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A Different Urban Jungle
The Creatures of Hong Kong
Hong Kong is known as the Manhattan of Asia. And initially, it does appear very much like Manhattan, with densely packed towering skyscrapers (even more than in New York), giant screens on the sides of buildings, and lit up at night with dazzling light displays.
But what I didn’t realize was that all that is only at the bottom of Hong Kong Island. The top is a different world.
The topography of Hong Kong Island is astonishing. I was staying at the upper part of the urban area, which is reached from the business district by riding eighteen huge outdoor escalators. The roads which access the upper part are extraordinarily steep, even though they ascend diagonally, and one sees many cars groaning under the effort. At the top of the urban area are the same towering 50-storey skyscrapers as at the bottom.
Leaving my building on my first morning, I looked down upon the massive urban metropolis. But then I looked behind me, up to the top of the island. And I saw that it was covered in trees.
But this being Southeast Asia, it was no deciduous forest. This was a tropical jungle, not so different from the one that I had explored deep in Thailand. Just sixty years ago, there were tigers here. And it is still home to multiple species of snakes, including king cobras and Burmese pythons!
Alas, I didn’t get to see any of those (but fortunately we have some fifteen-foot Burmese pythons at the Biblical Museum of Natural History). But, walking through the jungle early one morning, I did get to see one of my favorite creatures: the giant golden orb-weaver spider.
Golden orb spiders are large, with females attaining a legspan of five to six inches, but they are much more delicately built than tarantulas. They are colored with an exquisite design of yellow and black.
But it is their golden webs for which they are renowned. These can be five feet across! And the silk is so strong that they sometimes ensare birds and bats.
These spiders are very rarely seen in captivity (their life cycle is less than a year). We have one at the BMNH, but in the Hong Kong jungle I saw many dozens of them. And that was just in two hours on one trail; there must have been millions of them.
Aside from the hilltop jungle, I had other animal experiences in Hong Kong. I visited Mong Kok, a neighborhood with many different markets. But the one which drew me was the so-called “Goldfish Market.” This was a street where every single one of the around one hundred stores was a pet store. Some had dogs and cats and rabbits, but majority were for fish, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. And there were all kinds of highly creative technological innovations for their maintenance, at ridiculously cheap prices.
I’ve been to pet stores all over the world, but I’ve never seen anything like the Mong Kok market. There must have been literally thousands of baby turtles, from many different species. There were large plastic crates with hundreds of frogs in each crate. And there were all kinds of colorful crabs and shrimps.
Then I went to the food market on the next street, and it was the exact same thing! Crates full of live turtles and frogs and crabs and shrimps!
It left me with some questions. I get that frogs and turtles are a delicacy in some parts of the world. And a week earlier, I had seen roasted frogs for sale in the food markets of Thailand. But why in the Hong Kong food markets were they being sold live? And what do the consumers do with them in order to eat them?
I shudder to think of what the answer might be! But while we are used to our food being dead at the time of purchase, it wasn’t always this way. Even in Manhattan, in the early twentieth century, buying chicken meant buying a live chicken and taking it to the shochet.
I really loved visiting Hong Kong. In fact, I was so enthralled with the animal market of Mong Kok that I went back again the next day, and again the day after that! But it’s somewhat of a relief to be back home in Israel. I love exotic pets and I love food, but it’s nice to be back in a place where there is a clear distinction between the two.
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