Some 2,000 years ago, Hong Kong was part of a great tropical broad-leaf forest that was home to elephants, tigers, red dogs and a huge variety of tropical species.

With about 40 per cent of our territory designated as country park, and with many of our threatened species protected by government ordinance, it might be assumed that Hongkongers would be very comfortable with their wild side. The reality, of course, is more complicated.

While many of us are aware of the hazards presented by snakes and poisonous centipedes, few are familiar with the 50 or so species of wild mammal that call Hong Kong home. According to Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) surveys, eight types of mammal are ranked as species of conservation concern in Hong Kong: five species of bat as well as the crab-eating mongoose, the Chinese pangolin and the Eurasian otter.

Despite what ecologists call "massive human impacts" and habitat destruction, the crab-eating mongoose, which was thought to be extinct in the 1960s, is making a comeback and the small Asian mongoose and the yellow-bellied weasel have been recorded locally for the first time, perhaps having fled habitats in Guangdong province. Hong Kong can also boast that the East Asian porcupine, Muntjac (barking deer), masked palm civet, small Indian civet, rhesus macaque, Chinese ferret badger and leopard cat are all relatively abundant, along with a colourful host of amphibians, birds, reptiles and invertebrates.

Sadly, though, few Hongkongers appear to attach much value to this wonderful range of wild fauna and, for most urban dwellers, the concept of biodiversity is more likely to cause panic than fascination. Last month, when a wild boar strayed from its rural habitat into a Chai Wan shopping mall, it caused public mayhem, followed by a police stand-off more reminiscent of a terrorist attack than a wildlife rescue. Last summer, when a small harmless shark was spotted by a member of the public off Lamma Island, helicopters were scrambled and armed officers on police boats rushed to the scene, ready to shoot on sight. During the infamous 2001 Kowloon monkey chase, a four-year-old male rhesus macaque went on the run in downtown Tsim Sha Tsui. Media reported that it took police and AFCD officers more than two days to track down the crafty primate, which even caught the Star Ferry to evade its pursuers.

Hong Kong celebrity Sharon Kwok's tragic pangolin encounter

Most residents of the metropolis appear to be distinctly uncomfortable with native wildlife and, according to one occasional Post Magazine contributor and respected conservationist who has worked in Hong Kong for more than 25 years, there has been an effort over the past two millennia to eliminate it.

The first settlers "had a great love of chopping down forests and vegetation to reduce the threat of wild animals", says Dr Martin Williams, who does not think the colonial British were much better in terms of respect for wildlife.

"The massive reforestation undertaken by the British was an engineering project to secure decent freshwater supplies, not a conservation project. The British were more than happy to shoot tigers and just about any other animal if they got half a chance," he says.

"Sadly, there is very little knowledge and affection for our indigenous species, unless it is being painted on a silk screen or eaten," he says, although "the protection of wild animals did increase with the introduction of the country parks, in the 1970s, and local demand for wildlife as a source of food has reduced with increased affluence and education".

Williams points to the popularity of hiking and the proliferation of online wildlife forums but "we still have a huge disconnect with wildlife", he says.

"I have seen two young women terrified by a passing butterfly in a country park and some party leaders have told me that Hong Kong schoolkids will often panic at the sight of an ant and many refuse to sit on grass."

One organisation that is working hard to allay these fears and challenge misconceptions is Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, located on the picturesque slopes of Kwun Yum Shan, near Tai Po. The organisation has a team committed to educating the public about all things wild, based on its key motto: "Living in harmony with nature."

"Many visitors are afraid of the bees," says Luk Ka-ling, as she outlines the activities undertaken at Kadoorie Farm during a tour of the picturesque 145-hectare site, which is shaded by mature trees and dissected by a clear mountain stream. About 50 per cent of the animals here have been rescued from the illegal wild animal trade while the rest are indigenous creatures that have been rescued from the city. On Sundays, staff orchestrate animal-encounter sessions, wherein families can get close to a local "ambassador species", usually a black kite or a Burmese python.

"We choose ambassador species carefully and the raptor is ideal as most people perceive these animals as frightening, so we try and overcome their fears and change their attitude via education," says Luk, passing the bat enclosure. "Many guests think that bats are evil and may suck human blood. We try to explain how bats are vital to pollination and how their droppings help distribute seeds and help nature."

A magnificent crested serpent eagle gazes down disdainfully from its lofty perch in the raptor enclosure; this is one of the many birds that have been injured by flying into the reflective glass windows of the city's high-rise office blocks. Luk describes a recent Kadoorie Farm campaign aimed at local corporations occupying high-rise office buildings, who were issued with black bird-shaped stickers that could be placed in office windows to prevent wild birds crashing into them.

"Many companies just refuse to cooperate but we can only request and advise," she says.

It's difficult not to notice that the amphibian enclosure has a very large lock on the door - but it is not to keep the animals in. This is home to one of Hong Kong's most threatened and economically valuable species. The beautiful golden coin turtle has all but disappeared in the wild - wiped out by determined poachers eager to secure a slice of the HK$150,000 each of these small amphibians commands on the open market, dead or alive.

"We can only risk putting one of these animals on display to the public," says Luk, who explains that the turtle is thought to be lucky and have miraculous remedial powers. (For any reader who believes that eating its meat will cure cancer - it doesn't.) As if on cue, the solitary turtle lifts its head above the water at a front corner of its tank, as if wanting to be interviewed.

"We organise seminars by leading traditional Chinese medicine [TCM] doctors to educate people that [the health claims are] a myth and the turtle is being killed only for superstition," Luk says, before explaining that Kadoorie Farm is running a pioneering rebreeding programme to restore the numbers of golden coin turtles in Hong Kong. Luk is extremely reluctant to reveal any details about the programme for fear of tipping off poachers.

"We have an alarm system, locks, cages, guards and a 24-hour surveillance system," she says.

Dr Paul Crow, the senior conservation officer running the programme, has no doubt the security is necessary, given the booming mainland market for exotic foods and TCM remedies.

"The major challenge to conserving this species in the wild is the huge commercial value that encourages illegal trapping and harvest here in Hong Kong, where the last known breeding populations exist," says Crow.

And the acute concern about illegal trapping is not confined to turtles. Many conservationists are worried about the Chinese pangolin, which is being wiped out across Asia because the meat of this docile, ant-eating mammal is considered a delicacy and its scales - its only protection (it doesn't have teeth) - are a highly valued TCM "remedy". Pangolins are indigenous to Hong Kong and are also rescued by Kadoorie Farm from time to time.

The trade in pangolin is serious business and, in 2005, villagers in Hoi Ha called police after discovering 1,800 deep-frozen skinned pangolins from Indonesia being smuggled out of Sai Kung Country Park on speedboats. The protected country parks remain one of the world's last sanctuaries for the pangolin, though few outside the world of conservation even recognise this curious and charming mammal.

"Our intuition says most people, local or not, barely know pangolins exist, let alone understand what's going on with their survival," says Alexandra Andersson, co-founder of an Indiegogo campaign that seeks to increase awareness about the mammal, raise the alarm about its vulnerability and obtain solid data on numbers in Hong Kong. "The fact is there's been little to no research on local people's awareness of the plight of the pangolin, and their consumption habits - despite South China being identified as a major market for the creature's meat and scales."

While local conservationists agree that the fate of the pangolin is precarious, "the level of rarity and value on the illegal market also creates a slight dilemma regarding raising awareness and conservation work", says Dr Gary Ades, head of fauna conservation at Kadoorie Farm. "If the Hong Kong population [of pangolins] is publicised too much as one of the last remaining, the poachers will soon be here."

More detailed information on the numbers and whereabouts of the local pangolin population could be about as helpful as a suicide pill. In the short term, Hong Kong's lack of interest in its local fauna might be the best protection against its country parks becoming a sort of al-fresco supermarket for poachers.

Trapping is the cause of many of the 37,000 calls made to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals each year and about a quarter of the manpower and resources in its inspectorate are dedicated to the welfare of wild animals.

"It seems to be getting more prevalent," says Dr Fiona Woodhouse, deputy director of welfare services at the charity, which has joined with 21 other local animal-concern groups to form the Stop Illegal Animal Traps Alliance. "The trapping is for food but it can also be for economic gain in the exotic pet and TCM market."

Woodhouse draws attention to another wildlife problem that the SPCA's inspectorate deals with.

"'Mercy releases' cause real problems because non-native species are released into the ecosystem. We are talking about thousands of animals and we have seen iconic species like turtles with writing painted on their shells. Sadly, we have even seen freshwater turtles released into the sea and saltwater turtles released into freshwater streams," she says, which are usually fatal mistakes, and despite improvements in the past two decades, she still detects a level of unease on the part of the city's urban residents when it comes to the fauna they share Hong Kong with.

"We had two cases last week where wild boar were chased into the sea near North Point. We have just had a porcupine ushered into a residential building in Mid-Levels. Some people have a relaxed attitude to wildlife in their home. Others become more hysterical," says Woodhouse, diplomatically.

"I think in Hong Kong there is a tendency for us to be isolated from the wild; only recently has hiking become popular. Many people just don't get exposure to animals."

Last year, lawmaker Bill Tang Ka-piu advocated for a world-class zoo in Hong Kong but the idea is not supported by the SPCA or the Animals Asia Foundation, whose welfare director, David Neale, said at the time, "Children must learn about nature and the need to protect it by experiencing nature for themselves, and this experience must be within the natural environment."

It seems, though, that Hongkongers are more comfortable gawping at penguins or polar bears in air-conditioned comfort rather than tramping around the undergrowth of our wild spaces. Last year, 165,000 people visited Kadoorie Farm to learn more about the local flora and fauna but more than 7.1 million visited Ocean Park to watch the performing sea-life and experience the theme park's other attractions.

It should be noted, however, that even for those determined to connect with the indigenous wildlife, it isn't always that easy: many of our local species are nocturnal. The official advice on the AFCD website is hardly encouraging: "The chance of seeing a nocturnal mammal in the Hong Kong countryside is slim," and it goes on to point out that for rarer species, "one might have to wait over 1,000 days to catch a glimpse".

The AFCD suggests looking for animal tracks, scats and even body parts as evidence of the abundance of wildlife in Hong Kong. It is probably safe to assume that a night-time animal-poo and body-part hunt is unlikely to tempt Hong Kong's urbane teenagers away from the sophisticated digital entertainment at their fingertips.

Some say this is evidence of a communications problem and the vocabulary of wildlife has become boring, with phrases such as "biodiversity" and "ecosystems services" failing to enthuse. Others suggest that Hong Kong needs its own flagship species, some sort of "charismatic mega-fauna" such as the panda that people can easily engage with. Williams thinks that we have several strong contenders for the role of flagship species, such as the black-faced spoonbill and Romer's tree frog, but he has a clear favourite.

"The Chinese white dolphin is now an iconic species because it exists in an area that is ecologically bankrupt. It is a survivor against all the odds, and that should appeal to Hong Kong people," he says.

In the meantime, the city's ambivalent attitude and the commoditisation of the local fauna is unlikely to change much. Perhaps the sole positive outcome of our fear and discomfort about all things wild is that it has allowed our mostly empty country parks and abandoned farmland to become havens for globally threatened species. While a significant few take pride in our parks and conservationists work hard to protect our native species, trapping remains prevalent, largely to satisfy the voracious appetite of the mainland's newly affluent middle class.

The illegal wildlife trade is flourishing, turtles must be protected under lock and key, beautiful birds of prey are allowed to crash into skyscrapers and non-native species are released into the wild, where they damage local ecosystems. Any intrusion by a wild animal into the urban space creates panic, most see the countryside as a frightening territory to be avoided at all costs and wild animals as things that belong in zoos or on television documentaries.

Hong Kong is still not comfortable with its wild side.


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