A green pit viper coiled around a drainpipe, three blue-banded bees sleeping on a grass blade, and a gecko climbing a tree against the backdrop of a bustling city. They’re all part of Hong Kong-British wildlife photographer Lawrence Hylton’s extensive portfolio.
Despite being one of the most densely populated places in the world, Hong Kong is a diverse home to over 1,000 animal species, and boasts one third of all bird species in China. Many of these creatures only emerge at night, but that doesn’t stop 30-year-old Hylton from seeking them out.
Embarking on nocturnal safaris multiple times a week, Hylton says his mission is to promote conservation through his artistic approach to nature photography.
“I’m hoping people view [my photographs] as an opportunity to understand that nature isn’t as scary as we might deem them to be,” he said. “The key is to show that animals have a right to live here. Just because we fear them doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to live.”
The photographer uncovering Hong Kong’s nocturnal wildlife
Reptiles and amphibians are among Hylton’s favorite animals to look for – particularly snakes, because of how misunderstood they are. Despite being important predators and ecological indicators, he says many snakes face persecution.
For Hylton, finding wildlife is the easiest part, but photographing them takes a lot of patience. “You’re working with a subject that doesn’t want to be disturbed, so it’s important to try and respect wildlife where we can,” he says. “The best thing we can do if we’re documenting is to capture what we need to capture and leave it be.”
Hylton started wildlife photography when he got his first camera at the age of 17, capturing “the odd bird dancing on the branch here and the cute ladybird trampling around on a leaf there,” but it wasn’t until he moved from the UK to Hong Kong and photographed a peregrine falcon swooping past that it became a passion.
In terms of nocturnal wildlife, apart from “blood-thirsty insects” and some feral dogs, Hong Kong is relatively safe to explore in the dark. With no large predators willing to harm humans, Hylton says all someone needs to get started as a night-time wildlife spotter is a torch, some common sense and to be mindful of the subjects they encounter.
Bosco Chan, director of conservation at WWF Hong Kong, says one reason why wildlife can survive and thrive in Hong Kong is that around 40% of its land is designated as “country parks,” one of the highest ratios of protected area in the world. Coupled with the city’s hilly terrain, animals can avoid human disturbances and hunting pressure.
But despite being home to hundreds of species, biodiversity loss is also a problem in Hong Kong. “A century or two ago, we had tigers, a leopard, and a civet called the large Indian civet, which was last found in the 1940s,” says Chan. “In recent years, we have lost a lowland frog species called the floating frog. It thrives in paddy fields but as we abandon rice farming, the frog is gone in Hong Kong.”
While organizations like the WWF are helping to conserve endangered populations such as the Eurasian otter, which according to Chan is “one of the last remaining kinds of urban otters in China,” Hylton thinks more can be done for Hong Kong’s natural habitats through education.
“We have lots of [hikers] who visit this area and fear snakes and fear the unknown. [It] makes people do silly things,” Hylton says. “Hopefully someday in the future, everyone can just enjoy nature as they came out to do.”