Monday 4 February 2013

Hong Kong Mammals

The casual visitor to Hong Kong has no idea of the extensive areas of countryside still present in this conurbation, nor, indeed of the biodiversity that has been lost or of that which remains.

Tigers were seen and shot in the early decades of the 20th century, although arguments still rage on whether they were escapees or not. Nowadays, wild boar are seen regularly but nocturnal mammals, like civets, are only spotted occasionally by runners or from vehicles at dusk. My son, who lives on Hong Kong island, was surprised to be accompanied on his run along Bowen Road by a family of porcupines.

We were in Hong Kong in November and again noted the enormous increase in tree cover since the 1960s. Trees had virtually disappeared by the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945 as supplies of everything, including firewood for cooking, had become scarce. Then, in January, I came across a paper published in 2010 describing the results of extensive camera-trap observations made from 2000 to 2003 in the forested areas of Hong Kong island, Lantau island and the New Territories (mainland).

That paper (reference below) gives a fascinating insight into the occurrence and distribution of larger mammals in Hong Kong as well as providing guidance on what needs to be done to protect and enhance their chances of survival.

I was keen to see from this paper what was still living on Kong Kong island and what had changed since we lived there between 1965 and 1968. The Leopard Cat is one of my favourite animals that I have seen only once in the wild (in Borneo).

In the 1960s, the Leopard Cat was not protected in Hong Kong (it is now) and they were caught for food. Rescued ones would turn up in the Zoology Department of the University (there was only one then). Patricia Marshall, a lecturer in the department, would then release them into the wild. They had a quiet, secluded spot in the animal house and would only spring — fiercely — into life if approached closely, as my photograph from then shows. Turn the clock forward to the 21st century and there are leopard cats caught on camera on Hong Kong Island.

A rescued Leopard Cat in the Department of Zoology,
University of Hong Kong, 1966

Another Leopard Cat, 1967

We always knew the Leopard Cat as Felis bengalensis. More recently, the generic name Prionailurus (history in reference shown below) has been used, including by IUCN. However, I see that some authors have reverted to Felis.

A species I was disappointed to see was not found on Hong Kong island in 2000-2003 is the Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla). Heavily persecuted for its use in Chinese medicine, it has survived in the New Territories albeit at low densities. I was pretty sure that the pangolin did occur on Hong Kong island in the 1960s and that Chung Ka Bun, then a PhD student with Patricia Marshall, had told me that they had seen/trapped it at the main study site.

I was delighted to find that the University of Hong Kong library has the PhD thesis available for download, and so I was able to check. Sure enough, in his own words:

Non-carnivorous mammals present in and around the main study area were Barking Deer (Muntiacus reevesi), Chinese Porcupine (Hystrix hodgesoni) and Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), all in small numbers. The Bandicoot Rat (Bandicota indica nemorivaga) and Buff-breasted (Rattus rattus flavipectus), occasionally strayed into the main study area.

He gave a map reference for his main study area and below I show its location on a modern Google Earth image.

The pin shows the location of the main study site described in Chung Ka Bun's PhD Thesis:
a site where Chinese Pangolin's were present in the 1960s

Sadly, it really looks as if the pangolin no longer occurs on Hong Kong island.

However, on a positive note, what put me on to the 2010 camera-trapping paper was a photograph on the excellent Hong Kong Bird Watching Society webforum of a Yellow-bellied Weasel (Mustela kathiah), posted on 5 January. I had never heard of this species being present in Hong Kong** and a search showed that the 2010 paper provided the first evidence for its existence there.

**The photograph may not have been taken in Hong Kong but in another Saikung in Guangdong province.


The camera-trapping paper:
Pei, K JC, Lai, Y-C, Corlett, RT & Suen, K-Y.  2010. The larger mammal fauna of Hong Kong: Species survival in a highly degraded landscape. Zoological Studies 49, 253-264.

Chung Ka Bun’s PhD Thesis:
Chung, K-B. An ecological study of two species of hillside rats in Hong Kong. PhD Thesis, University of Hong Kong.

The genus Prionailurus:

Hong Kong Bird Watching Society webforum photograph of Yellow-bellied Weasel: