There is life in the hills beyond Hong Kong’s towers. Monkeys. Boars. Barking deer. As everyone who lives here knows—but most visitors are astonished to discover—most of the city’s territory is undeveloped, with over half its land area protected by country parks. And far from the “barren rock” that may once have existed, these natural areas are teeming with fauna.
It’s something that photographer Robert Ferguson has been documenting for nearly 30 years. “It’s always a treat to see any mammal because mammals are tough to find and see,” he says. “Coming across a barking deer or maybe a civet cat or a leopard cat – these are just fantastic. A lot of my walks, particularly at night, are to look at snakes, lizards and frogs.”
Ferguson is the author of a new booklet about Hong Kong wildlife, as well as the websites Wild Creatures Hong Kong and Hong Kong Snake ID, which helps people determine whether the slithering creatures they see are dangerous or not. Born to a British family in Switzerland, he came to Hong Kong with his girlfriend—now wife—in 1991. She worked as a doctor and they were given government housing in Sha Tin, which made it easy to venture into the hills whenever they had spare time.
“My wife was brilliant at that,” he says. “She’d find a stream in the middle of nowhere and say, ‘Let’s walk up that.’ Sometimes we’d really struggle to get to the end but it’s always an adventure. That’s one of the wonderful things about Hong Kong. I’d remember getting completely lost and I was only a half hour away from Parkview and Tai Tam. In half an hour you’re having dim sum and an ice cold beer.”
When Ferguson left his job with news agency Reuters in 2018, he set up Wild Creatures and focused on documenting his excursions. He has a keen eye for things that most other hill walkers may not notice, like the mesmerising gold stripes of tiger beetles or the turquoise inflected hindwings of a Paris peacock butterfly. And in his eyes even the most innocuous creatures can seem majestic, as in one photo, where a tiny brown squirrel is perched on the dessicated husk of a jackfruit, its eyes alert and muscles tense.
Snakes are what get Ferguson most excited. “I think snakes are the large game of Hong Kong,” he says. “They’re a bit dangerous, very exciting and great fun to find and photograph. King cobras, Chinese cobras – I can go out a night and find anywhere from five to fifteen snakes on a walk. It’s a case of knowing where to go and what to look for.”
After suffering from a ski injury and complications from surgery that left him temporarily in a wheelchair, Ferguson is not as mobile as he once was. “I’m still walking with a cane,” he says. “I can walk ten kilometres but I can’t do slopes or jump around in streams like I used to.”
But many of his favourite spots are more accessible than you might think. “The further you go into the forests and jungles the harder it is to spot wild animals,” he says. By contrast, more built-up areas tend to attract animals looking for food. “Urban areas and parks are often a good place to see wild animals. Black’s Link, Bowen Road – I know a lot of joggers that see them quite frequently. One of my favourites is Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Gardens. That is regulated so you can only go there on certain days at certain times but the change in elevation is fantastic for biodiversity. That whole mountain, Tai Mo Shan, is just fabulous for hiking, walking, cycling. The animals you can find there range from barking deer, atlas moths, moon moths, all different kinds of snakes, daytime and nighttime.”
When Ferguson started documenting Hong Kong’s wildlife, there weren’t many others on the trails with him. “It really was a case of mad dogs and Englishmen go out walking,” he says. “Now the trails are packed. I’ve got to be careful what I wish for. Before I was like, ‘Why don’t more people get out into nature?’ And now I’m like, ‘Why don’t people get out of nature?’” He laughs.
SARS was the big turning point. Hong Kong’s first coronavirus epidemic, in 2003, was arguably more traumatic than the current one. People began reconsidering how they lived their lives, and part of the change meant getting out into the wild. The current coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated the trend. This past winter, as shopping malls emptied out, schools were shuttered and offices sent their workers home, Hong Kong’s hiking trails were busier than ever. For Ferguson, it’s a sign of just how far things have come in terms of appreciating Hong Kong’s nature. But it’s also a reminder that there is still a lot of work to be done.
“We have a responsibility,” he says. “When we go out to nature we should be giving back more than what we take away. The idea of getting out into nature has really taken hold. The next step is to ask how we can preserve it for the future. Now the trails are getting worn, there’s litter, the animals are getting scared.”
It comes down to embracing and appreciating nature as it exists. “We should be respecting living in our natural environment rather than trying to adapt it and change it and make it cuddly, warm, fuzzy and completely safe,” he says.
And the first step is understanding the creatures with whom we share our environment. Over the next several weeks, Zolima CityMag will be putting Hong Kong’s wild creatures under the spotlight, from barking deer to pangolins. There’s life in the hills: it’s time to get to know it.