Every now and again there are news reports about monkey trouble in urban Hong Kong. The macaques of "Monkey Hill" – formally known as Kam Shan and located within a country park in mountains north of Kowloon – have been known to act aggressively and grab food from the backpacks and bags of hikers and picnickers. Urban areas have also had their fair share of simian sightings which cause no end of amusement as well as panic. But there is no doubt in my mind that the real primate problem in Hong Kong is the nuisance caused by humans.
My family has made a few trips to Monkey Hill in recent years. The hikes and trails are fun and easy for my daughter to walk and we enjoy the views of the reservoir, the plants and wildlife. We are respectful of the monkeys, whose turf we are stepping on and are careful to be discreet whenever we stop to eat our snacks.
However, every time we've been there, we've seen people openly disregard the signs warning visitors not to feed the wild monkeys. We've tried explaining to people that unlike the over-zealous rules banning ball-games and bicycles in playgrounds, the rules against feeding are sensible and necessary. As this SCMP article from 2014 points out, the monkey population has grown bigger than the natural food sources in the mountains can sustain, the animals have become dependent on humans as a food source and are losing the ability to forage.
The article goes onto say the government is trying to control the growth of population size through sterilization but from the number of baby monkeys we saw, it is clear this is no easy task.
As for the human food sources, well we saw people throwing peanuts and tossing fruit and bread to the monkeys. Sometimes this was accompanied by panicky squeals and frantic laughter. One woman threw plastic packets of crackers and cookies at the monkeys. Then she waved her umbrella at them to shoo them away when they tried to approach her for more. Later on, my daughter pointed out a monkey putting the contents of a packet of popping candy in its mouth.
We all agreed the behaviour of the humans on Monkey Hill was the worst we'd ever seen. Yet more was to come. On our return walk after the hike, we saw three vehicles whose drivers stopped, wound down the windows and tossed food out to the monkeys before driving off, within a span of just 15 minutes.
The SCMP article says that between 2009 and 2013, 547 people were prosecuted for illegal feeding, mostly of monkeys, but that the average fines paid were $500 to $1000. The maximum fine is $10,000. It also says the feeding ban is enforced by police who patrol the park "roughly once a day". The level of enforcement and deterrent is clearly not enough. But perhaps even more importantly, there is not enough education.
And not just about feeding. It's clear there are some people who think it's OK to hurt and abuse the monkeys. Earlier this year, an off-duty policeman was arrested for shooting at monkeys with an air-rifle. And as we waited for our bus home, we saw a man walking with his young family and holding up a cigarette lighter to attract the monkeys, who thought it was food. As they came close, he lit the lighter, terrifying the monkeys. We saw him do this to several monkeys to the delighted laughter and applause of his two young sons.
Even more than the irresponsible feeding, this sight saddened and disturbed me. What a message to be teaching young children at a country park – that it is fun and funny to mock and maim animals for our entertainment.
It’s clear who the problem is on Monkey Hill, it’s us.