Buffalo and the fight over prime rural land in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 September, 2014, 6:09am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 September, 2014, 6:09am

To city dwellers worried about mice and rats, spare a thought for Hongkongers confronting half-tonne feral beasts.

A few miles from some of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the world, more than 1,000 cows and buffalo from abandoned farms roam the countryside. Development now is pushing them into harm's way and on to roads.

Hong Kong represents an extreme example of the task many communities face of balancing conservation and growth. Wolves sniff near the suburbs of Paris, bears roam Lake Tahoe and moose stumble across the roads of Halifax. There is a new word to describe how undomesticated animals adapt to man-made environments: synurbanisation.

"The cow is very political," said Ho Loy, a former thespian who now campaigns full-time for the buffalo of Lantau. "It's about development, about land rights, zoning, planning and animal policy."

Depending on your point of view, the bovine are either a beloved emblem of a pastoral past or annoying traffic obstacles. For decades, herds of cows freed from closed farms prowled the fallow rice paddies and fields in the villages of Lantau and the New Territories, the area bordering the mainland.

The buffalo were brought in later - though no one is sure when - by a butcher hoping to sell their meat in the Lantau village of Pui O. Some say the animals were let go because no one liked the product; others say his children abandoned the business.

"Cows are kind animals," said Wan Tung-yat, a member of the South Lantau Rural Committee whose family has lived in Pui O for at least a century. "Buffalo are fierce. Just like a weapon."

The government estimates about 1,100 cattle and 120 buffalo remain. Their fate emerged as an issue last year, when an airline pilot driving on Lantau stumbled across a scene of carnage: eight dead and dying cows. A 49-year-old British expatriate was arrested after cow blood and hair were found on her car. She was convicted in May.

The cows and buffalo represent collateral damage in a battle over the future of potentially billions of dollars of prime real estate. On one side are descendants of indigenous villagers eager to sell what they claim to be ancestral land. On the other are environmentalists and newcomers fighting to preserve what is left of a bucolic landscape.

Home prices in Hong Kong reached a record this year, leaving the government struggling to find more land to build new homes.

Deepening the property scramble is a 42-year-old policy that gives men who can prove their ancestors lived in the villages since 1898 the right to a plot for a house. The measure was adopted by the British colonial government in 1972 as urbanisation began pricing villagers out of their homes.

Soaring prices have set off a fight for control of Pui O as villagers sue each other over contested plots.

The problem is that there is an innumerable number of descendants and a finite amount of land, says Mandy Lao, the author of a report on the housing policy for Civic Exchange, an independent research institute. The government has no estimate for how many people are eligible for land.

The Heung Yee Kuk said in 2003 that there were about 240,000 eligible men.

One person, Lau Wong-fat, called the King of the New Territories by local media, amassed 724 plots, the South China Morning Post reported in 2010.

"It's like a conflict you'd see in rural France or England," said Jason Wordie, a local historian and writer. "The newcomers go and live in a little village and want it just like that. The farmer looks and says 'I'm sitting on some land of no use to me or my family. I want to develop it'. You find this in many parts of the world."

Lai See is on holiday