeles, foxes in London, leopards in Mumbai. They’re coming into the cities as urban areas expand and natural habitats get affected by climate changes. We have to learn to co-exist peacefully with them.”

Q: What are some spots where travellers can get in touch with Hong Kong’s wild side?

A: Go to the islands. The Tap Mun Island, which is also called Grass Island, is really small, green and idyllic. It’s easy to explore and there are still villages on it. There’s also Tung Ping Chau, which is the island furthest from Hong Kong. It has amazing geological formation and feels untouched. I’d say just check out the ferry schedule, get there and go see it for yourself. Hong Kong has plenty of wildlife to see — three-quarters of it is undeveloped and 40 per cent is protected land.

Q: You have been to more than 30 countries — even before you turned 30. How did you manage to do that?

A: I went to South America and Africa to volunteer at orphanages and children’s homes after I finished high school in Hong Kong, and before starting university. I was lucky to see countries such as Bolivia, Guatemala and Malawi. Travelling is a huge privilege.

Q: How would you encourage travellers to explore and incorporate more nature in their itineraries?

A: Start at home. Go off the beaten tracks and get out of the comfort zone by going somewhere you’ve never been to in your own city. Google a surprising fact about your country. Get your hands dirty. Sometimes, I find it’s the mental barriers between nature and us that’s stopping us from doing more. SERENE LIM

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