Hong Kong's Buffalo Wars

Hong Kong has a history of obliterating its own history, tearing out vibrant neighborhoods and villages and replacing them with new forests of high rise skyscrapers. Now it's developers and indigenous villagers on Lantau Island who are seeking to obliterate another bit – the clutch of water buffalo left over from the island's farming days.

But it hasn't been easy, with a flock of expatriates and villagers opposing the territory's luckless Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department as they attempt to remove the ponderous animals that wallow in the mud near the village of Mui Wo.

The controversy has even spurred an editorial in the South China Morning Post, arguing that the animals have the same rights under Hong Kong's Basic Law, its constitution, as human beings do. "The water buffaloes of Lantau Island are as traditional and indigenous an inhabitant as there can be," the Post thundered in its editorial.

The animals are all that is left of herds that numbered in the hundreds in the days when the territory's outer islands were covered with farms. Lantau, bigger than Hong Kong Island itself and characterized by steep mountains rising from the sea, was until fairly recently relatively pastoral, dotted with a handful of fishing villages and monasteries, a sanctuary an hour's ferry ride away from the densely urbanized city. It has also been a cheap place to live for expatriates.

However, particularly on the north side of the island urbanization has arrived in full force, with the development of the massive Chek Lap Kok international airport, which is about to get a third runway, requiring the filling of another 650 hectares of harbor.

Overall the territory is one of the most urbanized places on the planet, with a population density of 6,480 residents per square kilometer, rising to more than 50,000 per sq km in some areas, As enormous developments have continued to eat up farmland, the herds of wild cattle and water buffalo that have grazed there have been slowly eliminated, usually to outraged comments in the local press by expatriates.

The agriculture department's case hasn't been helped by the fact that officials accidentally killed 16 of 17 of the animals they were attempting to move in 2007. The Lantau community of Mui Wo, where three of the remainder have been grazing, is home to a flock of expatriates who looked on last week as officials attempted and failed to corral and drug the animals to remove them, photographing and videotaping to make sure they treated the animals properly. The spectators were blamed by a department veterinarian for halting the removal efforts, saying they couldn't do their job with the spectators on the scene.

The government argues that the animals are dangerous. Recently one of the bullocks gored a spectator. Witnesses, however, said other visitors earlier goaded the animal to the point where it reacted, and that engineering works by the government had blocked the animals' traditional route to the beach, channeling them onto a footpath used by visitors.

T he Mui Wo residents are suspicious that authorities are attempting use the incident to remove the last of the animals to make way for yet another rash of three-story "small houses" – a controversy in itself - see http://www.lantaulink.com/2011/04/scmp-opinion-time-small-house-policy/) developments. Among the animals' enemies, they say, are developers who wish to see the wetlands rezoned for development. The pro-buffalo villagers have organized a petition to try to force authorities to give up their attempts to remove the animals, although the ham-handed authorities seem to have managed to screw up the attempts on their own.

A recent endeavor to relocate the remainder the herd failed after a team of about a dozen officials sought for two hours to shift two anesthetized bulls. One had wandered into deep scrub before it keeled over, while the other toppled over closer to the officials. But after two hours it had to be awakened with a counter-anesthetic because it was feared it would die. The third was never found because neighbors wouldn't tell the officials where it was.

A previous attempt in April failed when department officials dragged a semiconscious beast out of the scrub by its horns as spectators watched.

This time they sought vainly to load the animals onto pieces of plywood and drag them across the marsh. A dairy farmer's offspring said the workers appeared to have little experience in handling large bovines and were ill-equipped for the job.

Clive Nofke of the Lantau Buffalo Association, which sanctioned the relocation. described the onlookers as "ghoulish" who were "waiting for things to go wrong," and accused them of "being negative." Agriculture department officials, he said, were "trying to help" and had gone to a good deal of expense in hiring a truck to transport the animals.

"We have every right to observe, particularly in light of what happened in April," one spectator countered.

In any case, the rope officials were using broke and the plywood wasn't strong enough to hold a ton of animal being dragged across the land.

The buffalo association, which approved the removal of the buffalo to the Mai Po marsh and bird sanctuary in the northern New Territories, argues this is the only option available in the wake of the March buffalo attack. The AFCD culled three of the six-strong Mui Wo herd in response. Two were euthanized on the spot. The third had to be put down after it had been dragged out of the scrub by its horns.

The pro-buffalo clique argues that the last trio should be castrated and allowed to remain and that there is sufficient space for just three in the marshland surrounding Mui Wo And, they say, removing the remaining three animals would open the door to further culls in other South Lantau villages. And, they say, having succeeded in ridding Mui Wo of buffalo, developers would target the small herd of cows next.

The buffalo, the South China Morning Post said, "have staunch supporters, a loyal band of residents who believe that they should be left alone to be one with nature. Like the 250 feral cattle that also inhabit the island, they are a picturesque addition to the landscape. There is no disputing their credentials to be indigenous inhabitants. Water buffaloes have for centuries been synonymous with agriculture."

The government says they are not synonymous with modern Hong Kong, despite the support of some of the villagers. They will almost inevitably be removed. It remains to be seen if they will be replaced with a rash of new three-storey houses.