Our incredible government: Chapter 2648.You may be surprised to discover, fellow taxpayers, that we are playing host to a herd of 15 voracious water buffalo, courtesy of the ever hospitable Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. The well-fed animals are being held in a bovine prison camp near Sheung Shui where it is costing us $40 per head a day to feed them. That's $219,000 annually for fodder. Factor in wages for staff to dish out the hay and some sort of provision for use of land, and it's a considerable bill. As the buffalo munch contentedly away, the financial secretary and other government supremos are chorusing about the dire need to save money. Education honchos are closing schools and health tsars are slashing hospices. Rest assured, dying patients and unhappy students, the cattle are content. Why are we forking out cash to feed cattle which once roamed free and ate grass? It's a classic case of confused administrators trying to please everyone. The weird situation can be traced back to convoluted village politics in a remote corner of the New Territories. What's new? Consider the water buffalo and its part in local history. Until 40 years ago, the buffalo was a prime source of energy in agriculture, a role it had played for more than 2,000 years. Immensely strong, it dragged iron-tipped ploughs through the mud of paddy fields, stolidly pulled carts to market towns and, when the rice was harvested, was shackled to poles which turned huge stones that milled the grain to flour. A useful creature, indeed. Then New Territories farmers gave up their fields. The faithful beasts of burden, for generations prized icons in village life, were left to fend for themselves. In places like Sha Tin, their wide-swept horns and muddy flanks have not been seen for decades; towering new towns have replaced the paddy fields. But in areas unsuitable for development or where indigenous villagers were unable to cover fields with three-storey villas, the buffalo lived on. One such spot is the broad valley behind Pui O beach on Lantau. Although farmers stopped planting rice there 30 years ago, the buffalo remained. Over time, they grew in numbers. When Disneyland suddenly began sprouting down the coast, there was talk of resorts being built on beaches around the next headland and the prospect arose of a super-prison, creating vast infrastructure and attracting large populations. Potential developers cast eyes on the Pui O plain. Inexorably, paddy fields began to be illegally filled. But there was a snag. The valley was infested with a herd of wandering buffalo. When indigenous villagers are asked to choose between potential profit and an unwanted herd of buffalo, it's time for beasts to get nervous. Villagers started complaining to conservation department officials that stray buffalo were a nuisance. Specific complaints were that they ran out on to the road, broke fences and ate crops. The department took speedy action. Starting in November, 2002, departmental cowboys armed with tranquiliser guns began the great Pui O roundup. The drugged beasts were trucked to a compound at Sheung Shui. It's a weird anomaly. While some buffalo are imprisoned at public cost in the departmental compound, others roam free at Pui O. And not far from Sheung Shui, a large herd of buffalo have for years been squeezed into disappearing plots around Kam Tin; these, too, are being rounded up as pressure for development grows. Meanwhile, the fate of the Sheung Shui 15, as the captives are known, is becoming a focus for environmentalists. But after keeping buffalo confined and fed for 16 months, the government is faced with a vexing problem. It doesn't know what to do with them. 'We do not really want to put them down,' a spokesman told me. On the other hand, it's desperate to get the beasts off its hands. The Lantau Buffalo Association is keen to get the animals back to the island and has found a potential site near Tong Fuk prison for a reserve. Residents there are muttering they don't want a herd of buffalo living next to them. The situation is frustrating for Marcus Tancock, president of the association. He grew up in Pui O, played with the animals as a boy and admits he has never met a water buffalo that he didn't want to hug. There's no solution in sight. Meanwhile, we taxpayers continue to pay $40 a day for the cud-chewing guests at the Sheung Shui Buffalo Hilton.