Hong Kongers warned about wild monkeys
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Hong Kongers warned about wild monkeys

First human B-virus case prompts officials to warn people not to provoke animals

Making eye contact or eating in front of a wild monkey can provoke them to attack, an official has warned. (Photo: South China Morning Post)
Making eye contact or eating in front of a wild monkey can provoke them to attack, an official has warned. (Photo: South China Morning Post)

HONG KONG: Hong Kong hikers should avoid provoking wild monkeys by eating in front of them, holding plastic bags or making eye contact, a wildlife official has said, adding some residents' interactions with the animals are "well-intentioned, but not very helpful".

Shek Chung-tong, a senior fauna conservation officer with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, issued the warning two days after a 37-year-old man was confirmed as the city’s first human case of the deadly B-virus (Herpes virus B) following a monkey attack.

According to the Hospital Authority, the patient's condition had improved from "critical" to "serious" as of Friday morning.

"When one visits parks where monkeys live, you must first and foremost not take anything out to eat," Shek told a radio programme.

"You will also be better off not holding plastic bags and hiding your food in backpacks. They might mistake you for withholding food from them based on their past experience, and will try to snatch them off you."

Shek said looking at the monkeys in the eye would provoke them, while approaching the animals could startle or irritate them, causing them to overreact.

He also described some residents' decision to feed high-sugar foods such as apples and bananas to monkeys as "well-intentioned, but not helpful".

Such habits would affect the monkeys' health and make them more accustomed to seeking out human foods, the official added.

The department said it had planted hundreds of thousands of trees in country parks over the years to serve as a source of food for the monkeys.

Reports of nuisance caused by monkeys have hovered at about 200 to 300 annually for the past three years, while those of injuries stood at five to eight cases.

The data represents a significant drop from 2006 and 2007, when the annual number of nuisance reports was about 1,000.

Since 2007, the department has entrusted the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation with performing contraceptive and sterilisation surgeries on monkeys.

Official estimates suggest about 70% of Hong Kong's wild monkey population, more than 1,900 animals, have been sterilised.

Shek said on Friday that the department planned to ramp up sterilisation efforts over the next five years and achieve an annual target of 100 to 120 monkeys.

The city's first recorded human case of the B virus was revealed on Wednesday. The man was admitted to Tsuen Wan's Yan Chai Hospital with a fever and decreased level of consciousness on March 21.

The virus, also known as the human simiae virus, can spread to people from macaques, a type of wild monkey common in Hong Kong, which naturally carry the disease in their saliva, urine and stool.

Authorities said a preliminary investigation indicated the patient previously had contact with wild monkeys and was injured during a trip to Kam Shan Country Park in late February.

Dr Wilson Lam, president of the Hong Kong Society of Infectious Diseases, told the same radio programme on Friday that the virus was "very rare", with only about 50 human infections and 21 deaths recorded since it was discovered in 1932.

"We don't know the virus very well, but based on the limited data, if humans are in contact with the virus, there's a high chance of infection," he said. "It can have serious health consequences that affect the spinal nerves and central nervous system."

Lam said bites and scratches from wild monkeys should be disinfected as soon as possible, ideally within five minutes. If disinfecting the wound was not immediately possible, it should be cleaned with running water for 15 minutes, he added.

"You could potentially kill the virus through disinfection, and when washing it away, you can at least lower the viral load from the [monkey's] fluids. Otherwise, the virus can enter into the body's system," he said.

Lawmaker Steven Ho Chun-yin, who represents the agriculture and fisheries functional constituency, said authorities' information efforts and public awareness about the risks of feeding monkeys needed to improve.

According to the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance, feeding any wild animal is prohibited in Hong Kong to prevent them from losing their ability to forage in the wild.

Anyone convicted of breaching the law can face a fine of up to HK$10,000 (47,000 baht).

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