Saltwater Crocodiles, Local Celebrity and the HK Wetland Park

Did you know that large, man-eating crocodiles used to roam throughout across coastal southern China? Historical records indicate they ranged from Vietnam all the way up to the lower Minjiang River in present day Fujian province and even to the Penghu Islands of Taiwan. As you might have guessed that range also includes the lower Pearl River and present day Hong Kong and Macau.

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Pui Pui-Hong Kong Reptilian Celebrity

On the 2nd of November 2003 a saltwater crocodile was spotted in the Shan Pui River (山貝河) near Yuen Long and caused a media frenzy in HK. For several weeks Australian crocodile hunter John Lever tried unsuccessful to capture it and months of effort on the part of mainland Chinese experts also failed. Finally almost 7 months later on the 10th of June 2004 Hong Kong’s own AFCD’s conservation officers captured the crocodile after it wandered into a trap laid by the department. The 4-year old female crocodile’s measured 1.5m and weighed 14 kg and belonged the species Crocodylus porosus – the Saltwater crocodile or saltie. That is the same species that frequently makes headlines for killing humans (mostly tourists that ignore the eagerly advice) in Australia’s Northern Territory! Saltwater crocodile is one of the largest reptiles in the world. A mature male can reach 6 to 7 metres in length whereas female can reach 2.5 to 3 metres. Young saltwater crocodile feeds on insects, amphibians, small reptiles and fishes. Adults  feed on large animals like buffalo! Wild saltwater crocodile is widely distributed throughout Asian Pacific from coastal India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia to Northwest Australia and Papua New Guinea.

The current and historical ranges of saltwater crocodiles in SE Asia
The current and historical ranges of saltwater crocodiles in SE Asia (green=current, orange=extirpated (historical)).

By August 2004 a public naming competition was held before the animal was named “Pui Pui”. “Pui Pui” is a transliteration of the Chinese characters 貝貝 in the crocodile’s Chinese name, which is a pun indicating that it came from Shan Pui River and is the apple of the public’s eye. Although no one knows where the crocodile came from, it is suspected that she might be an illegal pet escaped from their owner’s home or was dumped into the river after she had grown too big.

Saltwater Crocodiles in China?

Records of saltwater crocodiles in China come primarily from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) through to Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD); during this time period large crocodiles (presumably saltwater crocodiles) apparently preyed on both humans and livestock within the region. But the saltwater crocodile population decreased severely following the Song Dynasty.

The Chinese words/characters jiao or jiaolong anciently named a four-legged water dragon creature which may be identified as both “alligator” and “crocodile” . The “Dragons and Snakes” section of the (1578 CE) Bencao Gangmu – an ancient Chinese Medical Textbook – differentiates between a jiaolong (蛟龍) “Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)” and tolong (鼉龍) “Chinese Alligator, (Alligator sinensis)“. Most early references describe the jiaolong as living in rivers – which fits both “Chinese alligator” and “Saltwater crocodile” – and spending the tropical wet season in freshwater rivers and swamps. Comparing maximum lengths of 8 meters and 1.5 meters for this crocodile and alligator, respectively, “Saltwater crocodile” seems more consistent with descriptions of jiao dragons reaching lengths of several zhang (丈)”- (1 zhang = approximately 3.3 meters)”. Early texts often mention capturing jiao. For example the (ca. 111 CE) Hanshu records the catching of a jiao 蛟 in 106 BCE. So these may be historical but cryptic references to Saltwater Crocodiles in China. Jialong, incidentally, is also the name of China’s deep-sea submersible.

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The most recent records of the saltwater crocodile within China comes from a record in Guangxi province from the 19th Century and some bone fragments found in Hong Kong in 1922. Although I tried my best to find any information on the 1922 bone fragments, it turned up nothing (if anyone has any information on this and can help, please leave a comment!). It appears likely that the species became extinct in all of China well over a century ago and already dissapeared from most of its Chinese habitat many centuries ago. A sharp increase in the human population in the region about 600 years ago and the widespread destruction of habitat that followed is likely to blame for their disappearance.

But Pui Pui was by no means the last appearance of a large crocodilian in Hong Kong:

  • In 2012 , a 1.2-meter-long crocodile was found abandoned in an aquarium at a refuse-collection station in Tai Po. This was a abandoned pet, though.
  • In 2014 a man living along the coastal Siu Lam area in Hong Kong’s Tuen Mun district said he spotted a five-foot-long crocodile at the waters near his villa but unfortunately he could not get his camera in time and later searches by the police failed to find the animal. A cleaning worker whom the police spoke to also said that a security guard told her that a crocodile-like creature appeared at the beach by the housing estate two days earlier, but it was gone when both of them went to check.  As a result several public beaches including Golden Beach, Cafeteria Old Beach and Castle Peak Beach were temporarily shut.
What happened to Pui Pui?

Three days after its capture the crocodile was moved to Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden (KFBG) where it had access to open-air enclosures, ponds, shelters and natural settings that were more suitable for healthy growth and where vets could monitor it. It then spent the first 3 months in quarantine before moving it into an open-air enclosure. Initially it refused to eat.

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In 2006 Pui Pui was moved again to the newly built Hong Kong Wetlands Park in Tin Shui Wai. There she has a 72-square-metre outdoor enclosure with pool area, landscaped and equipped with infra-red heaters, heat pads and a weighing scale.
The general public got its first glimpse of Pui Pui exploring its outdoor enclosure in the Hong Kong Wetland Park in September 2006. At that time Pui Pui had grown to 1.75 m I. Length and 19.5 kg in weight. Now Pui Pui is about 15 years old, and according to the latest information (February 2015) from the AFCD it now measures 2.46 m in length and weights about 58.5 kg! You can see her for yourself at the HK Wetlands Park where she will be likely basking in the sun or feeding on fresh fish and chicken.

Pui Pui's Home at the HK Wetland Park
Pui Pui’s Home at the HK Wetland Park
Pui Pui’s Fame

In December 2004 Alan Jefferies and Liang Yue wrote a bilingual children’s book based on Pui Pui’s story called “The Crocodile Who Wanted To Be Famous” with illustrations by Mariko Jesse. The story is about a television-loving crocodile named Crafty that swims from his riverside village to find fame in the big city. His arrival is front-page news all around the world, but once there, he begins to question what he really wants.

The Crocodile Who Wanted To Be Famous by Alan Jefferies, illustrated by Mariko Jessse, translated by Liang Yue
The Crocodile Who Wanted To Be Famous by Alan Jefferies, illustrated by Mariko Jessse, translated by Liang Yue

 

Injured Chinese White Dolphin Caught and Under Care of Ocean Park

The Chinese white dolphin injured in Hong Kong waters in January (2015) was caught last Friday (6th of February) after 18 days of search efforts and sent to Ocean Park for treatment.

The animal, nicknamed ‘Hope’ , was found off Shek Pik, on southern Lantau Island, by experts from Ocean Park (amusement park) and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department who had been searching for the dolphin since January 20.

Image: OPCF
Image: OPCF

The team captured it using a specially adapted net and a sedative to slow the dolphin down. The  preliminary health assessment found multiple serious wounds with three exposed vertebrae in front of its tail. Also the caudal (tail) vertebrae in front of its fluke was cut through and Hope suffered at least 4 deep transversal wounds on its tail stock, extending back from its dorsal fin toward the tail.

Over the next few days Hope will have 24-hour care and undergo a thorough examination – including X-rays, ultrasound, bacterial swabs and blood tests – and receive medical treatment at the hands of experts from the park, the conservation department and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Image: OPCF
Image: OPCF

The dolphin is a male, 2.3 metres long and weighs 135 kg. It was first spotted by a group of University of Hong Kong students off the Lantau village of Tai O on January 16. They saw severe cuts on its fin and back, probably caused by the propeller of an outboard motor.

Some marine conservation specialists argued that it should be left to recover in the wild. Images of the wounded animal were circulated on the internet, causing widespread concern and pressure that probably led to the current capture.

Image: OPCF
Image: OPCF

Chinese white dolphins are a protected species in the city, with only 60 of them living in Hong Kong waters.

Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society chairman Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu, who inspected the dolphin after its rescue, said there was no immediate threat to its survival, but judging from its condition it faced a long road to recovery.

Yesterday’s success was the sixth attempt to capture the animal. The society provided a boat for the search team to use in the operation, and sent its own team to observe the process. Asked whether the rescue procedure had caused any further injury to the dolphin, Hung said his society had shot a video of the rescue process for the park to release and it was better to leave that judgment to the public. Watch the capture of the dolphin posted by Apple Daily here.

HK Marine Life’s Opinion:

It is questionable whether the dolphin can recover from such severe injuries. Only the veterinarian and experts can judge that. But the public should know that Ocean Park for many years ran a so-called captive breeding program for dolphins that in reality managed to kill 10 times more dolphins than were born. In fact the survivorship of healthy dolphins in captivity is preety poor. A study published in 1994 examined survivorship of dolphins and whales at Ocean Park (article online here), and showed that Ocean park was not unique – all captive dolphins and whales have relatively poor survivorship.
The dolphins injuries look extremely severe. A severed or partially severed vertebrae in front of the fluke would deprive it of proper locomotion and condemn it to early death. Now if the dolphin were to die as a direct or indirect result of these injuries, the humane question to ask would be how and where should it die? In the wild where it grew up where its social contacts are? Or alone in a clinical tank at Ocean Park.
Dr Hung has been very cautious in his statements. Part of the reason may be his well-founded opposition to Ocean Park’s dolphin facilities which serve to foster public appetite for dolphin shows and captive dolphins (see SCMP articel here).

The Macau Whale Stranding Febuary 3rd, 1933

Sometimes it is very amusing and interesting to realize how different we see the environment now in 2015 compared to our attitudes the last century. A case in point is this gem of a news article from 1933 about a 25-foot (7.6 m) whale that stranded in Macau. Today, we would go to extraordinary efforts and spare no cost to rescue the whale and help it out to sea. Back in 1933 attitudes were a bit different, however…

“Much excitement was created in the little fishing hamlet of Tsam Mang Chin, not far from the Macao Barrier Gate, when a whale, 25 feet long, drifted ashore and was left high and dry on the beach when the tide went out.
The villagers were all activity, when the monster was sighted, and measures were promptly taken to prevent its escape. The whale was soon dragged higher up the beach, where it was killed, and operations to convert the oil and remains into cash were immediately carried out.

All day long, villagers from the surrounding country trooped into the hamlet to buy the whale oil and the flesh until nothing was left of the monster excepting the bones.

A fee was later charged for viewing the skeleton.

Some idea of the size of the whale may be gathered from the fact that a thousand catties [500 kg] of oil and twice the amount of flesh were sold by the captors.”

(Hong Kong Telegraph February 3rd, 1933)

These days, however, a “big whale” in Macau refers to big-ticket casino gamblers from mainland China. But with the anti-corruption campaign ongoing in China, the new “big whales” seem to be facing the same sort of steep decline that the real whales faced in the 20th century!

Illegal Tourism & Poaching of Endangered Species in the Paracel Islands

Photographs posted online recently show Chinese tourists posing with endangered species off the Paracel Islands, a disputed area of the South China Sea. Tourists were posing with red coral, thresher sharks and other fish according to the China News Service . All three thresher shark species have been recently listed as vulnerable to extinction by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

The photos were widely condemned by internet users on the mainland, and raised concerns among conservationists.

The Crescent Group of the Paracel Islands (Image: WikiCommons)
The Crescent Group of the Paracel Islands (Image: WikiCommons)

The authorities have since pledged to crack down on “illegal tourist activity”. Feng Wenhai, the deputy mayor of Sansha said that a task force of police, national security agencies and the coastguard would target illegal tourism boats operating in the area. Other officials and fishermen would apparently also carry out patrols to search for such boats according to Feng.

A tour operator in Hainan province who arranges trips to the Paracel Islands told the South China Morning Post that tourists who wanted to go fishing often chartered illegal boats costing much more than authorised cruises. “They need to find their own charter vessels and gather enough people as the cost is quite high, normally tens of thousands of yuan,” he said.

Given recent Japanese accusation of red coral poaching in disputed waters against China’s government-subsidized fishing fleet and the high-profile arrest and conviction of Chinese fisherman poaching close to 500 endangered sea turtles in Philippine waters, the statement by Feng Wenhai has almost no credibility. How after all can the government control illegal fishing and poaching by tourists when it can’t even stop its own government-funded fishing fleet from raping the sea and ignoring all rules?

In 2012, amid intensifying territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, China established the city of Sansha to administer the disputed Paracels – known as Xisha in Chinese – and the disputed Spratly Islands and the Macclesfield Bank in the South China Sea. That was two years after the Chinese authorities announced plans to develop the tourism industry in the Paracels.

Map showing the poisition of the Paracels Islands in the South China Sea (Image: WikiCommons)
Map showing the position of the Paracels Islands in the South China Sea (Image: WikiCommons)

The first tourist cruises in 2013 were run by state-owned operators aboard the “Coconut Princess” and set sail from Sanya , the capital of Hainan Island. The four-day, three-night cruises to three of the islets cost from 4,000 yuan (HK$5,000) to 10,000 yuan. However, they are only open to mainland Chinese – foreigners, tourists from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan and those with criminal records are not allowed.