If you wandered through the Hong Kong countryside during the previous Year of the Pig – 12 years ago, according to the Chinese zodiac calendar – probably the only pigs you’d have encountered would have been the cartoon variety on backpacks and t-shirts. But as the new Year of the Pig begins this month, there’s every chance a hike will bring you face-to-snout with the real thing.
Wild boars used to be phantoms of the forests – hidden away by day, leaving signs such as disturbed soil where they rooted for food in the night.
‘I have been studying wildlife in the field since I joined Hong Kong University in 1988,’ says Dr Billy Hau, programme director of the school of biological sciences. ‘Back then, wild boar were pretty shy and often ran away when I came across them. But in recent years, especially in country parks where they’re fed, they don’t run any more and some even approach to beg for food.’
While feeding wild animals including boars is officially discouraged, it’s become popular with some, who delight in close encounters with Hong Kong’s largest land mammals. Wild boars look like domestic pigs, descended from their wild relatives, but with longer, slender snouts and bristly, dark fur. They can reach two metres long and weigh up to 200 kilograms.
It’s been a lucky decade for Hong Kong’s wild boars.
‘The population seems to be booming,’ says Paul Crow, senior conservation officer at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden. ‘The predators that used to help control the population are long gone. Once we would have had tigers, leopards and dhole (Asiatic wild dog), among others. Now, only pythons. Even the old villagers that once trapped and hunted them are fading out, so there’s very little to control populations.’
Sightings of wild boars on the city fringes have increased, too. Boars are attracted to bins – ready sources of food for these omnivores. Plus, as Hau points out, humans have moved closer to where wild boars live. In October last year, three boars were spotted trotting through Causeway Bay – one of the most densely packed and neon-lit of Hong Kong’s urban centres. They were safely tranquillised and returned to their more usual habitat.
There are a few reports of boars attacking humans. One involved a boar that was kicked by a police officer tasked with catching it. The boar – not unreasonably, you might think – retaliated, attacking the policeman, a passing cyclist and a van before being caught with nets and taken away.
Some people support killing wild boars before one seriously harms someone. While hunting boars is illegal without a permit, in the 1970s the government established two teams to cull them after reports of problems with boars ravaging crops on farmland. However, operations were suspended in 2017 in favour of a more humane contraception trial.
Crow believes culling may ultimately be needed – but ‘based on sound science and population monitoring. We don’t have that yet.’
Hau agrees. ‘There is no long-term population data on the species. No one can say that number of wild boars has increased significantly.’ The population explosion, if there was one, would have begun long ago, given Hong Kong’s last tiger was shot during the Second World War.
As humans look for ways to co-exist with wild boars – and other species – he remarks, ‘I am not afraid of them as I know to keep a distance and not to trigger their fear.’
So if you come across a wild boar: show some respect and keep your distance, while hopefully enjoying the encounter from afar. And remember: no kicking.