Feared in public ponds, admired behind glass

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 January, 2010, 12:00am

Hongkongers love to get close to the sharp-toothed, carnivorous garfish that haunted the city's public ponds last year - so long as they're dead.

A hundred people lined up before the Central Library's exhibition gallery yesterday for a display of different specimen of fish. There were about 70 specimen in all, but the gar - the second-largest caught by officials - stole the show.

'Why can't the fish move around?' six-year-old Tsang Oi-ching asked her mother, Ronnie Chin Shuk-han. 'It would be painful if you are bitten by it,' her mother said. 'Don't touch it.'

A man in his 50s said he saw workers catch one of the gars in Tuen Mun Park. 'Three or four of them were trying to catch it. They made a real mess.'

Nineteen gar were hunted down by the Leisure and Cultural Services in Tak Wah Park in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong Park in Central, Lai Chi Kok Park, Chai Wan Park and Tsing Yi Park in September.

Most were destroyed, while three were handed over Ocean Park, and a few remaining were turned into specimens.

Authorities suspected that the gar were bought as pets but then later discarded into public ponds when they grew too large.

Although some residents living near the ponds expressed fondness for the exotic fish, officials took action amid worries that the large, carnivorous fish might harm children.

Five dead gars were sent to the Ichthyological Society of Hong Kong, which turned them into specimens for educational purposes.

One is now among 70 other fish on display at the library running until tomorrow.

The gar came from Tak Wah Park, the same location where another of its kind - a bigger one nicknamed 'Treasure of Tak Wah Park' and described as a 'friend' by those in the neighbourhood - died soon after it was caught.

More than 800 people flocked to the library in the afternoon to see the gar, which is 1.3-metres long and was seven years old when it died.

Many people have assumed the fish was an alligator gar, but society president Chong Dee-hwa says it is likely to be a Cuban gar. The two look similar, but a Cuban gar originates from Cuba rather than North America, he said. More study would be needed to make a classification.

Gar were abundant when the dinosaurs ruled the earth - during the Cretaceous period, which followed the Jurassic, Chong said.

While many fish have round scales, the gar has rhombus-shaped ones. They are very hard and offer good protection from predators.

The large gar may have stolen the show, but other rare fish on display also attracted interest. People knelt on the ground to get a better look at a hagfish - which resembles an eel.

It is an ancient fish that lives at great ocean depths, Chong says. It is blind and feeds on rotten meat.

Making specimen is a lengthy process - it took half a year to turn the largest gar into a suitable specimen.

A well-prepared specimen can last 250 years and allow researchers to study its body structures in detail, Chong says. However, movements and behaviour of a fish can be observed only when it is alive.

In the future, Chong says, the society would help find generous people who were able to keep fish removed from public ponds, so they would not have to be killed.

Three of the other caught gars proved luckier than the ones being into specimens. They were sent to Ocean Park and are getting along fine, according to the park.

However, people have a long wait before they will be able to see them The three gar will be exhibited in the new Rain Forest attraction area, scheduled to open in the fourth quarter of 2011.

An ancient creature

The Cuban gar, like the one seen above, is an ancient fish, abundant about 145 million years ago.

Distribution: Cuba, Central and South America

Environment: fresh water

Climate: tropical to temperate

Maximum length: 4.3 metres

Diet: fish and birds

Appearance: hard, rhombus scales

Source: Ichthyological Society of Hong Kong