On a Wednesday morning in one of Hong Kong’s high-end residential areas, a large wild boar napped peacefully on the side of a road. It was seemingly oblivious to the rush hour traffic whizzing past mere feet away, which caused great offense to local resident Mrs. Kuk. As she snapped pictures on her phone, she said she “always” sees this specific male around: “He’s becoming more and more daring. Look at him sleeping here, as if us humans weren’t even around!” The last time she encountered him, he was digging through trash. She called the police.
The city of 7.3 million isn’t exactly known as a bastion for wildlife; foreigners and locals alike typically see it as jungle of steel and asphalt. But its image belies rich fauna and flora: three-quarters of its land is undeveloped and almost 40 percent is protected, providing a lush habitat for a remarkably high level of biodiversity.
For most of the city’s history, people and wild boars, Hong Kong’s largest native terrestrial animal, coexisted in peace. The animals were either a minor nuisance to villagers, or they were a rare, lucky sighting for hikers who ventured out into country parks at dawn or dusk. But in the past five years, something’s changed: they seem to be everywhere.
In 2018, Hong Kong received a record number of complaints about the wild boar: 929, more than triple the number just five years prior. Most are made by frightened citizens who don’t know what to do during an encounter. Others require police intervention, for instance when the animals wander into urban areas and can’t find their way back to the forest. In some rare cases, people have gotten minor injuries from bites and being charged.
To deal with the problem, the department of agriculture has a six-person team dedicated to responding to complaints and figuring out solutions, which the government plans on tripling in size by the end of 2019. For this fiscal year alone, it’s allocated almost $450,000 to the problem.
There aren’t any estimates for how many wild boars there are in Hong Kong, but with no natural predators in the area and continuous sources of human food, it’s clear the pigs’ population has become an issue. The wild boar (Sus scrofa), also known as the Eurasian wild pig, is a highly adaptable omnivore that can weigh anywhere from 150 to 600 pounds. These mammals’ range extends as far west as Marrakech and as far east as Brisbane, making it one of the most widely distributed mammals in the world. They’ve also been introduced to the Americas, where they’re considered pests.
With such a wide range, it’s no surprise that Hong Kong authorities aren’t alone in having to manage urban boars. Barcelona and Brussels have their own ongoing pig struggles, for example. But Hong Kong is special in two regards. Firstly, with the city’s towering skyscrapers built along the flanks of forest-covered mountains, the boars easily venture into hyper-urban environments, like in between apartment buildings or even inside malls. Secondly, people won’t stop feeding the pigs.
“This is the main reason that pigs have started coming to urban areas,” explains Chan Po-Lam Chan, who’s on the government wild boar team. “People love the pigs very much.”
For 35 years, Hong Kong attempted to control the population the same way that many other places have: by hunting them. Two teams of civilian volunteers were given license to shoot and kill the animals, but the government halted the program in 2017. As pig encounters became increasingly common, so did their popularity, making lethal population control methods rather contentious. (A few citizens even formed an organization called the “Hong Kong Wild Boar Concern Group” to advocate against it.) It had become too dangerous anyway, considering the boar’s increasingly urban range.
Less than two years ago, the government began experimenting with birth control. Female are shot with tranquilizers, captured, then either given a contraceptive vaccine or sterilized through surgical means. As a final measure, they’re released in more remote areas of Hong Kong.
The wild boar population should eventually diminish in size, but in the meantime, the government has begun an aggressive public education campaign. Illustrated banners featuring anime-style characters have been put up around country parks, warning against feeding, chasing, or taking selfies with the animals.
“[Education] is really challenging, because some people are really determined to feed them,” Po-lam said, with more than a hint of exasperation in her voice. Their persistence is almost to be admired. Despite fines and court summons, some offenders continue to feed them; in one case, one was spotted again the very next morning after getting caught.
Despite her frustrations, Po-lam doesn’t necessarily hold it against the animal lovers. In one incident, her team responded to a call about a boar that had gotten its leg entangled in some wire. Too wary of people, the pig refused to let them approach. They only made progress when they enlisted the help of someone that the pig recognized—a regular feeder.
Paul Zimmerman, a Dutch-born district politician, has had to create a special folder for his constituents’ increasing number of wildlife-related complaints: “Dogs, cats, snakes, boar, and cockatoo”. (Hong Kong has a small population of wild cockatoo, which sometimes get poached for the pet trade.) When he checked the folder’s email count, he found 484.
Wild boar now rival traffic and transportation as the number-one topic of the grievances he receives. But he doesn’t really mind: “In a way, it’s kind of fun to deal with that. There’s an issue with the wild boar – but it’s fantastic there are so many.”