Friday 22 March 2013

Hong Kong Naturalist: Who Was Roy A Pereira?

In my note on tigers in Hong Kong, I mentioned the report by R.A. Pereira. Pereira wrote a number of articles in Hong Kong Naturalist between 1934 and 1938. There were notes on birds from his shooting trips in the New Territories, on the goldfish, on domesticated ducks, on the goldfish, on a tame Crested Bunting, on cage birds in Hong Kong and, of course, on his sighting of the tiger in December 1934. He also raised incubated the eggs of francolins and reared the young to study their development. But who was Pereira and what became of him?

He gives the most information about himself in his account, To Canton on Foot, of taking a party of scouts from the Chinese border to Canton (Guangdong) at Easter 1935. They walked along the Kowloon-Canton Railway for 140 km (88 miles) in slightly over three days. He was a teacher at St Joseph’s College, a secondary school then, and now, on Kennedy Road on Hong Kong Island. The account of this trek would give 21st century teachers in Britain severe palpitations:

Our plan was to hug the railway as much as possible until Canton was reached, both for safety and necessity, as we were unarmed and carried only a few tins of provisions. 
Most of the younger members, who imagined that they could rough it by sleeping on the bare ground with only a flimsy ground-sheet. were sadly disillusioned. There were mosquitoes galore but with the aid of some eucalyptus we managed to avert many of their intended onslaughts. 
To add to the discomfort we had to traverse two pathless iron bridges in complete darkness, when a slip would have meant a broken leg. 
The railway guard advised us not to sleep at the station as the district was infested with bandits adding that one man had been killed that very morning.
From his articles, it is clear that he had come to Hong Kong from Malaya and that he spoke English, Portuguese and Malay with some understanding of Spanish. It also seems to me that he spoke fluent Cantonese and that is how he obtained so much information from villagers in the New Territories.

In searching for more information, the only snippet I came up with was this newspaper report from the Straits Times of 8 April 1925:

His writings ceased in 1938. Publication of the Hong Kong Naturalist ended in 1941 with the Japanese invasion. Had Roy Alfred Pereira left Hong Kong by then? Did he return to Malay(si)a?

My clear impression is that he would have left a lasting impression on his pupils at St Joseph’s as well as being an important contributor to the natural history of Hong Kong in pre-Second World War Years. Does anybody have  any more information?

Note added on 19 June 2018. Roy Alfred Pereira's son has been in touch. I have amended the article to include his full name.

Saturday 16 March 2013


The proposed deleterious effects of fructose and, therefore, sucrose (which is broken down in the gut to produce glucose and fructose) in the human diet has hit the headlines in London again this week. The notion that fructose is deleterious over and above any effect of excess energy intake leading to obesity has been around for a number of years now and is vigorously championed by Robert Lustig.
The argument that fructose is special in promoting the onset of type II diabetes and the rest of the ‘metabolic syndrome’ is equally vigorously opposed by a very large group of human nutritionists. Getting meaningful evidence in human nutrition is extremely difficult and every statement has political implications. Those who propose a deleterious rôle of any dietary component are attacked as anti-food industry while those who present evidence in opposition are dismissed by the former as corrupt food, or sugar, or fat industry lobbyists.

Stepping aside from the human nutritional aspects of fructose ingestion is not only a relief but also scientifically illuminating.

A number of commentators have pointed out that hummingbirds live on nectar (mainly sucrose, glucose and fructose) and a few insects. They ingest enormous quantities of sugar every day. Frugivorous birds and mammals also metabolise vast quantities of fructose.

There has been a fair amount of research on the digestion and uptake of sugars from the gut of nectarivores but very little on the metabolism of fructose per se. It would also seem that, at least in frugivorous bats and nectarivorous birds, fructose, like glucose, is used very quickly to provide energy. As I understand it, the story of fructose metabolism goes like this: if liver glycogen stores are low, fructose forms glycogen until the stores are replete (if the biochemical pathways are the same in nectarivorous birds, glycogen must be being formed and broken down very rapidly for fructose to provide an energy source) but If liver glycogen stores are replete, excess fructose is converted to triglyceride in the form of very low density lipoproteins. (At this point I am usually told off by young biochemists for not using the term triacyglycerol instead of triglyceride. I make a short reply.). It is these triglycerides that are blamed for causing insulin resistance (type II diabetes).

So, here is a chance for comparative studies and I do not mean just comparing rat and man. We need to see what happens to fructose in nectarivores and frugivores as well as in animals in which fructose is normally only a small part of the diet. Do nectarivorous and frugivorous birds and mammals ever get to the point at which glycogen stores are replete and there is excess fructose? If so, are triglycerides formed, and what effect do they have?

In a similar vein, does adaptation to high fructose intakes occur? All the experimental evidence I have seen involves suddenly subjecting rats or human volunteers to high intakes of fructose or sucrose. What happens later with continual or continuous ingestion, as in rats and mice living in cane or sugar beet fields or sugar refineries and warehouses?

To return to human nutrition, the question still remains of why some people continue to eat and drink vast quantities of food and/or energy-rich liquids, far in excess of energy expenditure? But again the comparative questions creep in: why do some animals also eat to excess when food is available ad libitum while others do not? For ‘animals’ in the last sentence you can write ‘individuals’ or ‘species’ and try to think of examples of each as an interesting exercise on what is and what is not known.

Does the ‘fructose is bad’ story help or hinder the research effort on these questions?

Friday 8 March 2013

Whose Genes Are In My Chinchilla?

We are a family of rodentophiles. The current family champion in this pursuit is #2 son, who, for the past ten years, has kept chinchillas, first the late Misses Inca and Chimu and, at present, the ridiculously tame Miss Picchu. It may seem incongruous to keep inhabitants of the Andes in the heat and humidity of Hong Kong but chinchillas are popular pets there, living in air-conditioned comfort for six months of the year and waking up to entertain their diurnal keepers after the latter’s dinner.

When we visit and displace the chinchillas to the dining room from the spare bedroom, talk is inevitably of chinchillas when they are let out each night for a run around the room. We have often talked about the origins of the domestic chinchilla but found that evidence-based information on chinchillas is surprisingly hard to find, especially on the genetic origins of the domestic population and current status in the wild.

Most rodents which are kept as pets were either commensals (mice and rats) or spilled over from laboratory colonies (golden hamster, Mongolian gerbil). By contrast, the chinchilla was bred for its fur and, only later, became a desirable pet, and, even later still, a laboratory animal.

A number of different colour varieties have been bred. This is Picchu, a ridiculously tame Black Ebony chinchilla with aspirations to becoming a supermodel.

While the story of how M.F. Chapman hired 23 men to capture as many chinchillas as possible and that it took these men three years to capture eleven adults is well known, as is the story of their arrival in the U.S.A. in 1923, it is more difficult to find out what happened as the stock was built up in the ranch Chapman built and in the chinchilla ranches that followed in terms of genetic origins.

The general view is that Chapman’s eleven original chinchillas were a montane form of Chinchilla laniger or lanigera (see below on spelling) — the Long-tailed Chinchilla. A smaller form, from lower altitudes (costina) was said to have been trapped out by the time Chapman started his collection.

However, one also reads that, later, some costina form and a few brevicaudata were imported into the U.S.A. and crossed with the chinchillas in ranches. Chinchilla brevicaudata (now known as Chinchilla chinchilla under the rules of priority) — the Short-tailed Chinchilla — is recognised as a separate species. It is written (and repeated) that the male brevicaudata x laniger(a) crosses were sterile but that the females were fertile. When the females were back-crossed, two-thirds of the offspring were sterile.

Because it is said that all chinchillas in the fur and pet trades are derived from the chinchilla ranches of North America, it has been inferred that to a greater or lesser extent the captive population is of an interspecific hybrid derivation. The implication of this inference has, of course, been that the present population must be discounted as a source of animals for possible re-introduction into the wild.

This view also appears to have gained some credence from the breeding of chinchillas for their brevicaudata-type appearance. However, artificial selection can result in markedly changed morphology and the appearance of animals with some of the characters of C. brevicaudata (C. chinchilla) does not mean that the latter species was present in a hybrid ancestry.

However, more recently, and with the ‘re-discovery’ of C. chinchilla in the wild, the conclusions on the hybrid nature of the captive, domestic population have not been supported.

All the information on Chinchilla laniger(a) has been pulled together by Angel E. Spotorno, Carlos A. Zuleta, J. Pablo Valladares, Amy L. Deane, and Jaime E. Jiménez in Mammalian Species Number 758, pages 1-9, published on 15 December 2004 by the American Society of Mammalogists.

Incidentally, and to get nomenclature out of the way, these authors consider the correct name for this species to be Chinchilla laniger — not lanigera. I would say hooray to that since I always knew the species as C. laniger. My edition (4th) of Walker’s Mammals of the World (1983) uses laniger. E.T. Bennett in 1829 changed Molina’s (1782) laniger to lanigera seemingly in a fit of cod-latinitis and recent authors have tended to use lanigera. To add to the confusion, Corbet & Hill’s World List of Mammalian Species (3rd edition, OUP 1991) gives lanigera in the text and laniger as a caption to a drawing. I shall stick with Chinchilla laniger.

To get to the main point of this post and quoting from the paper on the species by Spotorno and colleagues, cytochrome-b gene sequences from mitochondrial DNA showed: no traces of C. brevicaudata variants... were found in any of 5 domestic C. laniger (Spotorno et al. 2004 [Journal of Mammalogy 85:384–388]).

In other words, current evidence favours the view that the domestic chinchilla is pure Chinchilla laniger. That finding, especially if confirmed with larger numbers from diverse sources, does have implications for the conservation of this species. Conservation of the two species is a topic I will turn to in a future post.

Monday 4 March 2013

A Hong Kong Tiger. A Reminder of What Has Been Lost

Searching for something else, I came across this account of a tiger in the New Territories of Hong Kong in 1934-1935.

I first became aware of tigers in Hong Kong after arriving in the Zoology Department of the University of Hong Kong in 1965 when it was housed in the now-demolished Northcote Science Building on Pokfulam Road. There was a photograph on the wall of the main laboratory/museum showing a tiger killed in the New Territories in 1915

I had also seen Herklots’s summary of sightings and killings of tigers in Hong Kong in his book, The Hong Kong Countryside (South China Morning Post, Hong Hong, 1951) and, like him, had been puzzled why such sightings were met by disbelief in the light of very clear evidence. Hong Kong is, after all, within the range of the tiger and, even until recently, the New Territories was sparsely populated. Moreover, there was no enormous fence separating Hong Kong from the ‘mainland’. And the vast city of Shenzen just over the border wasn’t even a twinkle in a planner’s eye.

This is the article from Hong Kong Naturalist, 1934, 5, 322-323.


On the 2nd of November 1934, one Kwai Hing from the village of Lo Wai, Tsun Wan, came to the writer and told him that a “tiger” had appeared at the village the previous night and carried off a pig of approximately 60 catties. The next day the fore foot of the victim was found under a bush,—the tiger having devoured almost the whole animal at one sitting. We were at first sceptical and thought it might have been the work of a couple of wolves. 
Approximately a fortnight later the same man came and reported that the tiger had again made its appearance and killed 3 pigs of about 20 catties each. Two were left behind but the third was carried away and eaten. In a conversation with the writer, the officer in charge of Tsun Wan Police Station stated that he saw the carcass of the two dead pigs and the marks of the killer’s fangs. Towards the end of November a large pig belonging to a villager of Tsung-lung disappeared. Next day one of the village dogs was seen carrying the snout of the lost pig but the remaining part of the animal was never discovered. This must have been the work of the same maurauder [sic] as it would require very many dogs to kill and consume a large pig. Besides, a pig when attacked by dogs would squeal and run, or even attack them, before it could be brought down for good,—which is an almost impossible job for village curs when we consider the size of the victim. 
After, this, all trace of the killer was lost. It had not even left the marks of a single track by which its identity could be determined. We were, however, certain it was either a leopard or a tiger judging from the marks of the teeth on the sides of the two young pigs’ necks.
On Sunday 30th December, 1934 the writer with two Tang cousins from Pat Heung went out shooting Francolins on the hills behind the village of Tai-wo and walked in a south-westerly direction going higher and higher until Tang-Um was reached, when it began to rain rather heavily. At this moment we heard what seemed to be a very distant roar and the two Chinese immediately said it was a tiger but we imagined it to be the sound of a bamboo horn blown by some villager. Within a minute another roar was heard and a Ha-Ka who was felling pine trees drew our attention to a tiger which was about 400 or 500 yards away. The four of us had a clear view of a magnificent animal as it walked quite unconcernedly into the heavily wooded hillside directly on the northern side of Pak-siak-kiew. This place is approximately 3 miles from Lo Wai, Tsun Wan, as the crow flies. It was impossible for us to shoot him-as we only had a light shot-gun. 
On the morning of New Year's Eve the same Chinese who first brought news of the beast came and said that the tiger had again appeared at Lo Wai the previous Saturday—i.e. December 29th, 1934,—exactly one day before the writer and the 3 Chinese saw him near Pak-siak-kiew. This time he took no pig from the village but chased a deer from the hill just behind it. The poor creature was so scared and puzzled that in actually ran through the village, bounded across the vegetable patches for which Tsun Wan is so well known, and continuing downwards got stuck in the marshy pig-weed pond just opposite the Catholic Mission and not more than 30 yards from the main road. Here it was easily caught by a Chinese. The tiger, however, was wise enough not to continue in its chase through almost half a mile of scattered houses and vegetable patches but it had the courage to run right through a narrow village alley which is at right angles to the foot of the hill. On coming to the cemented and cobbled rectangle in front of the houses it jumped across a low wall down into an enclosed vegetable patch where it roamed for some time trampling on the young vegetables. Here the writer saw numerous tracks which measured 7½ inches across both ways excluding ⅛” on each side to make allowance for the crumbling of the earth around the sides. lt must have gone back the way it came for though the earth is soft all around no tracks, except those already mentioned, were seen. 
Thinking it might be somewhere around we scoured the surrounding hills for half a day and sat up all night waiting for it but without any result. 
At present all trace of the animal is again lost but we feel sure it will soon reappear to claim another victim. This tiger is no man-eater or it would long ago have carried off one of the numerous women who spend their whole day up the hills cutting grass for fuel. Judging from what we have seen this tiger must be around two hundred pounds in weight. We have seen three tigers in their wild state in Malaya and participated in trapping a tigress which weighed nearly two piculs and this Tsun Wan beast seems to be slightly smaller. 
Then a follow-up (Hong Kong Naturalist, 1935, 6, 81-82)

The next time the writer heard of the tiger was when walking across the Tsun Wan range into Pat Heung by way of Tsung Lung. 
An old woman grass-cutter of the last named village out cutting grass encountered he beast approximately a mile fro her home. The Creature walked up to her and started to circle round the terror-stricken woman but when it approached too close she mustered sufficient courage to give it a few blows with the grass-cutter’s pole she carried and this had the effect of scaring away the animal. Through the kindness of a missionary friend the writer was able to meet the above mentioned woman who, when interviewed was still in hysterics, brought about by her terrible encounter.
On the 28th of January this year the tiger again descended to its favourite place,—Lo Wai, Tsun Wan,—but this time it failed to secure anything. That was the last we heard of the animal. 
This sketch by A.M. Hughes depicting Perreira’s account of the grass-cutter’s encounter is from The Hong Kong Countryside:

So where were these sightings? I have not been able to trace the smaller villages named by Pereira. However, the main ones are still there but no longer small. I have put pins in this modern Google satellite view to show Lo Wai and Pat Heung:

So, if you are on the Airport Express from the airport at Chek Lap Kok to Hong Kong or Kowloon, look out left as Tsing Yi Station is announced. Those hills were once roamed by tigers. Sadly, any chance that they will ever do so again appear to be zero.