Wildlife is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Hong Kong, and there is good reason for that. In a region of the world famous for its biodiversity, Hong Kong lacks the will to even preserve what wildlife it has left.
Aside from rats and cockroaches, you will not encounter many animals in the city, save for the racehorses at Happy Valley. But travel less than an hour to the outer regions of Hong Kong and you can still find native wildlife. In a country that has neglected it's wildlife, it is terrifying to think that in April 2014, the South China Morning Post reports that "90 per cent of primary school pupils yearn for an affordable, large-scale zoo" in HK.
There are a number of places to view captive animals in HK as we will soon see, but there is in fact also already a zoo with free entry, a few minutes walk from Central district. It is in a depressing state, is not well advertised and there is only the smallest gesture towards education, with a handful of old faded signs on the sad-looking cages.
Some say it was created to house illegally imported animals like the mighty orangutans, only one of which has anything but concrete to sit on. I struggle to think of the justification for it remaining open and see absolutely no reason for opening another zoo while a number of species in HK are meeting their end.
Many residents think that the Chinese white dolphin (a.k.a. the pink dolphin) should be the flagship species of HK. Can you think of anything cuter in Asian culture than a pink coloured dolphin mascot?
HK Dolphinwatch provides ethical dolphin watching trips to see their natural behaviour in the wild, yet certainly doesn't experience the millions of visitors that Ocean Park receives annually, on the basis of what the theme park defends as 'education'. What could be more educational about dolphins and their behaviour than seeing a native species in the wild? The dolphin trips also cost less, and start closer to Central HK (convenience is a primary concern in HK). Even ignoring any welfare concerns, Ocean Park is more expensive, further away, and their dolphins are imported from abroad. Just another example of the bizarre relationship Hong Kong has with its animals.
So if dolphins are a huge tourist draw, as evidenced by the millions of paying visitors that HK's Ocean Park theme park has every year, why are the wild native pink dolphins and groups like the HK Dolphin Conservation Society not championed by the HK tourist board?
The sad truth is that everyone knows the pink dolphins will not last long. The current estimate is less than 100 dolphins remaining in the the small area they inhabit, with even more troubles ahead such as the Zhuhai-Macau-HK bridge and the 3rd runway for HK Airport being completed in the next few years (you can read more in my pink dolphin essay here).
It would be an embarrassment for HK to champion the pink dolphins at the same time as they are aggressively contributing to their demise. Hong Kong's dolphins may not last another 10 years. Hong Kong would lose face if their tourist attraction was killed off by their own government.
Instead, people continue to flock to see captive dolphins, along with other mammals and various captive sea life, learning nothing about their native species in HK.
Dogs (and cats!)
HK's misunderstanding of animals is most obvious in its relationship with pets. According to awareness group Stop! more than 2,000 animals per month are euthanised by the HK Agriculture Fisheries & Conservation Department (AFCD). Most of these are stray dogs, but statistics from the HK SPCA indicate that 30% of these animals are abandoned pets no longer wanted by their owners. Despite this massive excess of unwanted dogs, only half of pet dogs are desexed. For stray dogs, the figure can be considered zero.
Killing adult dogs after they have already had puppies is a never ending task which can never achieve its goal. The proven method to address this problem is also the most humane: Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR). This has been tested in HK but never implemented, for reasons known only to the AFDC. To add insult to injury, practising TNR can be considered illegal and people found doing the AFCD's job for them by volunteering their own time and resources can (and have) been prosecuted for it.
So what hope for HK's dogs? While rescue groups continue to try and mop up the abandoned pets, the problem of strays will continue. As Sally Andersen of HK Dog Rescue puts it "Any improvement in the coming years is down to the NGOs who promote education and desexing and the growing number of local volunteers who are doing TNR."
Buffalo and cattle
What do buffalo have in common with dolphins? Not much at first sight, but there is one thing: they both stand in the way of HK economic development.
The impressive buffalo and cattle are found at the Southern area of HK's islands as well as in the beautiful countryside of Sai Kung to the East. When people are not taunting the buffalo and grabbing their horns (something I have personally witnessed many times) these gentle giants just want to be left alone.
Unfortunately for them, they live on flat grassland which is prime real-estate in (mostly mountainous) HK. Loy Ho, avid campaigner of Lantau Buffalo Association, explains "There are four main buffalo wetland areas targeted for the Lantau development campaign the Chief Executive is pushing at the moment." As a result, what was abandoned farmland is now being claimed back in order to be sold to developers, and the buffalo have fewer areas to live in.
The AFCD have also reportedly refused to vaccinate the herds against tick related diseases (that also pose a public health risk as they are transferable to humans). One wonders if perhaps it would be easier for the authorities if the herds went away quickly and quietly, to allow future development.
Apart from the amazing dog and cat rescue organisations mentioned (and others such as LAP, Kirsten's Zoo, NPV and many more), there are also other animal rescue groups. HK Herp take in many exotic reptiles and lizards, again some of which are caught being smuggled into the country.
Kadoorie Farm rescues wild animals in need, but is concerned with conservation as well as welfare. The public are allowed up-close viewing of many animals for people to experience, while at the same time very focused on education and conservation schemes. Talks are held for the public, school outreach programmes and courses for people to learn more about their country and the natural world. As with all good welfare organisations, whenever an animal is able to be released to the wild, Kadoorie Farm will do so.
This is a fantastic model for HK, and something that no traditional zoo could compare to.
There are many beautiful species of birds to be found in HK, as you can see from these photos. Sadly, few of those the public will encounter are native to HK.
There are many aviaries open to the public, and they are very popular, allowing people to get up close with amazing and colourful birds. But yet again, these are imported for their impressiveness, for their colours, or some of the lucky ones are confiscated from illegal importers and placed in an aviary where they have a better life.
The most famous native species are the raptors such as eagles, and the black kite at the bottom of this page. The reason they are so famous may only be due to the fact they can commonly be seen from office windows, flying around high-rise buildings in the city.
The list goes on...
There is so much wildlife, and yet a saddening lack of education and awareness of it in Hong Kong. Native species such as macaques, boars and snakes, are seen as a nuisance rather than a privilege to witness. It is easy to find people on hiking trails angry at their lunch being stolen or their children "attacked' by monkeys, oblivious to the fact that their own behavior that leads to such encounters.
Although ever-decreasing in numbers, there are a few spots where you can find mesmerising fireflies at certain times of the year. There are interesting sea creatures and fascinating insects, very few of which get much attention.
Most animal encounters are met with panic (and often screams), from people, from the lowly cockroach to a stray village dog, to a tiny pet chihuahua. Because children in the city don't have the chance to grow up around animals (and in many cases are actively taught to fear them) the disposition towards animals in HK is often one of fear.
The last thing HK needs is a zoo: another place where animals can be watched with unnatural behaviour in sanitised environments, behind the assured safety of a cage.
This is one of my favourite photos from my time in HK, as it encapsulates the complexity of the relationship with animals here.
One of HK's cattle surrounded by people who are largely happy to share this space and let it go about its business.
On the left a husky, bought from a pet shop, not suited to the HK climate and not desexed.
On the right a rescue dog from the street, who was abandoned a second time by the people who adopted her, but given yet another chance by HKDR.
All of them brought together on one of Hong Kong's last natural beaches, now earmarked for development to promote commerce and tourism on Lantau Island.
Hong Kong has a lot of beauty if you know where to look. Despite the huge amount of pollution in our seas, there were even green turtles coming to lay eggs on our beaches in the recent past. Although those times seem to be gone now, I would like to retain some hope for HK's animals outside of zoos, performances and controlled and sanitised parks and wetlands. I would love to see a focus on native species instead of more glamorous animals from elsewhere.
This month I am moving countries in order to be closer to nature, and I worry about what the future has in store when I am gone. I have met so many HK people fighting to protect their wildlife, forests, seas and beaches, but they all have in common a tone of relative helplessness against the unstoppable development of business and economy.
Sadly, the future doesn't come from the HK people fighting for nature and the many local voices trying educate the public about our wonderful native animals. All you really need to know about the future is a quote taken from the same SCMP article mentioned above from Hong Kong lawmaker Bill Tang Ka-piu:
"It is high time for us to build a big zoo for our children."
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