Ho Loy greets me, weighed down with a bag of pamphlets in one hand and two folded banners in the other. “Can you walk with me?” she asks, “we might get to see Billy”.
Not yet 10 metres down the path to Pui O beach, Ho Loy is already deeply involved in explaining why buffalo are such an important part of Lantau’s ecosystem.
Ho Loy works full-time leading the Lantau Buffalo Association, an NGO who preserves and manages Lantau’s wild buffalo and cattle and educates and promotes their value. It’s hard work for no pay and her efforts are not always appreciated. “There were a lot of rumours about me in the past. I think I have crashed into conflict with the traditional culture here. They’re not willing to see women doing public work,” she says.
People used to treat her badly, and stare at her in public. Recounting a difficult time, her face drops, her voice trails off and she cries, “Billy!”. She is pointing at a rust-red cow grazing on a rich, green lawn just near the Pui O campsite office. “Billy is the legend of Pui O, he’s the only cow in Pui O”, says Ho Loy, reaching into her bag. She pulls out a handful of orange peel and Billy gobbles it up.
“He gallops more like a horse than a cow, and he crosses the water with the buffalo,” Loy says. Cows usually hate getting wet, but Billy is sociable and accompanies the buffalo regularly when they go to the river to bathe, Loy says. Her smile indicates her strong affection for such a calm, attractive creature.
“I want to show you something spectacular, so beautiful. I don’t want you to miss it”, she leads the way down a winding path towards Ham Tin village. “Look!”, the path emerges on to an open, verdant field of wet grass, edged with lush trees and small village houses. In the background, the sky beams blue and cloud hovers at the peaks of Lantau’s mountains. Around 14 buffalo are romping. “This is like their playground”, says Ho Loy. It’s the bachelor herd, who makeup just less than half of Pui O’s buffalo population. The other herd, female and juvenile buffalo accompanied by a dominant male, brings the total number to just below 40.
Further along the path, a three-story concrete shell of a building juts out of the greenery. Labourers steadily bang and grind away, seemingly unaware of the incongruity of the scene. “I don’t know how the government approved this project”, says Loy, shaking her head, “It’s the biggest construction project in the last 20 years in Pui O”.
It’s the perfect example of one of a myriad of concerns that threaten the survival of Lantau’s bovine population. Developments like this one disrupt the muddy lands the buffalo need for exercise and block their path to and from the water. The buffalo are also at risk of violent abuse by people, car accidents and threats of government culls in response to nuisance complaints.
How people could fail to appreciate the value of these animals is beyond Ho Loy. The buffalo form an important part of the wetlands ecosystem. It’s a unique and special environment that Hong Kong is lucky to have and should do all it can to preserve, she says.
Loy can talk for hours about the buffalo. But try to find out more about her - an artist, dancer and ex-newspaper editor - and you will fail. “Me? I’m not interesting”, she says, and carries on talking about buffalo.
“It’s hard to get the government to work together with us. Very hard. When something happens it’s the only chance we have that they will come around to have a meeting with us. Like the eight cow tragedy in Cheung Sha. But after that, no one will follow up; there’s no further communication. And the District Council is not supporting any of our conservation. The District Council people are not very modern.”
For Loy, who grew up in a huge, concrete government estate in densely packed Ngau Tau Kok, Lantau’s natural beauty, is something every Hong Kong child should enjoy. As a coastline city, the water and wetland environments are important to Hong Kong’s identity. “We need to relax and feel the ground under our feet”, says Loy, and a connection with nature is essential. “If people haven’t been near buffalo before they might fear them. But after they get over the fear they all fall in love. It’s a lovely creature, so friendly, so funny, and clumsy!”