Happy Year of the Mon­key! But where do Hong Kong’s mon­keys come from?

– King Kong

HK Magazine - - HOME - Dear Mr. Know-It-All,

Most of Hong Kong’s (non-hu­man) pri­mates live in

Kam Shan Coun­try Park in the New Ter­ri­to­ries, on what’s col­lo­qui­ally known as “Mon­key Hill.” It’s home to about 2,000 macaques of a cou­ple dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties. But while mon­keys were once indige­nous to the city, the macaques of Mon­key Hill have a dif­fer­ent gen­e­sis.

See, in the 1900s, the city was run­ning out of fresh water. And so the city’s ad­min­is­tra­tion em­barked upon the construction of the Kowloon Reser­voir, the New Ter­ri­to­ries’ first. It would hold 353 mil­lion gal­lons of fresh water—more than enough for the new city’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

But just as it was near­ing com­pe­ti­tion, the reser­voir builders had an un­wel­come sur­prise when they came across Strych­nos plants grow­ing around the water.

The roots, stems, leaves and fruit of Strych­nos plants con­tain sev­eral al­ka­loids which are pretty bad news. One is strych­nine—which as any Agatha Christie fan will know, is a po­tent rat poi­son beloved of early 20th-cen­tury poi­son­ers the world over. It also con­tains cu­rare, used by the tribes of South Amer­ica to tip their poi­son darts. If too many Strych­nos fruit fell into the reser­voir, the city could wave farewell to its fresh water.

And so some­one came up with a holis­tic so­lu­tion: Re­lease around the reser­voir a group of rh­e­sus macaques, who far from be­ing poi­soned, would ac­tu­ally feed on the Strych­nos plants as part of their di­ets.

It worked: the mon­keys ate the plants, and the reser­voir stayed un­poi­soned.

Mon­key Hill’s pop­u­la­tion was boosted fur­ther in the 60s by the re­lease of sev­eral long-tailed macaques into the area, apoc­ryphally by a troupe of Chi­nese ac­ro­bats who had been de­nied per­mis­sion to travel with their an­i­mals. The two kinds of macaques in­ter­bred, pro­duc­ing a third hy­brid species.

What­ever the story, an­i­mal num­bers grew and the area be­came well known for its mon­key pop­u­la­tion, draw­ing tourists with food which the mon­keys soon learned to snatch from our hands. With plen­ti­ful food and not much else to do, the mon­keys did what mon­keys do—and soon the area’s pop­u­la­tion grew un­man­age­able as the mon­keys be­came in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive in their pur­suit of hu­man ameni­ties.

In 1999 the gov­ern­ment stepped in and out­lawed feed­ing of the mon­keys in the Kam Shan area, also em­bark­ing on the world’s first wild mon­key neu­ter­ing pro­gram, which brought the pop­u­la­tion down to a more man­age­able 2,000.

Th­ese days we may see the city’s mon­keys as ag­gres­sive nui­sances to be neutered and re­leased—but it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that not so long ago, they saved our lives.

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