Hiking surge leaves wild cows starving on Hong Kong island

HONG KONG: While many hope the Year of the Ox will herald times of plenty, a herd of wild cows in Hong Kong is going hungry after visitors to their habitat surged during the coronavirus pandemic.

The animals have made their home for generations alongside a few dozen fishing families on Grass Island, one of Hong Kong’s far-flung islets.

Named for its verdant meadows, the island is closer to mainland China than Hong Kong’s skyscraper-studded harbourfront and is reached by a long bus and ferry ride.

Until the coronavirus struck last year, a largely manageable number of hikers and campers made their way to the island.

Hiking surge leaves wild cows hungry on remote Hong Kong island

Map of Hong Kong locating Grass Island, a popular spot for hiking and camping and also home to feral cows. (Map: AFP/Laurence CHU)

But with overseas travel no longer possible for most Hong Kongers, a huge influx of visitors has arrived as residents look for ways to escape the confines of social distancing in one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

The once grassy pastures have transformed into barren dirt, wiping out the primary food source for the island’s herd of feral cows.

“Suddenly there are massive numbers of people coming and trampling on the grass,” said Ho Loy, chairwoman of Lantau Buffalo Association, an activist group that campaigns to protect Hong Kong’s wild buffalos and cows.

All across the island, popular hiking trails that slice through thick carpets of grass have become increasingly bare, while the main campsite, where the island’s cows would often come to feed among the tents, has become little more than a brown patch of sandy earth.

The cows on Hong Kong's increasingly barren Grass Island are turning to visitors or rummaging

The cows on Hong Kong’s increasingly barren Grass Island are turning to visitors or rummaging through trash left behind for food. (Photo: AFP/Daniel SUEN)

“There was too much trampling on the ground, it’s not just the grass that cannot grow, the compost layer of the soil also disappeared… It’s now becoming an eco-disaster,” she told AFP.

IMPORTED GRASS

The situation has become so bad that volunteers have begun shipping feed into Grass Island to stop the herd from starving.

Every month, Ho holds a workshop to train volunteers to collect fresh grass and raise awareness among campers.

On a recent weekend, the group spent three hours travelling to some of Hong Kong’s more remote villages to collect fresh hay using sickles and scissors.

The main campsite on Hong Kong's Grass Island, where cows would often come to feed, has become

The main campsite on Hong Kong’s Grass Island, where cows would often come to feed, has become little more than a patch of sandy earth. (Photo: AFP/Daniel SUEN)

They then transported it to Grass Island where the hungry herd soon emerged to tuck into their delivery.

Without grass, the cows turn increasingly to visitors or rummage through the rubbish left behind, with potentially fatal consequences.

“We saw cows going to the bins and hunting for food,” said Jennifer Wai, who joined the workshop with her husband.

Volunteers have begun shipping feed into Hong Kong's Grass Island to stop the area's feral

Volunteers have begun shipping feed into Hong Kong’s Grass Island to stop the area’s feral cows from starving. (Photo: AFP/Peter PARKS)

“We saw them eat candy still in a bottle and they ate the whole thing. It was heartbreaking to see.”

Ho said many visitors do not know enough about wildlife protection and often feed the cows because they are sociable, friendly animals.

“That’s dangerous,” she said.

“Many of the cows you can see, they have a strange, swollen stomach, which means they have a certain amount of plastic in their digestive system.”

With overseas travel off limits to most Hong Kongers during the pandemic, visitors have flocked to

With overseas travel off limits to most Hong Kongers during the pandemic, visitors have flocked to Grass Island. (Photo: AFP/Peter PARKS)

As well as feeding the cows, volunteers visited campers to spread awareness about protecting the animals and to remind them not to leave rubbish behind.

“This is a natural beauty of Hong Kong that’s going to be lost,” said Wai’s husband, Freddy Ramaker.

“I think people should care.”

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