An exotic friendship

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 January, 2008, 12:00am

With a long Rainbow Boa slithering around his body, 24-year-old Toni Ngai Pak-yin talks enthusiastically about his pet snake at his home in Tsz Wan Shan.

'I love reptiles like snakes and lizards. They are adorable animals which have unique characteristics,' said the merchandiser who worked as a vet assistant in the past.

With rows of boxes containing tortoises, snakes and lizards at his aquarium-like home, Mr Ngai is one of the growing number of locals who keep unusual pets.

'More and more people are keeping reptiles and amphibians as pets,' said Anthony Yeung, chairman of Hong Kong Society of Herpetology (HKSH). Herpetology is the branch of zoology concerned with reptiles and amphibians.

This passion for keeping exotic pets is shared by 12-year-old Colin Yeung Ho-yuen and Lam Wai-yun. Putting his tiny Burmese Newt and Common Chinese Treefrog on his fingers, Colin demonstrates how to handle the two puny animals with ease.

'They are docile animals which never bite. Sporting bright colours and funky features, they are my perfect companions,' said the Form One student.

Taking a rotund and amusing-looking Cranwell's Horned Frog out of its mud-covered tank,

Wai-yun explains his deep love for frogs.

'His name is Little Fat Boy. Frogs are amazing animals. Seeing tadpoles hatch from spawn and grow into young frogs which evolve from breathing through their gills to lungs is a magical experience,' said Wai-yun.

Having kept herptiles as pets for years, these three unusual pet lovers have developed such a deep affection for them that they joined HKSH a few years ago to help the society spread conservation messages about the magnificent animals.

Founded in 2004, HKSH is devoted to the protection of reptiles and amphibians in Hong Kong.

Raising the public awareness of these animals is the main objective of the group.

'While cats and dogs are common pets which can easily gain people's sympathy, herps do not get the same attention as their furry counterparts,' said Tony Chan, one of the society's committee members.

'We often hear in the news about police intercepting hauls of exotic reptiles destined for consumption on the mainland and Hong Kong.

'Irresponsible pet ownership also does much harm to ecosystems. Out of impulse, many people buy tortoises and frogs only to abandon them when they grow too big in size to handle.'

Of the many obstacles they face, changing the local habit of eating wild animals is the hardest, Mr Yeung said.

'Consumption of herbal turtle jelly and snake soup is ingrained in Chinese culture. Such food made from herps is considered to have high medicinal value. We don't object to consuming such foodstuffs made from farmed animals. However, the source of these foodstuffs usually comes from the wild in Hong Kong. Capturing and eating wild animals poses severe threats to ecological balance,' he said.

Mr Ngai also cautioned lovers of wild animals, saying eating them can lead to severe health problems.

'Reptiles like snakes and tortoises live in an environment which is laden with parasites. Eating them can be harmful,' he said.

Colin also felt disgusted by the cruel treatment of Chinese Bullfrog (known as 'field chicken' in colloquial Cantonese) at wet markets. 'I used to see vendors cruelly decapitating them. It's horrible! Frogs are adorable animals which are not meant for human consumption,' he said.

See pages 6 and 7 for more details on the unusual pets of the three owners.