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

 

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5 Comments

  1. I have found the record about the so called “1922 bone fragments” . Actually, those “1922 bone fragments” were not found in 1922, but the book recorded “1922 bone fragments”, “Beiträge zur Fauna Sinica” by Rudolf Mell, was published in 1922. Mell stated that during his 18 years in Hong Kong, two corpses were found, while one was found on Lantau Island. I am not sure as the book was written in German and I used google translate to translate the record into English. The copy of the page about “1922 bone fragments” in Mell’s book can be seen via this link: http://biostor.org/reference/71534/page/110

    1. Wow! Thanks a lot. You already know what it says, but by happy coincidence I am a native German speaker, so here is the hopefully improved human translation of the text you linked to:

      18. Crocodilus porosus Schn. – Saltwater crocodile – “S. China (Lessen, Grey)”. – as the numerous references in the Chinese literature demonstrate, a crocodile species – it could only be porosus – was at home in South China in eariler times and was the source of detriment [to humans]. Equally certain is that they were exterminated a long time ago. Nowadays saltwater crocodiles are seldom cast on to the southern Chinese shores. In 18 years, I was made aware of two such carcasses on Hong Kong islands. The skull of one of these was found on the island of Lantau by the Pearl River Delta and was given to me (Dr. Müller-Hong Kong) and now resides in the Zoological Museum of Berlin.

      Many thanks for this wonderful info. I might see if I can trace the skull at the museum and get some more info.

      1. Update: I have written to the herpetology curator at the museum in Berlin – lets see if I can trace this skull and get some more details (size, photo, exact location etc).

      2. I received the following reply from the Natural History Museum in Berlin a few days ago:
        “Unfortunately, the C. porosus skull mentioned by Mell (1922, p. 110) could not be found. We have no specimen in our collections – neither preserved in liquid nor dry stored – which we can connect with the locality mentioned by Mell or which can be connected to Mell or Dr. Müller as collectors. During the 2. World War the collection was stored offsite and unfortunately the labels, which are the most important dats for the collection, were lost for a part of the turtle and crocodile collection.
        When the collection was moved back after the war this material was recatalogued without any reference to locality or collector. We have a number of C. porosus skulls lacking such vital information. It is possible that the skull mentioned by Mell is among these. Sadly, we can’t conclusively trace the skull from these specimens because Mell does not record details of the skull in his publication. We also can’t find further information about the locality mentioned by Mell [Lantao] which it must be said is quite specific for the time. Generally, Mell’s specimens in our catalogue is only labelled with localities such as ‘China’ it ‘Kwangtung’.”

        So it looks like the skull is probably there but we will never know for sure.

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