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Catching up with Pui Pui, crafty croc who captivated Sars-weary Hongkongers

WATCH: Saltwater crocodile who made worldwide headlines as she eluded capture for 7 months has grown a metre and piled on 48.5kg since she became Hong Kong Wetland Park’s star attraction 10 years ago

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 July, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 July, 2016, 9:18am

Pui Pui has one eye on the thick Perspex wall that separates her from curious visitors at Hong Kong Wetland Park. After five motionless minutes under water, she ascends gracefully, only nostrils and eyes breaking the surface. The crocodile fills her lungs, then sinks just as slowly to the bottom of the pool.

It’s hardly riveting entertainment, given the excitement the crocodile once aroused, but the former RTHK “Personality of the Year” is still the main attraction at the Hong Kong Wetland Park, and has been since she arrived at the specially built enclosure 10 years ago next month.

“We have other, smaller species of crocodiles, but visitors only know Pui Pui. They all come to see her because she’s very famous. She is still the star of the park,” says Vivian Fu, a supervisor of the reserve’s live exhibit unit.

Pui Pui, formerly known as “the Yuen Long crocodile”, became a global media sensation after giving hunters, including a real-life “Crocodile Dundee”, the runaround for more than seven months in the northwestern New Territories.

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Since being captured and taken to a temporary home, she has grown almost a metre and piled on 48.5kg, gobbling up a kilogram of dead frogs, chicken and fish once a week. The crocodile, which can grow up to three metres, measures 2.46 metres and now weighs 68kg.

The predator, thought to be a released pet or an escapee, was first spotted by a villager in late October 2003 along a murky creek off the Shan Pui River. Hong Kong had been traumatised by the deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, proposed national security legislation that brought half a million protesters onto the streets, and the suicide of entertainment idol Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing. To cap it all, property prices hit a 20-year low. Repeated failures to catch the crocodile captivated and struck a chord with weary Hongkongers.

They all come to see her because she’s very famous. She is still the star of the park
Vivian Fu

Overseas media were hooked by the sensational tale. “A crocodile is roaming the streets of Hong Kong,” Britain’s Daily Mirror reported.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department deployed 20 officers to capture the reptile, and their first plan was to shoot it with a tranquilliser dart. Although it emerged occasionally to bask on the river bank, it had a habit of slipping into the water at the whiff of danger.

When this failed, traps baited with chicken, fish and pig’s organs were laid in the creek, but the crocodile was not biting. The cat-and-mouse game continued for days, with the elusive reptile several times poking its snout into the semi-submerged traps only to be scared off by noise on the bank.

After a week, the antics had made headlines worldwide, and came to the attention of Australian crocodile expert John Lever, who claimed to have caught 90 of the creatures.

Lever told the Post that trying to catch it during the day was pointless. “Crocodiles don’t go into traps. The only time to catch him is at night with lights,” he said.

The Post invited Lever to Hong Kong to catch the crocodile, with free flights and accommodation offered by Cathay Pacific and Shangri-La hotels. “I would just walk in and grab it,” he boasted.

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The AFCD was initially reluctant to take Lever up on his offer to capture the reptile free of charge, preferring to wait for the global media attention to die down. However, a few days later, no closer to capturing the crocodile, the department organised a work visa and hunting licence for him. “These guys will just kill themselves when they see how it’s done,” he said.

Lever headed straight to Yuen Long for a reconnaissance mission on arrival in Hong Kong on November 13, leaving behind chicken heads hooked to floating ropes that would help locate the crocodile if it took the bait. When he returned the following morning, he found not a crocodile but a welcoming crowd of 500 journalists, villagers and autograph hunters. He described a close encounter with the animal the previous night, confirming it was a saltwater crocodile, and how it was scared off when a plastic bag got entangled in his boat’s electric motor.

The creek, where pig farmers dumped effluent, was one of the most polluted waterways he had seen. “It’s quite disgusting, thick, soupy mud,” he said. “There is so much dead fish there that the croc won’t be hungry ... it looked plump and well fed.”

Lever returned as night fell, armed with a harpoon, fishing line, a torch, an inner tube for a float, and elastic bands to muzzle the creature once caught.

About 1,000 people were gathered at the site, including families with small children. Cheers erupted as Lever launched his harpoon at the crocodile – but missed. “Tonight I’m a little bit disappointed,” he said later, adding: “I’m prepared to stay for a week to get this croc.”

It was to be several more day before Lever got a glimpse of the crocodile again. “I’m afraid all the activity may have frightened him away,” he said, referring to the crowds and an attempted attack on the animal by a dog.

The spectacle also attracted fortune hunters. The Harbour Plaza Resort City in Tin Shui Wai was at full capacity when it offered crocodile tour and room packages; a boat operator saw a fivefold growth in business ferrying visitors, usually bird watchers, around the creek; villagers sold crocodile toys; and a canteen plastered trees around the site with menus.

The excitement reached the Legislative Council chambers, with pro-establishment lawmaker David Chu saying he was ready to take over the hunt with the help of fishermen. Asked why legislators would be qualified to catch a crocodile, Chu said: “Because we work with them every day.”

On November 27, two weeks after he arrived, a disappointed Lever called an end to his hunt. “It seems pointless to continue going out there when the croc has not been seen for the last five days,” he said. “Catching crocs is never easy, but I came here and I did my best.”

He expected a grilling from the press upon his return to Australia, and got one: “Croc 1, Dundee 0” was the headline in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Before leaving, Lever toured the creek with Chinese crocodile experts Li Minjian and He Zhenzhao, who would take over the hunt.

With temperatures dropping, the experts warned that the cold-blooded animal would appear less often, preferring to stay underwater where it was warmer. Their method of catching the crocodile, radically different from Lever’s, involved using nets to hem it in. This initiative proved just as fruitless in capturing the “crafty croc”. On December 16, the team gave up the chase and returned to Guangdong.

In January 2004, after two months on the run, the Yuen Long crocodile was voted “Personality of the Year” in a poll by RTHK. “The crocodile symbolises freedom and that is why it has struck a chord with the people of Hong Kong,” radio presenter Hugh Chiverton said at the time.

The animal spent the winter months largely unseen, amid speculation it may have died – until it re-emerged in Lut Chau, close to its original stalking grounds and surrounded by fish farms. It looked longer and beefier, according to locals who spotted it.

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Occasional sightings were still being reported, and Lever was itching to return and complete his unfinished business. Maybe public interest was waning, or the crocodile was becoming increasingly wary, but during May, it went unseen for 10 days – its longest disappearance.

Then, on June 10, after more than seven months on the run, the elusive Yuen Long crocodile met its match at the hands of a solitary 65-year-old fisherman.

Ng Lo-tau wrapped the reptile in five layers of fishing nets and called the AFCD, who came and landed the beast. “It was struggling so hard that its huge tail was threshing and thumping on the ground,” he said.

The crocodile was taken to a government veterinary clinic in Sheung Shui for observation, where It was found it to be healthy – and a female. She was later transferred to Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, then moved to her Wetland Park enclosure in August 2006.

The AFCD decided the crocodile needed a name. “Hong Kong people have a very strong emotional attachment to the crocodile so it’s appropriate to pick a name for her,” department director Thomas Chan Chun-yuen said.

A naming contest was held and the public’s choice was Pui Pui, meaning “special one”. The name reflected the fact the slippery creature had become a welcome distraction at a difficult time, and given Hongkongers hope. It was also a reference to the Shan Pui River system, where she was first spotted, a mere 2km from her Wetland Park home.

Pui Pui will probably live out her days alone in the Wetland Park enclosure. Saltwater crocodiles are not a sociable species and it’s highly unlikely she will have a mate. While females of the species reach three metres in length, males can grow to up to eight metres, and her enclosure is nine metres long.

Nevertheless, with a life expectancy of 70 years, and still in good health, the 16-year-old living legend will be around to marvel at for longer than most people who remember the thrill of the chase.