Wild boar, civet cats, barking deer: Hong Kong wild animals and where to find them
No need for camouflage gear or creeping through forests at night, some of the most elusive mammals can still be found in the city limits
With increasing reports of wild boars (including the large male dubbed Pigzilla on The Peak), a couple of hikers last month mistaking a leopard cat for a tiger, and an upturn in local porcupine photos appearing online, this is a prime time for getting out and about for wildlife watching in Hong Kong.
This need not involve donning camouflage garb or creeping through forests in the dead of night, as some local mammals are readily found on the edge of the city.
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If you do come across an animal, avoid situations that could disturb the animal or prove dangerous to you. “Don’t feed wild animals and keep a distance from them,”says Dr Billy Hau, honorary assistant professor in Hong Kong University’s School of Biological Sciences.
Paul Crow, senior conservation officer of Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, also had some advice saying: “Always give animals space and time to exit the scene, and keep in mind that in most situations the animals may be more afraid than you.
“Go into nature knowing what you might find and how to behave, and you can enjoy wild encounters. Use your nose too. Civets and porcupine have really strong musky smells that give away their presence even if you haven’t spotted them.”
While media reports tell of wild boar or macaques invading urban areas, it’s us who are relative newcomers, with a confirmed history in Hong Kong dating back some 6,000 years. Elephants, rhinoceroses, bears and large deer would have roamed then, yet especially from some 1,000 years ago, forests were felled to make way for towns, villages and farmland. These large mammals vanished without traces – foxes, leopards and tigers clung on into the last century, until they too became locally extinct.
Today’s mix of species includes some like wild boar that survived the forest destruction – and earlier hunting – along with others such as cattle that have been introduced, and a few, such as mongooses that could be wild, or might have been introduced.
One of the surviving native species is the Chinese pangolin, which is now critically endangered worldwide.
Red muntjac, or barking deer, surely faced hunting pressure in the past, which has led to them being very wary of humans and more readily heard than seen – the male’s call sounds like a dog barking from deep within hillside vegetation.
But with hunting illegal in Hong Kong, other than teams that cull some wild boar, mammals have enjoyed something of a resurgence here, and some have lost their fear of man. Here are some species to look for, along with tips on watching them responsibly.
When hiking in remote parts of the New Territories, you might see patches of ground that have been freshly dug, with soil turned over by wild boar rooting for food. Yet there might be no boar in sight, as they tend to be shy, mostly active at night. You have far better chances of seeing wild boar nearer the city, especially on Hong Kong Island, in places like The Peak, Lung Fu Shan, and Aberdeen Country Park. And while they tend to be nocturnal, there’s a good chance of sightings in early mornings and late afternoons.
On a recent afternoon at the lower entrance to Aberdeen Country Park, a black male boar came trotting along the narrow road, oblivious to people strolling metres away. Two youngsters snuffled across a grassy area with a table favoured by mahjong players – one of whom told me: “There’s a big male that sometimes falls asleep right next to us.”
Not only should you not feed wild boar (it habituates them to visit urban areas), it’s also wise to be respectful, as a police officer found in Tseung Kwan O last June, when he kicked a wild boar that promptly attacked him and a passing cyclist.
Macaques are also ready to fight back if threatened. Take note that to them, excessive eye contact can be a form of aggression, as can curling lips back to show your teeth. When macaques are near, don’t have food or packages of food that are easily seen, and could be snatched.
Most local macaques are rhesus macaques, released after Kowloon Reservoir was built in the hope they would cut down the chances of leaves toxic to humans affecting the water supply. The macaque population here grew, as they were long fed by people, leading to nearby Kam Shan being known as Monkey Mountain. Feeding macaques is now illegal, yet continues, and it is easy to see them here, hanging around, waiting for hand outs. It’s more rewarding to come across them in forest areas, such as around the Shing Mun Reservoir, where you might watch a troupe searching for fruit and other natural foods.
Malay porcupines are scarcer, and tend to sleep during daytime. But if you’re out and about looking for nocturnal wildlife – like Robert Ferguson, founder of daily wildlife blog WildCreaturesHongKong.org – you should find them, especially in parts of Hong Kong Island.
“I’ve seen them a lot of times,” says Ferguson. “There are quite a few around Bowen Road, also along Black’s Link and on The Peak. They’re about the size of a corgi, and you sometimes hear them as they move. It’s quite a spooky sound with all their quills rattling, and really cool. They tend to be in pairs, so if you see one walking away, you might then get a better look at its partner.”
When disturbed, porcupines raise their quills, ready to back towards animals that seem threatening. So if you happen upon one, give it some space; especially if you are walking a dog.
Freed from farms, cattle and buffalo roam free
Feral cattle and water buffaloes now live wild in parts of Hong Kong, and are descended from animals that were released as farming declined. Perhaps the idea of seeing former farm animals hardly seems like wildlife watching. Yet having come across a bull during a hillside hike, I found it impressive – and totally at home. Wild relatives such as gaur are native to southeast Asia, and may well have lived here before.
Feral cattle also frequent areas with many people, like Ngong Ping on Lantau Island. And, especially on Tap Mun in the eastern New Territories, some are fond of scrounging food from picnickers and campers.
Water buffalo favour marshy areas, especially former paddy fields in Pui O, southeast Lantau Island. Often, the water buffalo are accompanied by cattle egrets ready to prey on insects they disturb. On hot afternoons the buffalo sometimes head to the beach, and even bathe in the sea.
Rarer sightings: leopard cats, civets and mongooses
It takes a lot of luck to see a wild leopard cat (though the Ma On Shan hikers who mistook one for a tiger in March wouldn’t think so – they were so terrified they went to hospital). I had just such luck a few years ago, with a remarkably close individual at Mai Po Marshes; it lingered just long enough for me to take photos, then vanished.
Luck also plays a part in spotting civets, which are shy and secretive – though of course, the more you go out, the better your chances. Late one afternoon on Tai Mo Shan in the 1990s, I saw a masked palm civet – with a rather cat like body, pointed black and white face, staring at me from atop a boulder.
Hong Kong is also home to closely related mongooses, which can be bolder, and active during daytime. The commoner of two species here, the small Indian mongoose, is – like the leopard cat and masked palm civet – found across wide areas of the New Territories. Though I spotted one on Tai Mo Shan, I’ve mostly encountered them at Mai Po, often trotting briskly along roadsides, and once saw a party of three frolicking with one another on a grassy bank.
No scientific estimates of numbers have been made of the rarer species mentioned here, just reported sightings, but Crow estimates they are all in the high hundreds or low thousands.
So, if you do come across a leopard cat, civet or a mongoose, there’s no need for alarm – instead enjoy the glimpse of it while you can. Before you know it, it will disappear into the bushes again.