When Dan Waters moved into government quarters on Conduit Road in 1955, the English-born civil servant remembers how delightfully bucolic it was around his new home. “It resembled a quiet country lane, gay with flowers, where you could occasionally hear barking deer calling from Victoria Peak,” he wrote in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.
Waters went on to become a scholar of Hong Kong history, a heritage conservationist and a black belt in karate. The deers, however, became ever more scarce. In the decades after Waters remembers hearing their calls on Victoria Peak, the deer were systematically pushed out of their native habitats by urban development and poaching.
“The deer are reduced to small pockets in the New Territories and those on Hong Kong Island,” wrote zoologist Patricia Marshall in 1967. “They are all subject to illegal shooting and trapping. Wire snares, bamboo spike traps and nets are used successfully wherever these deer are to be found.”
Marshall noted that each deer was worth on HK$500 on the black market—the musk glands of males were prized for use in perfumes and Chinese medicine—while the penalty for killing them was also HK$500. At the time Marshall was writing, nobody had yet been prosecuted for poaching, and so the “once plentiful” deer population began a precipitous decline.
If many people are surprised to learn that Hong Kong has a native population of deer, it is only because these shy creatures have retreated into the more isolated parts of Hong Kong’s countryside. Unlike pangolins, though, the deer remain abundant enough that if you have a keen eye—or a sharp ear—you may come across one on a hike. There is no estimate of their numbers in Hong Kong, but they are still abundant enough to be frequently captured by the government’s wildlife cameras.
“I’ve heard them a lot of times,” says wildlife photographer Robert Ferguson. “And I’ve seen them in the wild maybe 20 or 30 times. The weird thing about them is they make a cry that sounds like someone getting murdered. The police get five or ten calls every year from people who think someone is getting murdered in the country park. It sounds like a mix between being strangled and coughing.”
With a cry like that, it’s no wonder why they are called barking deer. Their actual name is the Northern Red Muntjac—Muntiacus vaginalis—and they can be found in the eastern part of India and throughout Southeast Asia. Hong Kong is on the northern edge of their habitat. They are smaller than almost any other deer on earth—about 65 centimetres tall and a metre long, the size of a German Shepherd—with a reddish brown coat, stubby male antlers and distinctive musk glands. “It’s very interesting to watch them because they have these huge scent glands around their eyes and the male marks his territory with them,” says Ferguson.
The best place to see barking deer in Hong Kong is the Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Garden, which keep two females, named Sasa and Didi, in an open-air enclosure. Both were found abandoned as fawn and nurtured back to health on the farm.
Life in the wild can be dangerous for Hong Kong’s deer, even though poaching is now rare and they have few local predators, aside from the occasional python – one of which was recently caught on video devouring an entire deer. The biggest problem is urban encroachment. As the city’s urban areas continue to expand, the number of places where the deer can roam freely are shrinking. On Lantau, a concrete catchwater drain in between Tong Fuk and Shek Pik has killed many deer, who fall into the catchwater and are unable to get out. Although the government has installed fences along the ditch, it hasn’t eliminated the problem, and there are still no ladders or textured walls that could help deer escape.
Barking deer are also extremely shy, anxious creatures, and sometimes a stressful situation alone is enough to kill them. On its blog, the Kadoorie Farm notes that deer can be literally frightened to death in a condition known as capture or exertional myopathy. If you come across an injured or trapped deer, it’s important to keep your distance and call the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department at 1823.
“I’ve only managed to photograph one,” says Ferguson. “I’ve got a couple of shots of bottoms disappearing. They are extremely skittish.”
But their barking belies their presence. Their odd call may no longer ring out from Victoria Peak, but if you listen closely the next time you are in a country park, you may just hear a sign of one of Hong Kong’s more elusive creatures.