Humans are taking land from wild water buffaloes on Lantau Island, the largest island in Hong Kong. Construction activity on the island forces the animals to look for food in residential areas, where barbed wire and building waste can injure them.
Water buffalos have roamed Lantau Island for over three decades after they were abandoned as farm animals. There are around 100 buffalos left in the wild. But their habitat is being destroyed for buildings.
Lantau residents say encounters with the buffaloes have been unusually tense in recent months. The animals pop up in private gardens looking for food. The angriest residents want the buffaloes murdered.
“There’s a war happening between landowners and conservationists,” said Ho Loy, an activist for the Lantau Buffalo Association. Activists say the buffaloes are crucial to Lantau’s ecosystem, eating harmful weeds and keeping the wetlands fertile.
The government’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said that it was communicating with the community to reach “appropriate consensus” and that its cattle management focused on sterilization and relocation.
Land scarcity has turned Hong Kong into one of the most expensive property markets in the world, making construction lucrative, but also leading to more waste, including on Lantau’s wetlands.
Sharp objects such as broken floor tiles have become a hazard for buffaloes, causing deep cuts that can attract fly larvae and lead to infections.
Buffalo Mother Jean
“They look for food in every nook and cranny. When the buffalos want to climb up to eat, they are very careless and rash. They won’t pay attention and walk carefully. They don’t know the waste is very sharp. When they climb, they cut their legs,” Leung Siu-wah, locally known as ‘Buffalo Mother Jean’, said. Some cuts take weeks to heal.
The 68-year-old woman has been voluntarily looking after the buffalos for twelve years. She has used her own savings and donations from residents on fruit and first aid supplies to care for the animals.
She returned from semi-retirement to her previous career as a real estate agent to earn more money for the herd. She is not a professional vet, so the most she can do is sanitize cuts while distracting the buffalos with food such as fruit, leaves and sweet potato sprouts.
Siu-wah said in winter the buffaloes struggle to eat and she spends around HK$150,000 (approx. $19,300) to buy hay for them. With the buffalos’ habitat getting smaller, she is even more determined to protect them.
She said she has succeeded a few times in convincing individual landowners to keep their properties open for the buffalos to roam. She has written to the government many times to advocate for the buffalos, but now she’s hoping for something bigger and for others to join her cause.
“I want to keep the buffalos safe and sound until the government has implemented a policy to help or protect them, and until there are also other people who sincerely use their hearts and strength to serve the buffalos. Then I can really retire,” she said. “Lantau is nothing without buffaloes and wetlands.”