In Hong Kong, You Can Find a Home Where the Buffalo Roam

To city dwellers worried about mice and rats, spare a thought for Hong Kongers confronting half-ton feral beasts.

A few miles from some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the world, more than 1,000 cows and buffalo from abandoned farms roam the countryside. Development now is pushing them into harm’s way and onto roads.

Hong Kong represents an extreme example of the task many communities face of balancing conservation and growth. Wolves sniff near the suburbs of Paris, bears roam Lake Tahoe and moose stumble across the roads of Halifax. There’s a new word to describe how undomesticated animals adapt to man-made environments: synurbanization.

“The cow is very political,” said Ho Loy, a former thespian who now campaigns full-time for the buffalo of Lantau Island, site of the city’s Chek Lap Kok airport and Disneyland theme park. “It’s about development, about land rights, zoning, planning and animal policy.”

Depending on your point of view, the bovine are either beloved emblems of a pastoral past or annoying traffic obstacles. For decades, herds of cows freed from shuttered farms prowled the fallow rice paddies and fields in the villages of both Lantau and the New Territories, the area bordering China.

The buffalo were brought in later -- though no one’s sure when -- by a butcher hoping to sell their meat in the Lantau village of Pui O. Some say the animals were let go because no one liked the product; others say his children abandoned the business. In any case, trouble soon followed as the beasts began raiding villagers’ gardens.

‘Kind Animals’

“Cows are kind animals,” said Wan Tung Yat, a member of the South Lantau Rural Committee whose family has lived in Pui O for at least a century. “Buffalo are fierce. Just like a weapon.”

The government estimates about 1,100 cattle and 120 buffalo remain. Their fate emerged as an issue last year, when an airline pilot driving on Lantau stumbled across a scene of carnage: eight dead and dying cows. A 49-year-old British expat was arrested after cow blood and hair were found on her car. She was convicted in May of failing to provide police with information after refusing to disclose the driver’s identity.

The cows and buffalo represent collateral damage in a battle over the future of potentially billions of dollars of prime real estate. On one side are descendants of indigenous villagers eager to sell what they claim to be ancestral land. On the other are environmentalists and newcomers fighting to preserve what’s left of a bucolic landscape.

Record Prices

Prices of existing homes in Hong Kong reached a record this year, leaving the government struggling to find more land to build new dwellings.

Deepening the property scramble is a 42-year-old policy that gives men who can prove their ancestors lived in the villages since 1898 the right to a plot for a house. The measure was adopted by the British colonial government in 1972 as urbanization began pricing villagers out of their homes.

Now, they convert land zoned for farming or conservation into developments using loopholes that allow them to degrade the land by dumping on it or using it for parking or storage, said Wong Fook Yee, adjunct professor of geology and resource management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Soaring prices have set off a fight for control of Pui O, a microcosm of what’s happening elsewhere, as villagers sue each other over contested plots.

Infinite Descendants

The problem is that there’s an innumerable number of descendants and a finite amount of land, according to Mandy Lao, author of a report on the housing policy for Civic Exchange, an independent research institute. The government has no estimate for how many people are eligible for land.

The Heung Yee Kuk, which literally translates as rural council and is the statutory body representing villagers in the New Territories, said in 2003 there are about 240,000 eligible men.

The colonial-era policy, intended to promote affordable housing, has also led to the parcels being sold. Almost 40,000 small-house applications were approved up to 2011. Yet, more than 10,000 villagers sold their plots, according to Civic Exchange.

While there’s no figure for the value of those sales, villagers paid HK$8.2 billion (US$1 billion) in sale fees to the government, a fraction of the value of the land, the Civic Exchange analysis said.

Senior Figure

One person -- Lau Wong-fat, called the King of the New Territories by Hong Kong media -- amassed 724 plots, the South China Morning Post reported in 2010.

“It’s like a conflict you’d see in rural France or England,” said Jason Wordie, 47, a local historian and writer. “The newcomers go and live in a little village and want it just like that. The farmer looks and says ‘I’m sitting on some land of no use to me or my family. I want to develop it.’ You find this in many parts of the world.”

The friends of the herds emerged a decade ago after the government policy of slaughtering and selling the meat of unclaimed cattle sparked an uproar.

In 2003, Marcus Tancock, then owner of the Body Shop International Plc cosmetics shops in Hong Kong and Macau, set up the Lantau Buffalo Association with two other people. He sold 75 percent of his franchise for HK$156.5 million in 2004 and now lives in Spain.

Preventing the Cull

He once used his private helicopter to chase away officials seeking to cull buffalo, says association co-founder Jenny Quinton. A former teacher, she has established Ark Eden, an environmental center and farm in a valley near Pui O.

“The hardest part is balancing between the welfare of the animals and the desires of the local people,” said Esther To, a veterinarian at the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.

There isn’t much literature about how to handle wild animals that aren’t too wild, she said. When the government started a de-sexing program in 2011 to stabilize the cattle population, they brought in an expert from Australia.

To discourage cows from wandering into towns, the government now is trying to relocate herds. Because cows have a homing instinct, authorities swapped cows between Lantau and Sai Kung, a village 20 miles away in the New Territories.

Smugglers Suspected

Still, cows keep finding trouble. In the case of the Lantau eight, village representative Wan has a theory on the killer’s identity. There’s no way a sport-utility vehicle could hit that many animals and come away with a dented fender, he said. He thinks the culprit was one of the truckers driving the lightly policed roads at midnight smuggling iPhones into China from one of the old pirate coves, he said.

How does he know about the smugglers? They once tried to recruit him.

Meantime, environmentalists such as Ho and Quinton said the buffalo can revive Hong Kong’s wetlands by digging up dry fields, letting in water that attracts wildlife. The World Wide Fund for Nature-Hong Kong has taken some buffalo to a nature preserve where they help maintain water flow.

“I have a very personal relationship with the buffalo,” Quinton said. When she moved to Lantau 25 years ago, they were still pulling carts on the country roads. “For people who have lived on Lantau a long time, you really appreciate having the deer and the bats and the buffalo and the cows.”