Wild boars roaming the paths of Hong Kong. Credit: Martin Williams, Cathay Pacific Magazine, 2019.

A wild boar in Aberdeen Country Park, Hong Kong. Credit: Martin Williams, Cathay Pacific Magazine, 2019.

Hong Kong's wild boars

5 February 2023

In November 2021, the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department announced that it would reverse its long-standing policy on trapping and neutering wild boar in the city. The government implemented its new bait-and-kill policy in an effort to manage the animal population and to control what had been an increasingly visible nuisance problem.

In the leadup to the decision, the media had reported widely on several wild boar attacks that year including an incident involving a pop star’s 83-year-old mother who fractured her hip and shattered her elbow after an encounter near her home. With growing attention towards the number of people injured by wild boars, the precipitating incident for the government’s change of policy occurred earlier in the month on 9 November, when an injured boar sighted at North Point had knocked down and bit a Hong Kong auxiliary police officer who had been called on the scene to assist.

In the 14 months following the decision, 320 wild boars have been killed as of December 2022. Hong Kong’s cull of its wild boar population has sparked fierce debate, weighing the issue of tolerance and risk with regard to human safety, as people and wildlife share the same space.

There is never a quick fix to the problem, according to Dr Hannah Mumby, Assistant Professor of School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, who shared her views in an interview. Mumby has been studying the behavioural interactions between elephants and humans in the field for years in Africa, India, and countries in Southeast Asia. This has parallels with the matter of wild boars, since such an understanding of human and wildlife co-adaptation might be extrapolated.

No easy solutions to the boar ‘problem’

Interactions with humans can over time alter the animals’ personalities, preferences or even physical traits, Mumby says. For example, selective ivory harvesting in Africa has led to an overall decrease in tusk size for many elephant clans. Elephants have also developed a taste for agricultural crops and household food waste, and as a result they will seek out these food sources. The roving groups of hungry elephants often cause damage to farmers’ property and are regarded as a nuisance to human communities that surround natural habitats.

Elephants cross a tea garden to enter a paddy field in India. Credit: STR/EPA, the Guardian.

The similarities are clear in Hong Kong and its wild boar population. In 2019, Mumby started the ‘Hong Kong Wild Boar Project’ which began as a way to investigate the various patterns and incidents of human-wild boar interaction. She embarked on this project with the encouragement of Professor David Dudgeon, Emeritus Professor of Ecology & Biodiversity at the university. The goal was to understand the relationship between wildlife and people in a local context.

“How wild boars behave around people and how people behave around them are the pair of on-going questions right here,” Mumby explained. “There are also no easy solutions, as there are many intertwined factors contributing to the problems, such as food waste management, urban planning, media interest and people’s perceptions towards wildlife.”

The importance of integrating social dimension and ecological information

In 2022, Mumby and the team published a paper in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife. Their work investigated the differences in reporting human-wild boar interactions in Chinese- and English-language news media. They found that the former would typically quote the feelings of local residents while the latter would emphasise the opinions of nongovernmental organisations, charities or lobby groups, causing a great discrepancy in perceptions towards boars. This study underscores the importance of incorporating people’s attitudes and bringing humans into ecological studies and their application.

Wild boards wandering along the paths of Hong Kong. Credit: The Hong Kong Wild Boar Project, Hannah Mumby Lab

Language is revealing in the way people frame human-wildlife relationships, and could be a hindrance to the success of co-adaptation. “I do not think ‘conflict’ that is usually used in discussing the boar problem is suitable, since the word itself already has a negative implication,” Mumby said. “I prefer using the term ‘co-exisiting’; it’s more neutral.”

Far more than semantics, these terms address prevailing attitudes. This is really just the beginning, according to Mumby. A comprehensive solution would require extensive conversations and nuanced consideration of how to shape Hong Kong’s multiuse landscape. “To start with, we need to ask ourselves: what is an acceptable number for boar in town? What are the acceptable behaviours? We need to bear in mind that it is a shared space for both human and other wildlife like boars.”

A wild boar holds a plastic lid in its mouth as it eats leftovers from a barbecue pit at Aberdeen Country Park in Hong Kong. Credit: Reuters, the Japan Times

We see echoes of this elsewhere within the city and beyond its borders. Last year, Hong Kong lawmakers turned its attention the prohibition on feeding wildlife, extending that to birds such as feral pigeons. Scientists and wildlife experts have also observed the growth of wild boar population throughout Europe, with one statistic estimating as much as 1 million boars roaming in just the Italian countryside and causing about US$22 million of agricultural damage per year. These reports underscore the challenge of protecting our communities while also sustaining wildlife.

Mumby’s work shines a light on the unintended consequences of human-wildlife interactions and the hazards of regarding our landscape as a strict dichotomy between us and them. The goal may not be simply to eliminate human injuries or damage to property. Learning new interventions and successful management of co-existence would involve an integrated understanding of the impacts interactions also have on wildlife.

“We have already seen many boars are overweight compared to those that are not fed by hikers,” Mumby said. “We also saw an increasing amount of plastic content in the dead boar’s stomach because they find food in the rubbish bins. It’s just their nature, of course they use what they have, of course they behave what they would be.”

“The point is we should have inclusive urban planning with our best knowledge so as to integrate things around peacefully.”