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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of wild monkeys in Hong Kong

By Beverly Ngai 6 July 2021

Header image courtesy of @tetelle_b (via Instagram)

Among the plethora of wildlife species that call Hong Kong’s hilly countryside home, there is perhaps none more divisive than the wild monkey. Some see them as a furry nuisance, while others find them endearing and travel great distances just to see these notoriously mischievous creatures in action. 

Regardless of where you stand on the topic, there is no questioning the thriving population that roams the hills of northern Kowloon and the New Territories. If you are in the area, you will inevitably find yourself reckoning with a few (or a horde) of them. Why not learn a little more about them to better equip yourself for your next primate encounter? Here’s a brief history of the wild monkeys in Hong Kong and how they earned their infamous reputation.

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Photo: @myrmecofrank (via Instagram)

Hong Kong’s indigenous monkeys

Wild monkeys have long been a fixture in Hong Kong’s countryside, with recorded sightings dating as far back as 1819. In the early days, Hong Kong was solely dominated by one breed of monkey: the rhesus macaque, known for its pink, hairless faces and charismatic expressions. Native to the region, they mostly inhabited rich woodlands like Tai Tam Reservoir, Victoria Peak, and Deep Water Bay valley, but were also found on the city’s smaller islands.

As comfortably as these red-faced primates settled into their natural homes, threats inevitably came their way in the wake of British colonisation in 1841. Human settlement started encroaching on natural habitats throughout the late nineteenth century, leading to a drastic dwindling of the native macaque population. 

By the 1940s, the original stock of the native species had been driven to near-extinction. If you are extremely lucky, you might still catch the few remaining descendants of the indigenous wild monkeys on Hong Kong Island.

Burgeoning monkey kingdom

If you’re thinking that this unfortunate process of species extinction does not quite match up with the abundance of wild monkeys we see today in Kam Shan, Lion Rock, and Shing Mun Country Parks, and Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve, then you’re right. Such swinging critters have become as much of a constant in these parks as trees and birds. 

Kam Shan Country Park has even been endearingly nicknamed “Monkey Hill” due to the staggering ubiquity of the furry residents in its forests. The surprising twist is that these monkeys are not actually endemic to Hong Kong, but descended from pet monkeys that were released into the Kowloon area in the 1910s.

After the completion of the Kowloon Reservoir in 1910—the first reservoir constructed on the Kowloon Peninsula—the British discovered a poisonous plant known as strychnos that grew in the reservoir’s vicinity. It was believed that the plant’s fruit contained alkaloids that were lethal when ingested by humans, but did little harm to monkeys. 

Fearing that the fruits would fall into the reservoir and contaminate the drinking water for the New Territories, the authorities introduced a number of rhesus macaques to the area in hopes that they would gobble up the fruit.

Not only did the plan achieve its immediate aim of curbing the spread of the poison, but the fruits of the strychnos plant turned out to be a massive hit amongst the monkeys. With plenty of food and water in the Kowloon woodlands—especially after the later construction of the Kowloon Group of Reservoirs—the area transformed into a haven, and well-fed primates began reproducing. Soon enough, the local macaque kingdom we know today took shape.

Rhesus macaques remained the only species of monkeys in Hong Kong up until the 1950s, when the long-tailed macaques were haphazardly introduced to Kam Shan. Allegedly, a local seafarer raised five long-tailed macaques on his boat, and decided to liberate them upon retiring, thus bringing a new species of monkeys into Hong Kong’s wilderness. Pet monkeys mixed and mingled with the existing rhesus macaques, crossbreeding hybrid monkeys. 

Over time, three dominant varieties of monkeys thereby emerged: rhesus macaques, long-tailed macaques, and hybrids. While other species—such as the pig-tailed macaques, Japanese macaques, and Tibetan macaques—have also been sighted in the Kowloon hills before, it is unlikely that they have managed to adapt and survive.

Monkeys gone bananas

Although monkeys in Hong Kong have maintained a fairly restricted distribution over the century, their population has skyrocketed since being re-introduced to Hong Kong’s wilderness, growing from a small handful to nearly 2,100 at its height. In part, this is spurred on by the favourable environmental profile of Kowloon and New Territories, but the key factor contributing to such a massive boom in wild primates is excessive human feeding.

Coinciding with the steady growth of Hong Kong’s economy in the 1970s, more people started venturing into the city’s country parks for leisurely picnics and hikes, and the resident monkeys quickly attracted a devoted following. Good-natured in intent, casual visitors would leave behind leftovers or even offer up their food to the cute, furry-faced animals. While this did not seem like a major problem at first, the subsequent surge in the population of primates later proved to be a source of headache for nearby residents.

Over the years, the cheeky critters have been re-wired to associate humans with food rather than a threat, losing their instinctive fear and becoming a little too spoiled for their own good. Instead of foraging food in the wild, they relied heavily on humans to feed them. And as their fearlessness grew, they also developed more menacing behaviours, snatching plastic bags from unsuspecting hikers and harassing with impunity.

As if that were not enough, the rambunctious macaques eventually started to stray into urbanised areas, rampaging the streets and breaking into residences and stores to steal food. Over time, the situation got so dire that the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) had to put up cages and traps outside the apartment complexes in the Shing Mun area, but alas, the intelligent creatures quickly learned to sidestep the traps, and it seemed that nothing could stop them from getting their way.

Photo: @wesleytjin (via Instagram)

Doubling down on monkey business

By the late 1990s, it was evident that the monkey trouble was spiralling out of hand, and something had to be done to revert the creatures back to nature. In 1999, a law was established to ban the feeding of wild animals in key monkey habitats, including Kam Shan, Lion Rock, and Shing Mun Country Parks. Still in effect to this day, the maximum fine for any violation of the ordinance is $10,000. Additionally, rubbish bins in the country parks have also been made monkey-proof, with secure closing lids and a step-on mechanism to mitigate monkey raiding.

To counteract the overpopulation of monkeys, the AFCD launched a large-scale contraceptive programme in 2007. The new measure entailed regularly capturing wild monkeys and giving them contraceptive and sterilisation treatments, such as endoscopic tubectomy for females, so they could no longer reproduce after being released back into nature. Under this mass birth control scheme, the birth rate of monkeys has effectively slowed down, dropping from 60 percent in 2009 to around 30 percent in recent years. Accordingly, their total population has also seen a decline, with current statistics hovering at around 1,800.

Photo: @keoni.c (via instagram)

Forward and onwards in harmony

Following the series of combative measures, human-monkey conflicts have gotten noticeably tamer. However, the adage that “old habits die hard” still rings true, and it seems that the primates have not quite gotten rid of their decades-entrenched aggressive tendencies. For the most part, they are chill and harmless, but if provoked or tempted by food, things can quickly turn into a nightmarish mess of mugging, pawing, scratching, and even biting. Visitors are thus reminded not to approach the monkeys and to keep their belongings safely secured at all times.

Often found nimbly leaping from tree to tree, munching on a snack, or playfully grooming one another, monkeys have undoubtedly become a prominent part of Hong Kong’s wildlife scene, and spotting them in action can be a truly captivating experience. Yet it is important to remember that these furry tricksters are best admired from a safe distance, undisturbed in their carefree environment and left to nature’s tending. 

As visitors, that is perhaps the best we can do to help these quirky, gangly-limbed critters regain their natural instincts and turn back to the wild. It is only when the ecological balance is restored that there can be hope for wild monkeys in Hong Kong to one day occupy an exclusive space in our consciousness as friendly hiking companions instead of unwanted urban pests.

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Beverly Ngai

Junior editor

A wanderer, chronic overthinker, and baking enthusiast, Beverly spent much of her childhood in the United States before moving to Hong Kong at age 11 and making the sparkling city her home. In her natural habitat, she can be found baking up a storm in her kitchen, journalling at a café, or scrolling through OpenRice deciding on her next meal.

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