Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Hong Kong urban wildlife of the rodent kind

Last week, AJP in Kong Kong spotted these animals in Haiphong Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. They had not been spotted by passing tourists or local commuters. They appear to be young Buff-breasted Rats, the taxonomy of which seems still uncertain. They are often called Rattus flavipectus or included in Rattus tanezumi, sometimes as a subspecies, Rattus tanezumi flavipectus. They used to be Rattus rattus flavipectus.

It is interesting that they do not appear to be Brown Rats (Rattus norvegicus). Both species occur in urban Hong Kong and the Urban Services Department used to have rat bins mounted on lamp posts for people to drop trapped dead rats in. They and the fleas they carried were examined for plague bacteria. Kong Kong had a major outbreak of plague in 1894, as part of the third pandemic. The last outbreak was in 1929. The causative organism of plague was, as is well known, discovered in Hong Kong by Alexandre Yersin during the 1894 outbreak.

Anybody familiar with Hong Kong will know that Haiphong Road runs between the old docks area to the west of Canton Road and Nathan Road. Hence the 1960s and earlier, Brown Rats might have been expected as the more likely sighting. However, Haiphong Road is adjacent to Kowloon Park, the site of the old Whitfield Barracks. In much of its range the Buff-breasted Rat is said to favour villages with surrounding countryside. Perhaps this rat population is centred on the park.