What's up with the buffaloes on Lantau Island?

What's up with the buffaloes on Lantau Island?

Greens battle to protect a handful of wild buffaloes, the last survivors of Lantau's agricultural heyday
Lantau buffalo
The buffalo need us and we need the buffalo. (Courtesy Steve Knipp)

Lackadaisical water buffalos wander Lantau Island, munching curbside grass, blocking traffic. That’s part of the island’s charm. A 30-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong’s bustling Central Business District leads to a rural time warp. Buffalo are less noticeable these days in Mui Wo, though. The government killed half of the small local herd and only three remain.

Ho Loy, the chairwoman of the Lantau Buffalo Association (LBA), took us on a tour of Mui Wo’s buffalo stomping grounds.

“We need the buffalo here. The wetland needs them. History needs them. Humans need them. They are a tourist attraction and make Lantau unique and exciting,” Ho says.

Buffalo may add idyllic ambiance to Lantau day trips, but the government decided to remove Mui Wo’s dwindling herd after a buffalo gored a tourist on Silvermine Beach on March 28. A young bull charged a man walking with his three-year-old daughter. The animal tossed him in the air, and he suffered severe leg injuries. The child was not injured.

Ho says residents previously witnessed teenagers trying to ride buffalos on the beach, and the animals were likely agitated by loud construction projects in their wetland habitat.

Hong Kong authorities responded to the incident the following day. Vets from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) anesthetized one buffalo on the edge of the Luk Tei Tong estuary and loaded it into a truck. The buffalo died en route to an animal center in New Territories. On the same day, vets euthanized two other buffalo in remote areas inaccessible by vehicle.

Buffalo attacks are rare. Ho says the only other buffalo attack during her seven years with the LBA occurred five years ago after beachgoers pelted the animal with stones on Pui O Beach. Fewer than 200 feral buffalo (and fewer than 800 feral cattle) live in Hong Kong. Ho says about 63 buffalo live on Lantau Island. More than 30 live in the Pui O “nursery herd.”

Smaller herds are scattered around the island (including Mui Wo). The government does not have an official tally of buffalo (or cattle) populations.

Lantau buffaloThe buffalo are part of the attraction of Lantau's beaches. (Courtesy Steve Knipp)

Ho rents a bike from a Mui Wo shop and sets out to check on the three buffalo. She stops at the Luk Tei Tong estuary. Wang Tong Village hovers on the horizon. The area was once a rice field.

Water buffalo and cattle used to pull plows for local farmers here. Ho says farmers abandoned the animals sometime around the 1970s, when real estate displaced agricultural interests across Hong Kong. She steps through the overgrown field. A hulk of gray rises from the path ahead.

“An old buffalo of maybe five years old,” she says. The rising animal startles a white egret. We watch from a distance. Ho explains that buffalo’s vital role in preserving what remains of Mui Wo’s wetland habitat: “We call them ‘wetland angels.’ They help increase bird and plant biodiversity. They help aerate the soil, and their poop and dead bodies enrich microorganisms and keeps biochemistry active in the wetland.”

She walks back to her bicycle, passing the same spot where the AFCD wrestled with buffalos recently.

Dr. Howard Wong took over the AFCD’s Principle Veterinary Officer job a few months ago. He plans to move Mui Wo’s buffalos to Mai Po Nature Reserve under the management of the World Wildlife Fund. The LBA had initially supported the arrangement, he said.

“Public safety is our priority. We cannot allow an NGO to be responsible for public safety. It just doesn’t work. We need to be responsible. We get the blamed when we put down some buffalo deemed to be aggressive, but that’s our job,” Wong said.

“The longer you keep three large bulls in Mui Wo, the more chance you have of another incident happening. Having found a great place to put them (in Mai Po), we would appeal to rational minds, that for the benefit of these buffalo, we should move them.”

Beginning this week, the AFCD launched community outreach projects to educate local buffalo-lovers in Lantau and Sai Kung while continuing a large-scale de-sexing operation to stabilize buffalo populations.

Upon arriving at the estuary last Wednesday, the AFCD found two buffalos. Veterinarians darted both. One wandered into a marsh and collapsed. Staff struggled to pull the animal onto dry land, while the other became dangerously bloated. Wong ordered reversal medication to wake the buffalos, lest relocation result in death.

Back on her bike, Ho rides through the Wang Tong Village en route to other popular buffalo spots. She stops on a bridge crossing a new sewage canal. She said the “beautification project” diverted the Luk Tei Tong and Tai Tei Tong rivers to prevent flooding and devastated the wetland habitat.

“We need to learn how to live in harmony with our surroundings,” she says. Mui Wo’s wetland consists of three waterways that empty through Silvermine Beach.

“This is where the buffalo used to spend most of their time,” Ho says. “Now people are more aggressive about making the area tourist friendly by drying the wetland. They could have used more environmentally friendly architecture, unfortunately, that wasn’t considered.”

Lantau buffalo"Some of the old people feel that the buffalo define them as country bumpkins," Diane Stormont of Lantau Link.

Mui Wo residents stop to greet Ho and voice support for the buffalo. One resident, Maria Currie says, “They’re always walking here. Bicyclists just ring their bells, and they move over.” Another passerby, Steven Knipp (a member of the LBA) says he suspects the Mui Wo Rural Committee wants the buffalo gone to rezone land for development.

The government sees a different perspective from residents. Dr. Wong says indigenous villagers are extremely vocal about removing Mui Wo’s buffalos.

Longtime resident Diane Stormont says the Mui Wo Rural Committee doesn’t reflect popular sentiment.

“Some of the old people feel that the buffalo define them as country bumpkins. They’d like to see the road open, and they’d like to see more business, so it’s basically concrete versus the environment,” she says. “The rural committee never really talk to anyone but their little clique. So all they get is complaints.”

Stormont is a journalist and founded the Lantau Link (a community-focused news website), which has launched a petition to halt relocation efforts. The petition has about 300 signatures at the moment. She is concerned that buffalo relocation from Mui Wo could set precedent jeopardizing the fate of Lantau’s other buffalo herds.

Ho crosses the Tai Tei Tong stream girdled by concrete walls. “This is so horrible, where can they hide?” she asks, lamenting the buffalo’s plight. She rides along the white sands of Silvermine Beach and turns up the mountain. She passes two patches of overgrown grassland and scans for animals. New houses rise above a narrowing Wang Tong stream. Ho chats with a local mother. The woman worries that buffalos pose a safety risk to her children.

New residential developments are increasing around Hong Kong’s nature areas. Idyllic locations come with unexpected side-effects. In Lantau, Ho says that means people often call the LBA hotline to complain about cow dung on streets and sidewalks.

Fiona Woodhouse, a director at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says animals often suffer from the conundrum: “If there is a conflict with nature, then for the animals’ sake, something must be done. If development continues (in Mui Wo), and there’s not enough grassland or wetland for the buffalo to live, then obviously the buffalo can’t stay there.”

“Whether development should go ahead is another issue,” she says. The LBA has requested the government delay relocation plans.

Dr. Wong says the AFCD would meet with the association and community leaders soon. Ho says the association has not reached consensus regarding the possible relocation, although she personally hopes the buffalo will remain in Mui Wo.