• What do the monkeys in Hong Kong rely on for food ?
Most of the monkeys in Monkey Hill are probably descendants of native Macacas ( probably a subspecies of mulatta, first reported by the British colonists in the 19th century but had never been properly studied ) and introduced Macaca mulatta ( rhesus macaques ) officially from India and to a lesser extent Macaca fasicularis ( long-tailed macaques ) from Southeast Asia released privately. As such most of them are herbivorous though some of them may take the occasional insect and eggs, especially the long-tailed ones or hybrids of them. Fortunately these macaques from Southeast Asia are a minority for they are truly invasive and could wreak havoc with the native fauna – particularly avian species or else we won’t be hearing many pleasant chirps and calls of birds inside the country park that add to our enjoyment 🙂
The long tailed and their hybrid descendants are usually found by the main bus stop and trash cans…
Unlike long tailed macaques, rhesus would only consume non-plant matter as a last resort and that usually means insects – termites, grass hoppers etc.
Normally their main diet consists of leaves, fruits and seeds. They may also eat bark and flowers too.
There are however not many species of edible leaves and fruits in the forest of Golden Hill – perhaps only a dozen, a published paper ( Fellowes, J.R., 1992. HK macaques: final report to the WWF HK projects committee. WWF, HK ) – could only consistently identified seeds of 12 plant species in faecal samples of macaques – Melodinus suaveolens, Schefflera heptaphylla, Garcinia oblongifolia, Elaeagnus tutcheri, Elaeocarpus sylvestris, Sapium discolor, Melastoma sanguineum, Ficus spp., Rhodomyrtus tomentosa , Mussaenda pubescens, Psychotria asiatica, Psychotria serpens.
Only a few of them bear fruits all year round and they cannot support the entire population of wild monkeys attracted to live there over the years. The macaques at best could only have a modest bonanza in the fruiting seasons in summer and autumn annually. At other times they have to make do with leaves of which there are more choices and most of them are of really meagre nutritional value. ( Wong, C.,L., 1994. Studies on the feral macaques of HK. Unpublished Thesis. HKUST, HK )
And as my constant viewers have noticed they also put on a ” cheetos ” look in the lean winter months as they have to scrape by on the nectar of camellia oleifera as well 🙁
Watch how they forage for nectar 🙂
In summary food is not that abundant in Monkey Hill and even less so if we consider how many monkeys live there.
• How do they interact with humans ?
Despite our difference in size and the fact that most of us do not have a red face rhesus macaques do regard humans as conspecifics ( i.e. members of the same species ) and apply their system of facial signal communication to us. The problem is we don’t and few of us do have a clue. For instance we often misinterpret their grin with teeth ( silent bared teeth ) as a sign of aggression but in actual fact it means they are scared and is telling us to drop whatever we are doing to aggravate them. Most visitors however react by wielding their hiking stick to ward them off and in doing so the act sends them into a state of confusion as in their society a signal normally and usually will be reciprocated by an appropriate action – they often just retreat back into the thick undergrowth ( probably thinking we are too thick to understand ) in such an encounter but a rare few may become angry and show their anger and frustration with the ” open mouth stare ” – which may be silent or accompanied by a few harsh cackles to say they are truly pissed off and may even attack !
Another common mistake is to glance them in the eyes and smile like we do in greeting each other. In their society there is no ” smile of greeting ” but only a smile of retreat as we bare our teeth briefly ( remember that grin with teeth is adopted by the submissive party as described above ) but the act of staring in the eyes, however brief is a contradictory act of aggression and so in the confusion a rhesus may act less friendly than expected !
Normally for people who can’t be bothered to learn any of these etiquette beforehand keeping a respectful distance ( at least two meters in my experience ) alone would usually be sufficient to stay out of trouble and most rhesus seldom make a fuss about our presence unless you decide to provoke them by starring into their eyes or make a sudden movement or a loud noise. Even then most rhesus are peaceable ( especially we are so much bigger in size ) and would just run away or do what they do in their society to appease an aggressive party – turning their head/body away or presenting their buttocks – the so-called rump-presenting 🙂
Even if they do seem threatening ( recognized by their silent ” open mouth stare ” ) as a result of our untoward actions the last thing you want to do in my experience is backing off for this sends a wrong signal to them that they are the alpha and some of them would overcome their natural fear of our bigger size and charge at us with intent to show their dominance – a shove, a scratch or even a bite – hold your ground and take a step forward and they would normally just scurry away instead.
Things however get a bit trickier with feeding them.
Most macaques are hungry all the time as there are seldom enough food for all of them in nature ( I really think all the forests in Hong Kong together could support only a few hundred monkeys ) and even so they do not “ attack “ unless provoked – and if ignorant visitors approach them like some petting animals with food or hikers inadvertently wander into them with items suggestive of food that’s when most incidents of grab and run happen – food is a strong incentive for them to overcome their fear of us – and in the process one might sustain at most a scratch and rarely a fall from a surprise ambush, nothing really serious and I have yet to hear a first case of Colles fracture as a result of a fall or zoonotic disease ( including the much dreaded cercopithecine herpes I aka herpes B virus ) contacted from such an encounter if it had ever happened ! Anyway, it’s not an attack per se, I only see human tempting them there, knowingly or not.
It is actually very difficult to contact the deadly Herpes B virus in the wild. All 50 reported cases happened in a lab setting so far ! One is more likely to die from complications of a flu statistically speaking instead !
More serious physical contact usually happens when you are deemed as a danger to their young and if bluffing with a open mouth stare and a few harsh cackles doesn’t send the offender away you could get a shove, a scratch and rarely a bite if they don’t retreat first. To be fair such instances are again of a defence nature.
As Golden Hill Country park is very popular due to its close proximity and its reputation as the de facto ” Monkey Hill ” opportunities for things to go wrong between humans and their primate kin occur more frequently there or just outside it if the latter chooses to forage beyond the country park limits and wander into urban areas and villages.
Those people feeding them for fun with improper food and without much prior research are the cause of all these bad publicity when the animals turn out to behave less cute that they had imagined. Of the 756 documented human-macaque interactions over a 128 hr period with these casual feeders and visitors only one scratch was observed and the fault fell squarely on the human party – for kicking a monkey. ( Cheng, W.W., 2014. A review of the management of feral macaques in HK. Published thesis. HKU )
If we do some research beforehand and keep our distance it actually is very good fun to observe them in the wild.
• So what about the feeding ban ?
Food is readily available for those living by the busy highway…
Feeding monkeys is banned since 1999 with a fixed fine of 1,300 USD per offence. Meanwhile the authority had been reported in the past to have planted about 200,000 fruit trees ( mostly wild berries etc ) since 2001 across the park that hopefully would provide enough food for the monkeys living in or around Monkey Hill – the catch is however nobody knows how many of those seedlings survive to become trees or shrubs able to bear fruit and even if they do, the fruiting season lies mostly between May to October which means for large part of the year monkeys have no other option except to resort to begging and foraging along the road with some bolder ones even choosing to wander into nearby urban areas.
The feeding ban is supposed to encourage monkeys to go back to foraging but if there isn’t enough provision in nature they have to go somewhere where food seems to be more readily available – residential blocks and rural villages ( very few nowadays as farming is almost extinct in HK, the few left are smallholders far away from Golden Hill ) in the vicinity of the country park. In fact since the ban reported macaque nuisance cases had steadily increased and shot up to a historic high of nearly 1400 incidents in 2006 and only came down with the introduction of a contraceptive program that began in 2008 which was subsequently called off in 2013 as it was too successful in curbing the growth of the monkey population. ( figures from AFCD ( Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department ) of HK between the year 2004 to 2013 )
In my opinion a fed monkey does not bother. And a colony of monkey in a relatively small area is better than having them dispersed over a wider area because they have to forage. If the contraception measure is so successful and that the feeding ban is not helpful and it takes probably around 10-12 tonnes of food on a MONTHLY basis to sustain the population, ( 3.5 tonnes in 1990s for a population of 569 monkeys according to the study by Wong in 1994, current population is about 1,700 coming down from close to 2,000 in 2010 ) a tiny fraction of food averaging 3,500 tonnes Hongkongers wasted on a DAILY basis.
It probably makes more sense to have some form of managed feeding in place until the population has plummeted to such an extent that foraging alone is enough to satisfy their need.
• What is your position on feeding ?
I don’t agree with casual feeding and I disapprove of feeding them junk food. Feeding should be done by those who are equipped with the right knowledge and attitude and know when to stop so as not to discourage them from foraging in the wild. Most of the problem stems from people feeding them junk food for fun and once they acquire a taste for the sweet high caloric food with low nutritional value it’s very difficult to get them back on a natural diet. Besides they do make a mess with all those wrappers left behind.
If you want to feed them properly, take wholesome natural food like the Japanese authority does in Jigokudani (“Hell’s Valley”) with a combination of sweet potatoes and soybeans. They leave very little residues behind and any leftover would be readily taken by birds and other animals. The most appropriate months to help them out with food is between the months of October to March so as not to discourage them from foraging in the wild.
But now the monkeys are caught between a rock and a hard place – there isn’t enough food naturally nor is there enough feeding they are so accustomed to.
There are officially a dozen registered monkey feeders – these are individuals mostly senior citizens who have been befriending and feeding the monkeys for years, some nearly for a few decades and are exempt form the fine. Their licence is neither renewable nor transferable which means that their numbers would dwindle with time. Ultimately the authority hopes that there would be no feeders left, registered or unregistered.
Meanwhile the authority has sterilized close to 70 % of monkeys between 2008 and 2014 ( around 500 males have received chemical vasectomy while close to 1,100 females have either Spay-Vac or laparoscopic tubectomy ) and had succeeded in bringing the population down by 15 %. Nowadays juveniles account for less than 30 % of the population there and with infant mortality rate so high in the wild the population will continue to dwindle in the long run.
In fact the sterilization is so extensive and indiscriminate a few troops are already on the brink of extinction from a combination of chronic malnutrition and in the near future from inbreeding.
I hope the current policy is the result of some crazy overzealous bureaucrats who have eyes only for figures but my observation over the years I call HK home could only lead me to believe that everything the current unrepresented and undemocratic administration of HK does always has a hidden agenda behind. The administration doesn’t mind to manipulate figures to achieve its aims. Nature always become a casualty and a case in point is the near-wiping out of a unique colony of white dolphins living off the waters of Lantau island in HK. Land is at a premium and those closest to established urban area but currently off limits to developers due to various reasons will fetch the highest price. Monkeys and many wild animals have no say in it.
To recap :
• There are about 2,000 wild monkeys in HK.
• About 1,700 of them reside in Monkey Hill.
• They have to consume about 12 tons of food supplement monthly to sustain the population.
• Most of them, about 70% are sterile.
• Their population is decreasing as a result of human interventions.
• There are 7 million people in HK and increasing as 150 immigrants from China are allowed to settle in HK without screening every day for at least the last two decades.
• The government has to find enough landfill sites for the 3,500 tons of food Hongkongers wasted per day.
• As well as to find land to house these extra new Hongkongers and their dependents, which number close to a million since 1997 alone, excluding those who were granted residency under various schemes.
So who’s the more invasive and wasteful species on earth ?