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#OnlyInHongKong: Fantastic wild cattle and where to find them

By Inés Fung 14 April 2020 | Last Updated 25 March 2022

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.

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Photo: @hyjo_photography (via Instagram)

A history of Hong Kong cattle

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.

Photo: @platyperry (via Instagram)

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.

Photo: @wearemimpi (via Instagram)

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.

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Photo: @dr_hk_birdnerd (via Instagram)

Where to find them

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!

Tips when interacting with Hong Kong’s wild cattle

  1. Don’t feed the cattle your unwanted grains and meats. Both the cattle and water buffalos are vegetarian, but with innocent tourists and locals attempting to take care of them more than they need, some have developed a taste for meat. You can’t feed a cow beef! That’s cannibalism! They’re fine just eating grass!
  2. Do not approach them if they seem uneasy or aggressive. Most of the time cattle in Hong Kong are calm and lazy, but they can get a little antsy around mating season or if they’ve been hurt.
  3. Careful where you step, or you may find yourself feet deep in a dung patty.
  4. If you’re driving in a cow-populated area, be sure to keep your eye out around bends and corners as the cattle are easily startled and may walk out into the road.
  5. If you spot an injured cow or buffalo call the bovine protection groups or the AFCD directly, otherwise try to snap a pic of its ear tag (if it has one) and the injuries. Cows with tags can be tracked via GPS.
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Inés Fung

Part-time editor

Currently based in Hong Kong by way of Calgary, Inés has always had a passion for writing and her creative work can be found in obscure literary zines. When she’s not busy scouring the city for the best gin-based cocktail, she can be found curled up with her journal and fur-ever friend Peanut. Don’t be surprised if you cross paths with her and she already knows all your mates.