Ma On Shan Country Park Biodiversity

by Thomas Gomersall

Hong Kong’s famous saddle-shaped mountain is a challenging environment both for human visitors and for the animals and plants that live there. Not only are the walking trails up the rugged, treacherous slopes of this 702-metre tall mountain notoriously challenging to all but the most experienced hikers, the windswept, volcanic soils of the upper reaches are sparsely vegetated with few trees; what plant species do grow here have had to be tough to survive.

But if Hong Kong’s wildlife is good at anything, it’s being tough and surviving against the odds. Just as the gorgeous view of Sai Kung town makes the trek up Ma On Shan Country Park worth it for hikers, so too should the rare plants and elusive, mysterious animals make it worth it for nature lovers. So get on your walking boots and get up that mountain!

Photo credit: WWF Hive

Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla): Until just a few years ago, most people would never have even heard of this odd, scaly mammal, much less known that there were any living in Hong Kong. But recently the world’s most trafficked mammal has become an up-and-coming star in the world of conservation mascots as more people become aware of its increasingly dire plight. In mainland China, Chinese pangolins have been all but eradicated for their meat and scales, which are seen as a delicacy and an ingredient in traditional medicine, respectively. In fact, the black market demand for these animals is so great that when an amateur video of a wild pangolin in the New Territories surfaced on social media in June 2018, the hiker who took it refused to specify the location in case poachers decided to try their luck there. Despite the dangers however, a few have managed to cling on in Hong Kong, thanks to stricter anti-hunting laws, though they are still desperately rare. The dense vegetation of Ma On Shan Country Park provides good cover for them to hide by day and forage for ants and termites by night. Just don’t expect to see one on your next hike.

Photo credit: WWF Hive

Red Muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak): While nowhere near as bizarre as the Chinese pangolin and East Asian porcupine, this shy little deer is still one of Hong Kong’s oddest mammals. For one thing, it has two small protruding canines almost like a sabre toothed cat, which it uses for self-defense. Secondly, it marks its territory using fluid secreted from a gland in front of its eye. And thirdly, it barks like a dog, hence its nickname: barking deer. This bark is used as an alarm call, to attract a mate, and as a territorial display. It is also usually the only way for the casual observer to tell that a muntjac is nearby as, being largely nocturnal, they are very hard to see.

Photo credit: WWF Hive

Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis): Early in 2018, Ma On Shan Country Park made international headlines when a pair of hikers claimed to have seen a tiger there. As exciting as that would have been, many were skeptical of their claim and it soon became clear that what they had actually seen was the far less endangered, but no less elusive, leopard cat. Slightly larger and more muscular than the domestic cat, it is found in a wide range of habitats, from forests to scrubland, where it stalks its main prey of small rodents (though it will also take birds, frogs and lizards). It is a good swimmer and has even been known to urinate and defecate in water to mask signs of its presence.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Hong Kong Azalea (Rhododendron hongkongense): If you want an example of the importance of Ma On Shan for rare and endemic plants, you may struggle to find a better one than the Hong Kong azalea, as it is found almost nowhere else in Hong Kong. It blooms in April, producing white and light red flowers. But beauty can be deceiving. Azaleas produce a toxin in their nectar that, when consumed as honey, can cause heart problems, low blood pressure, dizziness and vomiting among other symptoms. As if that wasn’t enough to put you off it, this “mad honey”, as it is often called, also tastes very bitter.

Photo credit: Billy Hau

Bamboo Orchid (Arundina graminifolia): Ma On Shan isn’t exclusively the domain of rare plants. The bamboo orchid, one of Hong Kong’s most common orchid species, can also be found here. But while common, it possesses some unique characteristics. For instance, unlike many orchids, the bamboo orchid is able to withstand the intense heat of a Hong Kong summer and grows on the ground as opposed to on the surface of tree trunks.