An Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) campaign to relocate the cattle has been underway since October, with teams being sent out to capture and tranquilize the animals before moving them elsewhere.
But the activities and results of the campaign are hotly disputed. Local activists claim the cows are being taken away and quietly slaughtered. They claim at least two cows have been killed in capture attempts around Sha Kok Mei in November.
The AFCD deny hurting any animals. AFCD field officer, Mr C.M. Kwok, told Sai Kung magazine: “We have been out to round up and relocate the cattle several times in the past two months but we are yet to find any.” Asked if any cattle had been killed in capture attempts, Mr Kwok said: “Absolutely not.”
Precise details of the AFCD’s relocation program, such as where the cows will be relocated and what conditions would be like in their new home, were not available at the time of going to press.
Mr Kwok was also unable to comment on why the cows were being moved. It is presumed the main purpose is to improve road safety in the area, following a recent sharp increase in the number of cars colliding with wandering cattle, especially after dark. Adding to the problem is the construction site between Tai Mong Tsai and Wai Man roads on land where the cows previously grazed.
What is certain is the AFCD have stepped up efforts to round up the cows in recent weeks, especially in the Sha Kok Mei area. AFCD posters alerting locals to the a number of “roundup” efforts on November 18 were put up around the village.
“The AFCD says there is a relocation scheme,” says long-term Sha Kok Mei resident Anthony Meadth, a well-known local journalist. “But the reality is they are killing them after just a week in captivity. We have asked the AFCD many times to produce evidence that the cows
are relocated. But they have not. In fact, our research shows that the cows are kept for about a week before being slaughtered.”
Concerned locals have formed a Sai Kung Buffalo Watch group on Facebook in an attempt to monitor the roundup campaign. The group currently has 58 members.
“It is a tragedy for Sai Kung,” Mr Meadth said. “These animals are beautiful and harmless. They have been wandering free in the area for more than 25 years and are among the most photographed and remarked on aspects of local culture.
“I have lived here for 12 years and grown very fond of the cows and am able to distinguish between them. They have been very much a part of the local scene. Tourists always remark on them and photograph them. It is amazing that the government has no interest in preserving this part of Sai Kung history.”
The origin of the Sha Kok Mei herd is shrouded in mystery. Local folklore has it that they are descended from a herd released from a local cattle farm when it closed sometime around 1976. AFCD field officer Mr Kwok said, “We just don’t know how long they have been roaming around. Two decades at least, but I really can’t guess.”
Moreover, Mr Kwok said it was impossible to guess the size of the total population. “There is likely more than just one herd,” he said. “We do not know how many cattle are living wild in the hills. There are maybe many cattle we never see.” It is only the cattle wandering on the roads that are likely to be rounded up.
Sha Kok Mei resident Lin A. Neuman, a former editor of the Hong Kong Standard newspaper, attempted to investigate the herd in 2006. “I have asked if anyone remembers when they were released or who owned them,” he wrote in the Asia Sentinel news website. “No one seems to know. The old women point in the general direction of mountains behind the village and say, ‘They were over there.’”
He added, “Other visitors may take from their Hong Kong years the electric buzz of Central, the thrill of shopping or some odd fascination with the sheer greed of the place. My favourite memory is watching the herd grow. No one owns them, eats them or milks them. They just live here. [Once] I came upon the entire group asleep in front of my house.”
For Mr Neuman, the freelance cows were always on a collision course with Hong Kong bureaucracy. The government’s 1972 “village-house policy” (entitling every indigenous New Territories’ male villager to a plot of land on which to build a three-storey, 2,100 sqft house) has led to a squeeze on land. “The cattle used to graze where the houses now stand,” wrote Mr Neuman, “I kept expecting a bureaucrat to pull up with a clipboard and send the cows away.” It seems that time may finally have come.