There’s an informal campsite and firepit in Mui Wo that nearby resident Pete Sweeney liked to visit with his friends. “We used to go there with a grill and whatnot,” he says. Then he had an unpleasant encounter. “One time we went, it was already night, and we rolled up to see these terrifying glowing eyes looking at us,” he says. “It was a group of buffalo reflecting our flashlight, but it was terrifying. We started a fire but they took exception. One came over and basically pushed us off it, then laid down right next to it.”
Sweeney and his friends took that as their cue to leave. “You don’t argue with water buffalo,” he says. He’s had the wounds to prove it: once, while mountain biking, he tried to bypass a buffalo when it attacked him. It left him with a huge bruise.
City-dwellers are used to dealing with urban wildlife like rats and pigeons. But just beyond the urban areas of Hong Kong—sometimes within sight of high-rise housing estates—there are herds of feral cows and buffalo. Given that it’s the Year of the Ox, it seems only natural to shine a light on the bovine creatures that share our city. Where exactly did they come from? And what will happen to them?
The answer to the first question is simple: they aren’t from around here. Water buffalo, Bubalus bubalis, can be divided into two main groups. River buffalo are larger, with darker skin, and are mainly found between India in the east and Italy in the west. Swamp buffalo are smaller, with slate-blue skin, and their range extends from northeastern India, through Southeast Asia and up to the Yangtze River in China. Both trace their origins back to wild river buffalo, Bubalus arnee, that were domesticated in India about 5,000 years ago and in China about 4,000 years ago.
Buffalo have been traded in agricultural markets for thousands of years, prized for their strength and their usefulness in ploughing fields. They were originally imported to Hong Kong by rice farmers. When local rice production waned in the 1970s, many were slaughtered, but others were set free. In 2018, the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) estimated there were 120 buffalo, most of them roaming the lush valleys and wetlands of southern Lantau, and their numbers have increased since then.
It’s a similar story for cows. It’s unclear when cattle were first imported to Hong Kong, but many of those Bos taurus trace their local roots back to the dairy farms that once supplied the city with fresh milk. (Buffalo also produce milk, and while the Pearl River Delta city of Shunde is famous for buffalo milk pudding and salty buffalo cheese that is melted over congee, such delicacies never seemed to have been produced in Hong Kong.) Once again, when local agriculture began to dwindle, farmers simply released their herds rather than slaughter them.
The AFCD estimated there were 1,100 wild cattle in Hong Kong in 2018. Their range is more widespread than buffalo. They meader freely down residential streets in Mui Wo, or stray onto roads in Sai Kung, blocking traffic. Anyone going for a walk up Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s tallest mountain, will encounter herds of cattle grazing serenely in the mist.
Their relative abundance reflects the fact that cows were more abundant in local agriculture than buffalo. Along with dairy cows, local farmers used cattle as draught animals; in the 1950s and 60s, the Kadoorie family gave the creatures away as charity. They were also raised as beef, and anyone who has enjoyed a show at the Cattle Depot Artists Village has stood in the place where local cows were housed on their journey from the farm to the slaughterhouse.
The fate of Hong Kong’s bovine inhabitants remains unclear. The AFCD has been gradually sterilising Lantau’s female buffalo, although the department claims it is not trying to wipe out the population; its goal is to sterilise 80 percent of the population in order to keep its numbers under control. But with the growing pace of urban development on Lantau, the buffalo have fewer and fewer places to roam.
That’s true for Hong Kong’s cattle, too. As Sai Kung becomes more densely populated, conflicts between cows and humans have grown. Some are killed by cars when they stray onto roads, something volunteers at Sai Kung Buffalo Watch try to avoid by luring cows away from thoroughfares, jingling car keys, splashing them with water or lulling them with soothing sounds. Two years ago in Mui Wo, four feral cows burst into a Fusion supermarket and made a beeline for the produce section, where they enjoyed a buffet dinner before being chased out of the store.
The government’s response has been to trap some animals and release them deep into country parks. But animals roam where they like, so the main strategy for now is cohabitation – even if that sometimes means surrendering your campfire to a herd of tough-looking buffalo.
Slider: photos by @lesterlaut (Lester Lau), Christopher DeWolf, Michael Hansen