Did you know that large, man-eating crocodiles used to roam throughout across coastal southern China? Historical records indicate they ranged from Vietnam all the way up to the lower Minjiang River in present day Fujian province and even to the Penghu Islands of Taiwan. As you might have guessed that range also includes the lower Pearl River and present day Hong Kong and Macau.
Pui Pui-Hong Kong Reptilian Celebrity
On the 2nd of November 2003 a saltwater crocodile was spotted in the Shan Pui River (山貝河) near Yuen Long and caused a media frenzy in HK. For several weeks Australian crocodile hunter John Lever tried unsuccessful to capture it and months of effort on the part of mainland Chinese experts also failed. Finally almost 7 months later on the 10th of June 2004 Hong Kong’s own AFCD’s conservation officers captured the crocodile after it wandered into a trap laid by the department. The 4-year old female crocodile’s measured 1.5m and weighed 14 kg and belonged the species Crocodylus porosus – the Saltwater crocodile or saltie. That is the same species that frequently makes headlines for killing humans (mostly tourists that ignore the eagerly advice) in Australia’s Northern Territory! Saltwater crocodile is one of the largest reptiles in the world. A mature male can reach 6 to 7 metres in length whereas female can reach 2.5 to 3 metres. Young saltwater crocodile feeds on insects, amphibians, small reptiles and fishes. Adults feed on large animals like buffalo! Wild saltwater crocodile is widely distributed throughout Asian Pacific from coastal India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia to Northwest Australia and Papua New Guinea.
By August 2004 a public naming competition was held before the animal was named “Pui Pui”. “Pui Pui” is a transliteration of the Chinese characters 貝貝 in the crocodile’s Chinese name, which is a pun indicating that it came from Shan Pui River and is the apple of the public’s eye. Although no one knows where the crocodile came from, it is suspected that she might be an illegal pet escaped from their owner’s home or was dumped into the river after she had grown too big.
Saltwater Crocodiles in China?
Records of saltwater crocodiles in China come primarily from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) through to Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD); during this time period large crocodiles (presumably saltwater crocodiles) apparently preyed on both humans and livestock within the region. But the saltwater crocodile population decreased severely following the Song Dynasty.
The Chinese words/characters jiao or jiaolong anciently named a four-legged water dragon creature which may be identified as both “alligator” and “crocodile” . The “Dragons and Snakes” section of the (1578 CE) Bencao Gangmu – an ancient Chinese Medical Textbook – differentiates between a jiaolong (蛟龍) “Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)” and tolong (鼉龍) “Chinese Alligator, (Alligator sinensis)“. Most early references describe the jiaolong as living in rivers – which fits both “Chinese alligator” and “Saltwater crocodile” – and spending the tropical wet season in freshwater rivers and swamps. Comparing maximum lengths of 8 meters and 1.5 meters for this crocodile and alligator, respectively, “Saltwater crocodile” seems more consistent with descriptions of jiao dragons reaching lengths of several zhang (丈)”- (1 zhang = approximately 3.3 meters)”. Early texts often mention capturing jiao. For example the (ca. 111 CE) Hanshu records the catching of a jiao 蛟 in 106 BCE. So these may be historical but cryptic references to Saltwater Crocodiles in China. Jialong, incidentally, is also the name of China’s deep-sea submersible.
The most recent records of the saltwater crocodile within China comes from a record in Guangxi province from the 19th Century and some bone fragments found in Hong Kong in 1922. Although I tried my best to find any information on the 1922 bone fragments, it turned up nothing (if anyone has any information on this and can help, please leave a comment!). It appears likely that the species became extinct in all of China well over a century ago and already dissapeared from most of its Chinese habitat many centuries ago. A sharp increase in the human population in the region about 600 years ago and the widespread destruction of habitat that followed is likely to blame for their disappearance.
But Pui Pui was by no means the last appearance of a large crocodilian in Hong Kong:
- In 2012 , a 1.2-meter-long crocodile was found abandoned in an aquarium at a refuse-collection station in Tai Po. This was a abandoned pet, though.
- In 2014 a man living along the coastal Siu Lam area in Hong Kong’s Tuen Mun district said he spotted a five-foot-long crocodile at the waters near his villa but unfortunately he could not get his camera in time and later searches by the police failed to find the animal. A cleaning worker whom the police spoke to also said that a security guard told her that a crocodile-like creature appeared at the beach by the housing estate two days earlier, but it was gone when both of them went to check. As a result several public beaches including Golden Beach, Cafeteria Old Beach and Castle Peak Beach were temporarily shut.
What happened to Pui Pui?
Three days after its capture the crocodile was moved to Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden (KFBG) where it had access to open-air enclosures, ponds, shelters and natural settings that were more suitable for healthy growth and where vets could monitor it. It then spent the first 3 months in quarantine before moving it into an open-air enclosure. Initially it refused to eat.
In 2006 Pui Pui was moved again to the newly built Hong Kong Wetlands Park in Tin Shui Wai. There she has a 72-square-metre outdoor enclosure with pool area, landscaped and equipped with infra-red heaters, heat pads and a weighing scale.
The general public got its first glimpse of Pui Pui exploring its outdoor enclosure in the Hong Kong Wetland Park in September 2006. At that time Pui Pui had grown to 1.75 m I. Length and 19.5 kg in weight. Now Pui Pui is about 15 years old, and according to the latest information (February 2015) from the AFCD it now measures 2.46 m in length and weights about 58.5 kg! You can see her for yourself at the HK Wetlands Park where she will be likely basking in the sun or feeding on fresh fish and chicken.
Pui Pui’s Fame
In December 2004 Alan Jefferies and Liang Yue wrote a bilingual children’s book based on Pui Pui’s story called “The Crocodile Who Wanted To Be Famous” with illustrations by Mariko Jesse. The story is about a television-loving crocodile named Crafty that swims from his riverside village to find fame in the big city. His arrival is front-page news all around the world, but once there, he begins to question what he really wants.