Header image courtesy of Octavian Rosca (via Shutterstock)
You may have come across a herd of cattle or buffalo while trekking through one of Hong Kong’s many gorgeous country parks, or simply getting your tan on at the beach. They’re a normal sight around Lantau and Sai Kung, but where did these wild herds come from? Here we take a dive into the history of these peaceful, loving feral bovines in our urban jungle of a city, as well as providing some helpful tips for the next time you have an encounter with them.
Hong Kong has an abundance of both native species and introduced fauna. Brown cattle (domestic ox or cattle, Bos taurus) and Asian water buffalo (Bubulus bubalis) were introduced in Hong Kong in the early twentieth century, used by the local rice farmers as draught animals to plough the rice fields. They were also brought in to produce milk for local dairy farms.
As Hong Kong experienced rapid economic growth in the twentieth century, the local agricultural industry declined. Rice fields made way for roads and high rises, and by the 1970s, rice production moved to the Mainland and the import of foreign grains became mainstream in our supermarkets. The brown cows and water buffalos were abandoned and left to roam the remaining pockets of nature. They soon adapted to life in the wild and continued to reproduce, resulting in our current “stray” bovine population of about 1,300 cows (according to numbers from the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department), with an annual population growth of 15 percent.
The Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department (AFCD) currently has a dedicated Cattle Management Team that aims to manage the wild bovine population to ensure our peaceful co-existence. The AFCD has also implemented the “Capture, Sterilisation, and Relocation” programme since 2011 to help stabilise the cattle population.
Prior to this programme, stray cattle that was reported as a nuisance would be sent to the slaughterhouse. Similar programmes are common practice overseas to mostly success: Under the programme, stray cattle are captured and assessed at AFCD centres, and only the healthy undergo surgical sterilisation.
After their recovery from the desexing, they are ear-tagged for identification and tracking, then relocated to a country park to “minimise nuisance to the public.” The Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Animals (HKSPCA) also aids in carrying out field operations to tag and sterilise both male and female cows and buffalo.
The AFCD and HKSPCA work closely with community-run cattle protection groups like Sai Kung Buffalo Watch (SKBW) and Lantau Buffalo Association (LBA). Both groups were founded by neighbourhood locals advocating for responsible herd management and sustainable preservation of the cattle’s natural habitats.
The cows are unignorable parts of Hong Kong’s natural heritage and the locals in these communities recognise that our co-existence with these animals come at a perilous balance as urban development brings us closer together despite the AFCD relocating them to more “remote” areas.
The two associations both have dedicated Facebook groups in order to better communicate sightings of lost or injured bovines, and educate the general public on what to do when sighting these lovely animals. The SKBW, in particular, has over a thousand volunteers who proactively help to herd stray cattle off of highways and roads.
There are about 1,200 heads of cattle spread out over various areas of Lantau Island and the New Territories. They’re most commonly found in Sai Kung and nearby Ma On Shan, with about 500 heads of the descendants of the original paddy cattle roaming about the country park and Sai Kung town centre.
There are about 300 on Lantau Island, particularly in Mui Wo and Pui O, and also in the Central New Territories. It’s harder to capture and track the cattle in more remote areas such as Northern New Territories, so the accurate number remains unknown.
The water buffalo prefers marshes and rivers in places like Kam Tin and South Lantau. They can usually be found in herds of up to 20 and they feast on the grass and vegetation growing around the wetlands. You’ll sometimes catch them taking mud baths when they dunk themselves in deep mud to get rid of insects.
Unlike the water buffalo, the brown cows can make a home anywhere, except on Hong Kong Island, it seems. Their herds can grow up to more than 100 heads, with a dominant male. They have a similar vegetarian diet to the buffalos.
You’ll most often catch these bovines sunbathing on Cheung Sha Beach in South Lantau, hanging out in grass patches in town in Sai Kung, or roaming lazily around Mui Wo. The herds in Mui Wo are descendants of the original herd at the Trappist Haven Monastery, which sustained small-scale operations of producing Trappist milk in the early 1960s until the early 1980s for residents in Lantau Island. They’ve also been caught at times getting into the supermarket in town to feast on fresh fruits and vegetables, or scavenging through trash.
If you live around the cow-populated areas and reckon you’ve seen the same cows every day, you very well may have—just check the number tag on their ears! Under the AFCD programme, cows are often relocated between Lantau Island, where you may even spot them near the Big Buddha and Sai Kung. This has caused many accidents and death after they become disoriented and wander through in attempts to get back home. Oh no!