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Sunday, April 19, 2009

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Another crypto memory from Hong Kong in the early 1960s

It is pretty much an open secret that my parents and I did not get on, and that my father and I didn't reconcile until a few months before he died. That is ancient history now, but one of the sad knock-on effects is that I didn't have access to the family photos until after his death.

Pictures like these should really have been included in my 2004 book Monster Hunter but I only discovered them recently. It shows a young me (in about 1965) walking hand in hand with my father along one of the footpaths at Magazine Gap on Hong Kong Island. And the picture below is me, solo, at the same place. They perfectly compliment the following story...

Even the most rosy of rose-colored spectacles cannot detract from the fact that the animal exhibits at Hong-Kong botanical gardens of the 1960s were smelly and rather nasty disgraces. They consisted of three or four aviaries, some semi-wild monkeys (more about them later), and five or six rather shabby cages about the size of my living room and that contained a variety of not particularly spectacular zoo exhibits. The exhibits changed fairly rapidly. At the time, my mother intimated that this was because the animals went on holiday. Now, it seems perfectly obvious that this shabby and tawdry little menagerie had a high turnover of exhibits purely because the cages were so unsuitable that the inhabitants died with monotonous regularity.

The ever-shifting population included, at various times, Celebes crested macaques, an elderly and rather moth eaten Asian black bear, some coatis, an extremely large reticulated python, and a large, greenish-brown monitor lizard. From my earliest years, I have been always been fascinated by reptiles, amphibians and fish. As I write this, I can hear my tree frogs singing away in the corner of my sitting room, there is a Nile Monitor called Roger in an enormous vivarium in my bedroom, and the landing is home to a couple of alligator snapping turtles, a red eared terrapin, and a cane toad named “Little Noodles.” This monitor lizard in Hong Kong, however, was the first one that I had seen. I was familiar with Komodo Dragons from programs on television; but seeing a monitor lizard - albeit only three or four feet in length - in the flesh was a true revelation. I remember squatting on my haunches, outside, and gazing at the miserable reptile in awe. It sat there on the bare concrete floor of its cage, motionless for much of the time; though occasionally it would slither unenthusiastically towards the fetid pool of stagnant, green, scummy water that served both as drinking water and its bath.

Having shared a bedroom with a monitor lizard for several years now, I am more conversant with their mores. Roger likes nothing more than to defecate in his water that has to be changed on a regular basis to avoid it becoming an open sewer. This knowledge may help one realize why this glorious lizard was only resident at the Botanical Gardens for a brief period and before - like so many of its predecessors - going on “holiday.”

The upper part of Victoria Peak was encircled with a number of footpaths that partly, or wholly, circumnavigated the mountain. It was my family's practice to go into the countryside for walks on Sunday afternoons; and on one Sunday afternoon in 1967 or 1968, we were walking along the footpath which heads from Magazine Gap into the forested interior of the island.

One of the defining characteristics of the mind of a small child is the way that it accepts everything at face value. Despite having a patchy, but in places surprisingly deep, knowledge of the fauna of Hong Kong I was not particularly surprised, therefore, when during our Sunday afternoon walk, my family was confronted by the very same - or, so I thought, at the time - monitor lizard who had so recently “gone on holiday” from the Botanical Gardens crossing the footpath in front of us. It was greenish brown in color and stared straight at me accusingly, with little beady black eyes, and disappeared into the undergrowth that flanked the tiny footpath.

This incident would probably have been merely consigned to the flotsam and jetsam of my childhood memories if it had not been for another incident that took place a few years later. In the September of 1970, I left the primary school which I had attended since the age of six and began secondary school. I was a pupil at Island School, which had only been founded four years previously, and was - at the time - based in what had been a military hospital on Bowen Rd in the Mid-Levels. It was a strange place with a peculiar zeitgeist. It was popularly believed to have been haunted and the memoirs of its first headmaster, Geoffrey Speke, include amusing recollections of early pupils who had been fed ghost stories by their amahs, and who were old enough to remember how the hospital had been the site of some of the worst atrocities of the Second World War. The invading Japanese troops had massacred, tortured and raped, patients and nursing staff in the hospital and it was widely believed that their ghosts remained. I can honestly say that I never saw anything even mildly paranormal there, but the shadow of its macabre past enveloped the school like a shroud.

I do remember - during the hot autumn of 1970 - being appalled to find the bodies of dog faced fruit bats that had been crucified on the trunks of the huge palm trees and that surrounded the school grounds. It appeared that this was the work of local Chinese building contractors who were working on new buildings for the school and who believed that these utterly harmless creatures were possessed of evil Spirits. However, on the plus side Island School had a zoo. It wasn't a very big zoo, but it was undoubtedly a zoo. It was presided over by a lady called Mrs. Maylett and it included several Gibbons, at least two of the local species of civet, a rhesus monkey, a long tailed macaque, large numbers of birds, some reptiles and some smaller domestic livestock which was beneath my dignity to take an interest in. Dr. John Romer - the zoologist who took over from Herklots in the early 1950s as the leading authority on Hong Kong animals (especially the Reptiles and Amphibians) - was a frequent visitor, and on at least two occasions he donated beasts from his own collection to the Island School Zoo. One of these was a large Burmese python, and the other was a locally caught Chinese water monitor (Varanus salvator).

I'd been vaguely aware for years that water monitors occasionally were to be found in Hong Kong. If I had thought about it - and I am not going to do a Stalinist rewrite of history and imbue my eight year old alter ego with insights that I certainly didn't have at that time - I probably would have thought that the monitor lizard that my family and I had seen a few years earlier near Magazine Gap had been of the species. However, when I saw Romer's magnificent specimen, it became perfectly obvious that the two species were entirely distinct. The water monitor is a distinctive lizard with a rather beautiful pattern of yellow dots that has given it the alternate name of golden water monitor. It is also a much more delicate creature than the slightly chunky lizard that I had seen both in the botanical gardens and - albeit for a few seconds - in the wild. The Water monitor is the only member of its family in Hong Kong, or indeed in most of China. If the animal that I had seen was not a water- monitor, what on earth was it?

Much to my joy, nearly 30 years after my original sighting, I discovered supporting evidence for the existence of a hitherto unknown species of large monitor lizard in Hong Kong. Over the years I have been collecting bound copies of The Hong Kong Naturalist. Sadly, it has become prohibitively expensive in recent years. A complete set was sold very recently for over £14,000. However, I have been collecting individual volumes as and when I can, and I have photocopies of many of the more interesting articles from the remaining volumes. One of these - amazingly - contains an account of the capture of a lizard that appears to be an unknown species of monitor, from Victoria Peak.

On the 21st January 1930 a lady walking along Lugard Road was frightened when she saw what she thought was a “miniature crocodile.” With the help of a passing policeman, some Chinese coolies, and a “Japanese gentleman who was passing” they cornered the creature. With great presence of mind the un-named Japanese Gentleman took off his coat and threw it over the animal. The lizard later allowed itself to be dumped in a sack and to be taken to a Police Station and ultimately to the Botanic Gardens where it “was placed in a cage.” The creature was examined by Dr Geoffrey Herklots, the most famous naturalist then living in Hong Kong. His description read thus:

Total length - 22 feet 10¼ inches, head: 6 inches, tail: 1 foot 6¼ inches.

Breadth - At neck 2¼ inches, middle of body 6 inches, in front of hind limbs 2½ inches, middle of tail 1 inch.

Depth - Base of tail 2 inches, groove along back and beginning of tail, ridge along rest of tail.

Colour - Above brown-grey, or deep olive, with yellow spots or hands, below a dirty yellow, neck no distinctive bands,

Eyes - Open and close independently, lower lids move upwards. Iris a marbled pale Vandyke brown with a very narrow white or very faintly yellow circle immediately next to pupil.

Herklots noted that this was only one of several records of strange lizards seen both on Hong Kong Island and on the mainland at the time. It was initially identified as Varanus bengalensis, a species that isn't actually found in China. It was also tentatively identified as an African species - Varanus albiguaris. The surviving photographs, however, suggest that it was not either of these species. It is also certain that it was not the indigenous Varanus salvator so what was it?

Today, exotic animals from all over the world are kept as pets, and escapees undoubtedly can and do become established in the wild; however, the international trade in exotic reptiles was almost non-existent seventy years ago. Therefore, the suggestion that the lizard that died soon after capture was an escaped African Varanus bengalensis can, I think, be discounted.

Unfortunately, the originals of the photographs were destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the Second World War, as was the preserved body of the unfortunate reptile. Two rather substandard pictures are all that remain. For what it is worth, however, I am convinced that the animal that I saw, and the creature photograph by Herklots, were of the same species. Precisely what it was remains a mystery.

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Benicek said...

Ah memories! I loved Island School zoo. When I was there in the early 80s they still had two iguanas, two monkeys, a bush baby and a million other small animals. They got rid of it in the 1990s. Nobody seems to have missed it much. Shame really.

Hon Ki said...

That unknown Monitor Lizard found at the Peak in 1930 was confirmed as Varanus albigularis, and presumably an imported lizard.
Dr. Herklots wrote a follow-up note on Hong Kong Naturalists few month after the original article.

Access: http://sunzi1.lib.hku.hk/hkjo/view/27/2700059.pdf