Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ma Lau Shan (馬騮山)

When most people thing of Hong Kong, they think of this:

Which is, of course, Hong Kong. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Thousands of skyscrapers stacked 10 feet apart and half the streets are filled with street vendors. It sometimes seems that every single inch of the city is taken up by people or buildings. But Hong Kong is also extremely mountainous, so only about 25% of Hong Kong is actually developed, and nearly 50% is protected reserve or park. It was to this undeveloped wilderness that we ventured to the (in)famous Ma Lau Shan (monkey mountain).

That sign basically says "Don't feed the monkeys or they will kill you", or something like that (my chinese is a little rusty). There is a $10,000 fine for even thinking about feeding them. All of the people hiking here were traveling in big groups and carrying sticks or golf clubs or something to defend themselves from the horrible monkeys. Everyone was warning me against bringing food, anything that smells like food, anything that looks like it might contain food, and generally any shopping sacks or plastic bags of any kind, or the monkeys will murder me and take it. Some people were quite frightened, and George was scared the entire time we were there.

I'm sure this monkey murdered someone for that bottle of tea.

In reality the monkeys didn't seem all that dangerous. They mostly just did monkey things like swinging in the trees or lounging on the pathway eating bugs off each other. One of them stalked us for a bit, and made George nervous, but most of them just ignored us and went about their monkey ways. Maybe they recognized my beastly manliness and figured they better just leave us alone, but whatever their reasons, they didn't seem the brutal killing machines they had been hyped up to be.

Monkeys doing their monkey thing

Surprisingly the monkeys seem to stay on their monkey mountain and don't venture into the city to terrorize people. As mentioned above, Hong Kong is full of street stalls selling all kinds of yummy things, and it seems like all the outdoor markets would be easy pickings for these little agile killer monkeys. In fact they rarely even cross the road. There are no fences to keep them in and there is a large pedestrian overpass to protect them from getting squashed on Kong Kong's dangerous roads. I don't know, maybe they know that people in Hong Kong will eat just about anything, and if they start stealing food from the locals, the locals might turn them into food.

Monkeys are native to Hong Kong, by the way, but they are a smaller, less aggressive species, and they have mostly been displaced by habitat destruction and the introduction of the killer macaques mentioned above. Turns out that after the locals built a reservoir here back in 1913 they noticed that the area was home to a toxic species of plant that was contaminating the waters (probably something you should figure out before you build a reservoir). Macaques like to eat this toxic plant, so a few families were introduced to clean out the bad plants and keep the water clean. As monkeys tend to do, these guys were very successful at reproducing, and now there are thousands of them swinging in the trees near the water supply.

Humans have a consistently bad habit of releasing foreign species of plants or animals into an ecosystem to try and clear out undesirable species. This almost always results in the new species proliferating beyond control since there generally isn't a local predator for a totally foreign species. So far most of Hong Kong is okay with the monkeys, but the stories of monkey attacks and food stealing I mentioned above are not made up (just slightly exaggerated).

Monkey guarding the sign that tells you how to defend yourself against them. They do not want you to know their weaknesses.

Anyway, on your next trip to Hong Kong get out of the urban craziness for a bit. Take a trip out to the wilderness and see some monkeys. Take a hike up to the giant buddha on lantau island. Hop a short bus ride out to one of the sleepy fishing villages like Tai O, or even catch a boat out to one of the less populated smaller islands and escape the rat-race. There is more than just shopping, eating, and skyscraper browsing.

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