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As noted in several previous articles, Hong Kong is one of the biological hotspots of the world, a fact that goes mostly overlooked by many visitors and even residents. This is in large part due to its extensive network of protected country parks which, while not as eye-catching as its skyscrapers, cover over three quarters (43467 hectares) of Hong Kong’s total land area. In addition, there are also seven protected (if imperfectly so) marine areas here.
Given this, it isn’t really that surprising that Hong Kong has so much biodiversity to call its own, including its share of globally endangered species. The most well known of these are the pink dolphin and black-faced spoonbill, not least because they are among the most easily seen. But hiding amongst the forests, in the hillside streams and beneath the ocean waves are a whole host of rarer but no less extraordinary species, some of which are counting on better protection in Hong Kong to avoid global extinction.
So, with World Biodiversity Day coming up on the 22nd of May, here are some of the reclusive, seldom seen and extraordinary endangered species that we Hong Kongers share our home with.
If it’s hard for some to imagine that a place like Hong Kong could have wild areas at all, it must be harder still to imagine that it could be home to a critically endangered species. And yet, one of the rarest of the rare, the Chinese pangolin, lives right here in the New Territories.
Like all pangolin species, this one is a nocturnal, ant-eating mammal covered in hard, overlapping scales made from the same material as human fingernails. When threatened, it will curl up into a ball to shield its vulnerable head and underbelly beneath these scales, which is usually enough to deter most predators, though unfortunately not determined human hunters. Luckily, Hong Kong has much stricter anti-hunting laws than other countries in the Chinese pangolin’s range. Combined with its protected country parks, this provides a lifeline for the local pangolin population, which may (potentially) be doing better here than anywhere else because of it.
Golden Coin Turtle
One of Hong Kong’s rarest and most unique animals is the golden coin turtle, named for its yellow head. Once widely distributed across Southeast Asia, its numbers have been devastated by hunting for food, the pet trade and traditional Chinese medicine –jelly made from its shell is believed to cure cancer. Today, Hong Kong is the very last place in the world where the golden coin turtle still exists in the wild, with forested hill streams being its preferred habitat. But even here, hunting still occurs, as despite being punishable by 10 years in jail and a HK$ 10 million fine, no hunters have ever been prosecuted in practice.
Luckily, a joint captive breeding programme by Kadoorie Farm and the AFCD is working to build an insurance population of golden coin turtles and protect the last remaining habitats here for future repopulation efforts. But to truly conserve them, the threat of hunting must be adequately addressed. Hopefully, the recent decision to classify wildlife crimes under the Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance (OSCO) –which gives authorities much greater power to tackle the wildlife trade– will do much to strengthen the currently menial penalties.
As well as a myriad of endangered birds, the wetlands of Deep Bay are also a vital spot for the last Eurasian otters in Hong Kong. This rarely seen, nocturnal mammal is superbly adapted for its aquatic habitat, with webbed feet, a double layer of waterproof fur and sensitive whiskers to detect prey underwater. Though mostly solitary, it also has a sociable side, with mothers caring closely for their cubs and families play-chasing each other through the water.
Formerly found all across Hong Kong (including Lantau and Hong Kong Island), otter numbers declined drastically during the 1900s and it is now confined to Deep Bay, particularly Mai Po Nature Reserve. With its abundant fishponds and gei wai (traditional prawn farms), this area provides ample food tor this fish eating animal, which as a carnivore also requires a large territory. However, between 1973 and 2011, an estimated 19% of this habitat was lost to urban development and further development threatens to destroy even more in the future. So, if the Eurasian otter is not to disappear from Hong Kong altogether, it is imperative that more of Deep Bay’s wetlands receive full protection.
Unlike the playful, curious pink dolphin, Hong Kong’s other marine mammal is a shy, reclusive species that avoid boats and only exposes a small portion of its body when surfacing. As a result, it is rarely seen by casual observers or even scientists. Like the pink dolphin however, the finless porpoise is threatened by pollution, boat strikes and coastal development. Its small size also makes it vulnerable to entanglement and drowning in fishing nets. Unsurprisingly, the number of dead individuals found in Hong Kong more than doubled between 1996 and 2019, with a record 42 being found in the latter year.
To make matters worse, far less comprehensive research has been done on finless porpoises in Hong Kong than on pink dolphins. This means that we lack vital information on the causes of porpoise deaths or the state of their population. In order to save the finless porpoise before it is too late, these crucial knowledge gaps must be urgently filled and more marine protected areas must be established, particularly in the key porpoise habitat of southwest Lamma Island.
Romer’s Tree Frog
Ironically, one of Hong Kong’s least conspicuous endangered species is also easily one of its most unique. About 2.5 cm in length, the tiny Romer’s tree frog was first discovered on Lamma Island in 1952 by naturalist, John D. Romer. Since then, it has been found to be exclusive to Hong Kong and has been recorded in parts of Lantau Island too. In the mid-1990s, one of the Lantau populations was the subject of a massive conservation project, when their habitat was about to be wiped out by the construction of Hong Kong International Airport. Luckily, they were translocated to other locations on Hong Kong Island and the New Territories before they could be wiped out with it.
In the intervening years, captive breeding and research efforts have greatly increased both the population of Romer’s tree frog and our understanding of its ecological requirements. We now know that it needs native forest cover and pools of still water in which to lay its eggs, which has informed efforts (even successful ones) to protect existing tree frog habitat and create new ones for them. However, further conservation efforts are also needed to protect it from the threats of invasive species (particularly mosquito fish, which eat their eggs and tadpoles) and climate change.
Honourable Mention: Burmese Python:
Of the more than 50 species of snake in Hong Kong, the Burmese python is the only one to enjoy official protection under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance (Cap. 170). This might be why, despite being listed as ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUCN –due to hunting for its skin, meat and the pet trade– locally, it is one of the most frequently seen species on this list. Social media posts and articles detailing close encounters with pythons in Hong Kong abound on the internet.
But despite being capable of growing 3-4 metres long and swallowing prey as large as a wild boar, Burmese pythons have a generally docile temperament and have never caused a known fatality or even serious injury to humans in Hong Kong. So if you should see one in the wild, take the time to appreciate this massive, magnificent snake from a safe distance.
Written exclusively for WELL, Magazine Asia by Thomas Gomersall