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Outside Hong Kong there's something unexpected: free-roaming animals


Just outside the city of Hong Kong is a jungle with free-roaming animals you might not expect to find. NPR's John Ruwitch reports on one woman's mission to save them.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: It's hard to envision feral cows when you're in the city of Hong Kong. But hoof it onto a ferry to the south side of an island called Lantau that's also part of Hong Kong a half-hour away...


RUWITCH: And the scenery changes dramatically. There are no skyscrapers - only villages, beaches and lush green hills laced with hiking trails.


RUWITCH: It's here that I meet Ho Loy packing bales of hay into a minivan.

HO LOY: In the winter, they have to totally rely on the hay supply. So we have to keep them interested in it.

RUWITCH: Ho leads a small community of activists who've been trying to protect the wild cows and water buffaloes of Lantau for nearly 20 years. She's taking me along to check in on the animals.

HO: Well, on Lantau it's about 200, more or less.

RUWITCH: There used to be farms here, but Ho says Hong Kong's development changed everything. And when the last ones closed in the 1970s, the farm animals were left to their own devices. Ho keeps tabs on them a couple of times a week and makes sure they have enough to eat so they don't forage in trash cans or at barbecue sites. We head out...


RUWITCH: And soon we come across a group of brown cows grazing at the edge of a hilly two-lane road. When they see us pull up, they crowd around. They recognize the car.

HO: There are two highway herds - two herds that live on the highway - not because they want to live on the highway. It's because their grazing path was made into a traffic road.

RUWITCH: Ho says there was better balance between humans and nature when the farms existed.

HO: The animal actually keep the community together 'cause in the old day, not everyone can afford to own the animals for farming, and so poor farmer would have to borrow animal from the richer family. So in a way, they shared resources in the community, and they survived together.

RUWITCH: Ho says they still belong to the community. They just don't do farming anymore. Not everyone sees it that way, though. Some locals think the animals are pests. They don't mix well with cars. They sometimes ransack gardens and wander into homes, and their habitat is protected, which Ho says makes it harder to sell land to developers.

HO: Let's move on.


RUWITCH: Down the road from the highway herds, we park and walk into a clearing near a small bay. Ho knows there's another herd of cows and buffaloes that like to hang out by the water, but we don't see them. So she wades into the water, keeps her hands over her mouth and faces the far side of the clearing.

HO: Hey.

RUWITCH: Soon some excited bovine are heading our way. A few are galloping. Ho counts them, and we spread hay on the ground.


RUWITCH: At one point, a giant water buffalo walks straight at me.


RUWITCH: He's almost as tall as I am with thick crescent horns that stretch five feet across from point to point. I hold my breath and take a few steps back. Ho doesn't flinch.

HO: It's just such a gorgeous animal and so peaceful, and it makes you feel calm when you see them. So a lot of our friends, when they are not having a good day or having difficulty in life, I tell them to come and do a duty with me. After you see the animal, you'll feel better. And it works.


RUWITCH: Day-trippers from the city love to snap selfies with them, too, she says. She tells everyone to keep their distance, though. They can be dangerous. Last fall, a male water buffalo competing with another for supremacy bowled over a bunch of kids near a bus stop. Three had to go to the hospital. In the past, the government sometimes culled the animals when there were incidents like that. Since 2011, it's been sterilizing and relocating them. Ho says that leaves the future of the island's herds uncertain. And that's a shame, she says.

HO: So when you're in front of a huge animal like this, you'll learn how to humble yourself. And we need them, you know, to remind us we're not the boss on this planet. We should be the servant of this planet.

RUWITCH: John Ruwitch, NPR News, on Lantau Island, Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.