Civet cats, barking deer, porcupine and wild boar: Hong Kong’s urban jungle becoming home to wild animals

Boars, porcupines, deer and other assorted fauna are being spotted in the city with greater frequency as property development continues to encroach onto green belt areas, driving displaced creatures into the urban landscape

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 February, 2016, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 February, 2016, 10:56am

Hong Kong’s concrete jungles are surrounded by swathes of green wilderness, so it should hardly be a surprise when creatures other than cockroaches and mosquitoes stray into the city, like the wild boar seen wandering outside the swanky Conrad Hotel in Admiralty last month.

The intruder was one of three boars that made headlines after being spotted in as many weeks in urban centres; a second was seen in a Wong Tai Sin housing estate, the third in Hong Kong Park, leading the authorities on a five-hour chase to capture the beast.

If property development continues to encroach onto Hong Kong’s green belt areas, as is likely, more wild animals will be displaced and some may well adapt to living in the urban landscape.

In fact, more exotic and secretive creatures are already living in our midst than we may imagine, according to Dr Gary Ades, head of the fauna conservation department at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Tai Po.

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One such animal is the masked palm civet, a timid, nocturnal omnivore that spends much of its time in trees, where it will feed on fruit. The mammal gets its name from its black face mask, has an elongated body and grows to between 50cm and 76cm long.

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Ades says the arboreal animal is increasingly turning up in city areas.

“Quite a few people get to see them these days because the masked palm civets cross a road and wander down to the urban parks. They’ve got a slightly carnivorous diet, but they’re often spotted in the trees trying to find fruit,” he says.

“They can find food in the trees because many of our urban parks are quite rich in terms of the flora. So some of these animals, once they get into the urban park, can survive there.”

According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, the civet is widely distributed throughout the Hong Kong countryside, except on Lantau Island and the northwestern New Territories.

Bats are another nocturnal creature living among us. At least five of Hong Kong’s 27 species of bat have also become quite urbanised, Ades says. Of these, one of the most intriguing is the dog-faced fruit bat, which is quite common and roosts in the Chinese fan palm.

“There are Chinese fan palms everywhere in Hong Kong. They were planted in urban areas many years ago and now there are many mature trees,” he says. “The dog-faced fruit bat is a tent builder. It roosts under the leaf of the fan palm, and chews the leaf so that it forms a tent-like structure, and a little group of bats lives inside that.”

These bats even roost on roundabouts on busy highways, he says. “I’ve seen them where there’s a good clump of fan palms, where cars are going round all day long, and there’s bats sleeping up in those trees.”

A more common bat is the Japanese pipistrelle, which can be found anywhere in Hong Kong, he says. The insect eaters live in small crevices in walls and buildings, and even manage to find their way into air conditioners and will roost inside.

A mammal that has adapted well to living on the urban fringes is the East Asian porcupine, a large rodent easily distinguishable by its coat of black-and-white quills. Last October, one was photographed in the early hours ambling around outside Citibank Tower in Admiralty.

“We’re getting more and more reports of sightings of porcupines in urban areas, in people’s gardens, and crossing roads, so they’re starting to come out of the forest,” Ades says. They have also been spotted nesting in concrete drainage systems.

With ongoing encroaching, animals come into the city opportunistically looking for easy food, but end up getting confused in the urban environment, Ades says.

“We have this situation with wild boar. Maybe they get stuck behind fences and find themselves walking right into shopping centres and turning up in all sorts of places.”

There have even been cases of boar that have had to be cut out of railings by the fire services, and taken to the Kadoorie rescue centre.

Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, which covers 147 hectares of land in a verdant valley in Lam Tsuen, runs several conservation programmes for wild animals, including the rescue centre.

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Another exotic species occasionally taken to the rescue centre is Hong Kong’s most visible – the black kites that are often seen soaring above the harbour.

“We get kites brought in here because they are taking advantage of the urban environment and getting into trouble, with overhead power lines, buses hitting them, car strikes,” Ades says.

The birds of prey have been known to breed in strange places, and could be nesting on the roofs of skyscrapers, he says, although they generally prefer to nest in trees.

“They’re a very gregarious species, which is quite unusual for birds of prey.”

Black kites congregate at dusk and roost in large groups in sites such as Stonecutters’ Island, parts of Sai Kung and even Magazine Gap on Hong Kong Island.

The resident population of the raptors is boosted in winter when hundreds more fly in from colder areas, Ades says.

Much less visible is an animal that often lives on the fringes of human habitation – the leopard cat, a small, spotted feline not to be confused with the larger cousin from which it takes its name.

“They like to be in the forest but they’re very inquisitive and will come down to more urban areas, where they can possibly find rats and mice to feed on. They’ll sit quietly, so you’ll walk past them and won’t even know they’re there. If you do this at night, and you have a torch in your hand, you can often get reflections from their eyes.”

Another fringe species, which only ventures out of the woods when forced by man-made construction, is the barking deer.

Ades explains: “The barking deer really don’t want to be down here. They will come down maybe through some kind of accident; they may fall into some kind of water catchment and find themselves wandering into a more urbanised area.”

Early last year, four barking deer died after falling into a concrete water catchment in southern Lantau Island in the space of six weeks.

Another human-related menace to wildlife is the dumping of pet dogs in country parks, which then turn feral.

“A lot of animals that are being brought to us – barking deer, mongoose, leopard cats – have been attacked by feral dogs ... from all over Hong Kong but in particular the New Territories,” Ades says.

“They’re quite indiscriminate and, unlike true predators, these dogs will kill an animal like a barking deer, take a few chunks out of it and just leave the rest. It’s like they smell an animal and they have a frenzy and kill it. That’s a big problem in Hong Kong and the government recognises that.”

This year’s exceptionally cool winter weather may account for the increased sightings of wildlife in recent months. Frost was even recorded at Kadoorie Farm, which is only about 200 metres above sea level.

The insects and plant nectar that birds feed on became scarcer in the harsh weather, resulting in more birds being sent to the rescue centre, weakened from lack of food.

Animals also have to use more energy just to stay warm, which compounds their hardship.

“I’ve even heard of situations where members of the public have found groups of dog-faced fruit bat ... dead on the ground below the roost,” Ades says.

“We know that the macaques have been hungry because the macaque population, which usually doesn’t come down very often from the hillside, have all been down here causing a lot of trouble with visitors because they’re hungry. They’ve been raiding our organic farm area as well ...

“What we’re seeing here is probably multiplied around the Kowloon Reservoir, where you’ve got a much bigger population of macaques.”

Hong Kong is lucky to have such a rich biodiversity, with wild areas so close to the metropolis. However, we are beginning to see an increase in conflict situations involving animals, Ades says.

Kadoorie Farm tries to play an advisory role, encouraging people to find solutions that not only protect the interests of the community but also enhances the environment for animals.

For example, Ades cites successes in Canada and Britain, where tunnels and bridges are built for animals to cross highways. Special rubbish bins are also being used that animals can’t get into.

In Hong Kong, the government has started to use better designs to stop macaques and boars getting into the bins, while also exploring ways to make park visitors deal with the rubbish, Ades says.

Animal-friendly designs can also be incorporated into architecture and railing design. Special bricks or boxes could be installed around buildings, for instance, inviting the creatures to nest there and help bring down the number of mosquitoes and other insects.

“There needs to be a better culture here of living with the animals but also protecting your interests, instead of just running to the government and complaining every time you see [a problem],” Ades says.