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Saving Hong Kong's water buffaloes

Feral animals face a bleak future on Lantau island's rural southern fringe

Jean Leung Siu-wah inspects the wound where a dog had bitten this aging water buffalo, named Ngau Ngau, on his tail. (Photo by David Sutton)

HONG KONG -- I first met Jean Leung Siu-wah at a small pavilion on the bank of a river in the village of Ham Tin, on Hong Kong's Lantau Island, where the energetic 60-something property agent was taking me to see an apartment. At the time, though, she seemed more interested in talking about the water buffaloes in the wetlands between the main South Lantau Road and the village.

I saw her again some weeks later as she was overseeing the supper of a large and very old-looking buffalo. "This is Ngau Ngau," she told me. "He can't move around well with the other buffaloes, [so] I have to look after him." Ngau Ngau raised his head briefly to munch on a trail of sweet potato leaves hanging from his chin, and Leung took the opportunity to spray anti-parasite fluid into his eye.

"Eyes are very susceptible to worms and other parasites due to all them rolling around in the mud and the river," she said. Ngau Ngau snorted contentedly and buried his nose in a bowl of oranges.

Twelve years ago Ngau Ngau was the dominant male of his herd, and a frequent forager in Leung's garden. There he made friends with her domestic helper, a Filipina whose family had kept buffaloes when she was a child. One day Ngau Ngau turned up limping badly. A broken leg, caused by the intervention of a bus while he was defending his realm, had put an end to his reign.

Leung contacted a vet, who did what he could to stabilize the injury. He told her that if she looked after him for a few weeks he would probably survive. She has been looking after him, and all the other buffaloes, ever since.

Leung gives Ngau Ngau's eye a wipe with anti-parasitic spray. (Photo by David Sutton)

Water buffaloes (Bubalus bubalis), are not native to Hong Kong. They were imported in the early 20th century because their strength made them ideal for plowing rice fields in coastal areas. After World War II Hong Kong developed rapidly into a manufacturing center, and as people left the farms for better-paying jobs elsewhere the livestock they owned were left to fend for themselves.

I often see feral cows along Hong Kong's numerous hiking trails, but the water buffaloes are concentrated in South Lantau. Leung thinks they number about 100 or so. She seems to know a good many of them by name.

The wetlands the animals inhabit were once rice paddies, but have been reclaimed by nature. They cover a continuous area of around 14.7 hectares between South Lantau Road and Pui O Beach, and include mangroves, mud flats, streams and estuaries. The region supports a rich biodiversity, with more than 180 bird species recorded there, including the regionally endangered brown fish owl and the Malayan night heron. There are around 90 species of butterflies, 17 kinds of dragonflies, a wide variety of frogs, toads and lizards, and innumerable aquatic species.

Top: A part of the wetlands that is still in a pristine state. Don't be misled by the luxuriant green of the grass -- there is about 5 cm of squelchy mud underneath. Bottom: This young male, known as Cunning Boy, is easily recognizable by the beautiful arc of his horns. (Photos by David Sutton)  

The buffaloes have become a symbol for the area. There is a restaurant named after them, one features prominently in a large mural on the side of the local school, and their gentle demeanor makes them a popular selfie backdrop for tourists. But their future is precarious. Although the whole area has been declared a Coastal Protection Zone, where construction is mostly prohibited, many plots remain privately owned. And in Hong Kong, where there is land, there are people eager to develop it.

One luxury campsite has already been built illegally, and planning permission for another had been sought. The plans were rejected after a petition aimed at gathering 800 signatures was signed by more than 5,000 people, but landowners know that permission is usually given eventually to persistent developers. In the meantime the land is being degraded by dumping of cargo containers and construction waste.

Leung worries that in a few years there could be no more buffaloes left anyway. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, the government body responsible for the animals, has already sterilized many of the females, and she fears their plan is to desex all of them. She points to a trio of month-old calves. "These could be the last generation," she says.

Yau Ching Leung of the AFCD said, "AFCD does not aim to eradicate all buffaloes. At this point, our department aims to sterilize 80% of buffaloes in South Lantau, so their number will gradually decrease to a stable population in the long term." A spokesman from the organization said a 2018 survey identified a total 120 buffaloes and that the population has increased since then.

Top: The local school wall boasts a mural featuring a buffalo and the wetlands. Bottom: The buffaloes also gave their name to a local restaurant and bar. (Photos by David Sutton)

Fighting also creates problems for the buffaloes. Herds are led by older dominant males, who face inevitable challenges from younger bulls. Although rare, these quarrels occasionally spill over into the villages. The buffaloes never charge at people, but in one case a startled elderly lady fell and broke an arm. Angry family members called the AFCD and the offending beast was tranquilized and sterilized.

Leung, who had the unhappy task of identifying the culprit, says the ultimate fate of such animals is unclear because the AFCD will not discuss the issue. "They say they release them somewhere else, but they never tell me where," she says. Leung adds that she has suggested that more males should be sterilized, to help calm them before problems occur, but has been told the department only has sufficient funds to deal with problem males.

Meanwhile, Leung provides a hearty banquet for Ngau Ngau every day, and monitors the well-being of other buffaloes in the area, carrying a utility belt packed with medicines, antiseptic wipes and anti-parasite sprays. Sometimes dogs attack the animals, leaving open wounds that quickly become infected or infested with parasites.

Buffaloes of all ages know that tasty snacks will be forthcoming whenever Leung is in the neighborhood. (Photo by David Sutton)

During the summer months the wetlands provide grazing for the herds, but in the winter the grasses die back and they are left with little food. To counter this Leung buys bales of hay which she distributes at regular times. If the buffaloes know when food is coming they will wait, but if there is no food they wander into the villages, raiding people's gardens and vegetable patches and leaving piles of fresh fertilizer.

For some, this is not necessarily a welcome transaction. But most of the local residents are supportive of Leung's efforts. Driving with her as she does her rounds I am impressed by the number of people who greet her, passing on news of the buffaloes' antics. Many contribute to the cost of the medicines and hay, which can run to as much as HK$150,000 ($19,355) per season.

The buffaloes are clearly grateful. They recognize Leung and her car, and will even vacate a luxurious pool of mud for a food handout and a parasite check. Since moving to the village I have discovered for myself that the animals seem to have excellent memories. I take out vegetable scraps and fruit peel out for them every morning -- not much more than a mouthful for a buffalo, but they always look up hopefully when I pass.

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