A short journey from the skyscrapers at the hectic centre of Hong Kong, water buffaloes lumber over jungle-clad hills and through secluded villages where they once worked as farm animals.
But after years roaming through the same areas, some have been moved to a nature reserve in a far-flung corner of the territory. Shifting even a few of the beasts has proved divisive in a city whose eye on the future has meant a steady erosion of its past.
For some residents and day-trippers, many of them expatriates, the act of moving the animals damages an idyllic setting on Lantau island, a short ferry ride from Hong Kong’s main island and an escape from the supercrowded city.
But it is a different story for those who regard the animals as a nuisance, blocking traffic and defecating wherever they please, with little practical use now that agriculture plays such a small part in the high-tech territory.
There are roughly 130 water buffaloes in two main herds in Hong Kong, most of them on Lantau, according to government data.
Many visitors do not expect to find feral buffaloes at all in a city with one of the highest population densities in the world.
But 75 percent of Hong Kong is countryside, with hiking trails, sandy beaches and national parks that are home to monkeys, snakes and wild boar.
Government officials and a protection group have in recent years moved four buffaloes, from Lantau and elsewhere to the WWF-run Mai Po nature reserve in northwest Hong Kong. Such moves are usually prompted by complaints from the public.
The latest addition, Mai Bo, arrived in September. The WWF says the animals are proving a great help at the 380-hectare (940-acre) reserve where they graze wetlands, which in turn helps to attract rare birds.
“We found that buffalo are actually very good at managing the habitats, at keeping short vegetation… which provides very good habitat for the birds that we get here,” said John Allcock, WWF-Hong Kong’s head of habitat management and monitoring at Mai Po.
He hopes to take in more buffaloes but distances the WWF from the debate that moving the animals has sparked in a city where many are concerned with the loss of heritage that has come as a consequence of its development.
“I think of them as something that adds character to Lantau,” said David Blecken, a 32-year-old British journalist who lives on Hong Kong’s main island.
“I think Hong Kong sometimes lacks a connection with nature, so it’s quite nice to see animals of any kind in Hong Kong.”
Some Lantau residents are also against moving them. “This is their home. They make this place beautiful for the community. Without them, we do not have this beautiful scenery,” said Ho Loy, chair of the Lantau Buffalo Association.
Other villagers disagree, and some even view the hulking beasts as dangerous even if attacks are rare.
Such fears were heightened in March 2011 when a man walking with his young daughter on a Lantau beach was attacked by a buffalo and suffered leg injuries.
“If they get into parks, it’s dangerous for the children playing there,” said shopkeeper Sarah Wong.
“There are a lot of buffaloes on the beaches too and we’re afraid when we swim because they look fierce.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]