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The Buffalo whisperer: Meet Lantau legend Jean Leung

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That Pui O resident Jean Leung can talk with water buffaloes is the stuff of Lantau legend. Martin Lerigo finds out what drives her and why these mighty beasts respond to her siren call.

Often, when crossing the Pui O wetlands, gazing across the lush green blanket of silky fronds as they sway back and forth in the breeze, you’ll see a diminutive figure on the horizon, basket in hand, calling out to the water buffaloes in mellifluous tones they have come to know and love. Jean Leung, Pui O’s own buffalo whisperer, has been tending to the herd for over seven years, watching out for the sick or injured and providing supplementary food for those that cannot get enough to eat by themselves.

Over time a bond of trust has developed which sees the buffaloes’ ears prick up in expectant recognition when first they hear Jean’s siren call. Without a second thought they make a beeline in her direction, keen to inspect the contents of today’s basket. Apple and orange are favourites, closely followed by pear, guava, pomelo and papaya – a veritable cocktail of citrus flavours, normally gulped down without touching the sides.

Where it started

Jean, a native of Cheung Chau, first came to Pui O 27 years ago. After a long career in property management she was lookingforward to retirement in her country retreat at Shap Long, dreaming of country walks, painting and putting her feet up. Then, one day, something happened that would change her life forever – the arrival of her now beloved water buffalo, Ngau Ngau.

“Ngau Ngau took shelter in my garden in September 2009 and would not be moved,” Jean recalls. “His leg was badly swollen and the hip joint misshapen. Vets said there could be several fractures and that Ngau Ngau might not make it.” Determined to give Ngau Ngau the best possible chance, Jean started to feed him and mutter soothing words in his ear. Over time he began to stand and shuffle gently on the spot, clear signs that the treatment was working and his massive hip and thigh were beginning to knit back together.

As to how Ngau Ngau sustained his injuries nobody is entirely sure. That he had been fighting, in a vain attempt to retain control of the Shap Long herd, was confirmed by other injuries on his body but vets advised it would be rare for a leg or hip to be broken
in such encounters. “Maybe Ngau Ngau was hit by a van or car,” Jean says. “We’ll never know for sure.”

Ngau Ngau’s rehabilitation took over seven months but finally he was fit enough to return to his herd on Shap Long Hill – a bittersweet day for Jean. On his journey home, however, he was challenged by the new dominant male and forced to retreat to Lo Wai. There, since he was not seeking to be herd leader, Ngau Ngau found a new home but, troubled by his leg, he couldn’t put in the yards needed to find adequate grazing. Fortunately, Jean had been watching out for Ngau Ngau and this is when she started bringing him a daily basket of fruit.

So began Jean’s journey as a whisperer, getting to know what makes the buffaloes tick, how they communicate and what their lives entail.

Preserving a habitat

Like the overwhelming majority of local people, Jean loves to have the buffaloes as part of her daily life; their serenity adds something special in the frenetic world of today. That their future is under threat points to something having gone wrong in Hong Kong; the balance between making money and conserving nature having tipped inexorably to the former.

Nobody seems quite sure as to the origins of the water buffaloes at Pui O; they are not native but were imported from elsewhere in South East Asia. Many were used on the land as working animals and then left to go feral once farming fell out of fashion. Others appear to have been bred for meat, a venture which, given they’re still here, was ultimately unsuccessful. They are unique to Hong Kong and while there are plenty of water buffaloes across South East Asia, none are documented to live in a feral herd the way ours do.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department is responsible for managing the herd and while much good work has been done over the years, there is still a lack of any strategic plan for their future or any proper protection for their habitat. Recent degradation of the wetlands by landfilling, some sanctioned by government, some illegal, has thrown into stark focus the potential for the buffaloes to be lost to the local community.

Loss of habitat is already having an effect, with buffaloes having to wander further afield, including along the increasingly busy South Lantau Road, to find adequate pasture, especially during the dry season. Some attempts are now being made to provide supplemental feeding of hay during the colder, leaner months.

So what is the solution? A recent ombudsman’s report found that the government’s inability to prevent illegal landfilling at Pui O stems from inadequacies in the law, something officials will now probe. While this might force a rethink on the law, many local conservationists are campaigning for immediate action.

“The logical solution would be for the government to buy back the land and treat the wetlands as a special conservation area,” Jean says. “If the government had the will, they could also look at land swaps or a managed land leasing scheme which have been tried elsewhere.”

Protecting the Pui O buffaloes

The government’s Space for All development plan for Lantau suggests that Pui O will be conserved for “eco-tourism and
leisure with offerings of mangrove, butterfly and buffalo”. But, as Jean says, it’s hard to see where they’ll find such things if the dumping of concrete and rubble continues at the current pace. Loss of habitat also forces the buffaloes into closer proximity with humans, both local people and visitors, increasing the likelihood of an incident. Overwhelmingly docile and friendly, they can present a danger when fighting amongst themselves, simply because they become oblivious to anything in their path. Several recent incidents on Pui O Beach have seen buffaloes spooked by aggressive dogs or by visitors, unfamiliar with our bovine friends, shining bright torches in their faces at close quarters.

“It’s really important all local people play their part in protecting the buffaloes and offering friendly advice to visitors who may be unfamiliar with them,” says Jean, who is currently campaigning against government plans to relocate the Pui O herd to the Soko Islands. Local police commanders have also repeated their request for local people to report anybody harming or mistreating buffaloes, fortunately a rare occurrence.

Let’s hope the balance tips back in favour of conserving this unique habitat and the buffaloes and other creatures that live here. Hopefully that diminutive figure with her basket will be seen on the horizon for many moons to come.

Image: Martin Lerigo

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