Reporting by Elizabeth Jerabek
Photos by Duey Tam
“Hop in,” Kathy Daxon says with a twinkle in her eye. She has just arrived at the Tai O bus terminus and is excited to show us the local herd of feral cows that she spotted on her drive over from Shui Hau to meet us.
It’s immediately clear that Kathy has a deep personal connection to this particular herd of cows as she greets each one individually by name and checks to see if any need a check-up from the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD). But she wants to make it clear that she did not put out the bales of hay near Lin Yan Monastery. Out of concern for a lack of natural foraging during the winter dry season, the Lantau Buffalo Association periodically distributes bales of hay amongst the herds of more than 200 feral cows and buffalo that live on Lantau. Kathy shakes her head and affectionately scolds the cows for gorging on the hay as she asks mischievously, “I don’t think they look like they’re starving. Do you?”
As the chairperson for the Tai O Community Cattle Group (TOCCG), a registered Hong Kong charity since 2019, Kathy’s priority is to protect the welfare of Lantau’s cows as wild animals. “They’re not pets and they can take care of themselves, as they have been doing for many, many years,” says Kathy. “We – as people – are their biggest threat.
“That’s why the TOCCG has worked so hard to educate the public about not feeding or getting close to the cows. First of all, they have a very specific diet – they can’t eat ‘people food’ as it makes them sick. Second of all, when you feed them then you train them to come into villages and near roadways looking for food. It’s better to treat – and respect them – as wild animals and protect their habitat so they can forage naturally.”
Lantau’s herds of feral brown cows and Asian water buffalo are descended from draft animals that rice farmers used in the early 20th century to plough rice fields. By the 1970s, as the agricultural industry declined and rice fields made way for roads and residential development, most of the brown cows and water buffalo were abandoned and left to roam wild.
“We lose a few animals every year to car accidents due to an increase in traffic – especially speeding,” says Kathy. “More and more visitors come by car, especially during the weekends and holidays. Although the roads have a 50-kilometre speed limit, it is rarely followed. Vehicles should always slow for cattle on the roads, and give them lots of room. Don’t scare or frighten them by honking your horn or revving your engine.”
Another threat is the loss of habitat from development. “In every local village, a balance must be struck between the villagers and the cows, regarding cleanliness, boundaries and respect for animals. But the cows have lost forest area, so we must ensure they are safe as they have been pushed onto the road more often to graze in new areas,” says Kathy. “The cows and buffalo have different needs when it comes to habitat. Buffalo prefer marsh areas. Cows like to roam into the mountains.”
The cows – in particular this herd that roams in and around Tai O – are a big reason why Kathy fell in love with Lantau life when she moved here in 2012. She was even lucky enough to find a rare young calf (the majority of the feral cows and buffalo have been desexed by the AFCD in order to manage the size of the herds) five years ago in her backyard.
“I named him Kei Zik, which is the Cantonese word for miracle,” says Kathy. “The cows are so resilient when it comes to adapting to development issues. The members of TOCCG appreciate their beauty and the family bonds within the herds. It’s important to keep them safe.”
If you see a cow or buffalo that has been injured or looks like it needs care, you can call the police or the TOCCG hotline at 5181 4406 so that the AFCD can follow up. To learn more about the TOCCG and make a donation, head to its Facebook page – Where is Melvin at: www.facebook.com/WhereIsMelvin or at their website www.toccg.orgTags: cattle, Community Cattle Group, cows, lantau, tai o