While a population of musk ox may have survived in southern Siberia and Mongolia, the animals don’t seem to have pushed south into the warmer latitudes of China – at least not until the U.S. offered Beijing a pair in 1972.

On February 12, 2021, a new lunar new year began. Chinese culture recognizes this as the Year of the Ox, one of twelve animals making up its zodiac. The ox is meant to deliver tranquility and prosperity, whereas the prior Year of the Rat was meant to bring pestilence and rapid change. Go figure.)

Over the holiday weekend here in Hong Kong, I was camping on a subtropical beach, about as far away from the Arctic conditions as one can get. As I watched the golden sun sink into the South China Sea, I spied a lackadaisical water buffalo (B. bubalus var. sinensis in Latin, and 水牛 – literally “water cow” – in Chinese) in the distance. It was an auspicious – or rather “oxpicious,” to use the too-clever word that’s cropped up in advertising here lately – sign that led me to ponder: Could Asian water buffalo be related to Arctic musk ox (Ovibos moschatus)? After all, both were plodding, cow-like creatures.

I had to dig deeper to find out.

A water buffalo on a beach in Hong Kong.

A brief history of Hong Kong’s water buffalo

As recently as 1981, water buffalo still tilled fields across Hong Kong. The animals, which are indigenous to the region, toiled as beasts of burden for the farms along the alluvial plains of southern Lantau, the special administrative region’s largest island. Most of its land is still largely undeveloped, save for a few towns along the shores, a towering Buddha statue in the middle, and the airport lying just to its the north.

Lantau Island in Hong Kong. Water buffalo often hang out on the beach in the center of the photo.

While Lantau now offers a leafy and beachy respite from the crowded, narrow lanes of Hong Kong’s commercial center, for centuries prior, it was an agricultural island. So was much of the rest of the city, where in the 1920s, people still pulled water buffalo through city streets. In 1971, Hong Kong’s draught animal population still comprised some 1,080 water buffalo and 11,515 brown cattle.

A young girl leads a water buffalo through the street in Hong Kong ca. 1920s. Source: Gwulo

Now, with all but a handful of farms on Lantau abandoned, the remaining water buffalo roam freely and are more or less wild. Since there are only supposedly 70 animals remaining, it’s exciting to run into them, especially when you consider that this is happening in the world’s most densely populated cities. I’ve had my fair share of water buffalo encounters while running up and down Lantau’s trails. Yet a sighting is even more magical when ringing in the Year of the Ox.

Water buffalo: Cousin or stranger to musk oxen?

As I walked over to look at the water buffalo as it sat, unperturbed, in the middle of a game of catch being played by a group of English expats, I thought about whether this wild bovine bore any relation to musk ox, which I’d spotted from a distance in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland – nothing more than a few shaggy brown lumps, really – in 2014. Could water buffalo, as a relative of the ox (technically a castrated bull used a draught animal) also be a close relative of the musk ox – and if so, was I looking at some distant Arctic relative?

A water buffalo hangs out during Chinese New Year on Cheung Sha Beach, Lantau, Hong Kong.
The closest I got to musk ox in Greenland in 2014.

Short answer: no.

In fact, musk ox are closer cousins of sheep and goats than oxen (meaning it might be more apt to write about musk ox during the Year of the Sheep, coming up in 2027). 170,000 of the wooly horned beasts live across the circumpolar tundra, concentrated in Greenland and Canada. Traditionally, musk ox (“umingmaq” (ᐅᒥᖕᒪᒃ), or “the bearded one,” in Inuktitut) form an important source of meat for Inuit people living near their herds – with a single animal feeding many more mouths than a single caribou – for instance. Nowadays, musk ox are turned into a mean Thai curry and put on pizza. They’ve also been (re-)introduced to Alaska, where hunting pressures led them to go extinct in the mid-1800s, and parts of Russia and Scandinavia.

The closest living relatives of musk ox are the gorals — odd, satyr-like goat-antelope hybrids that dwell in the mountains of Central and East Asia. Musk ox also bear a striking resemblance to takins, which inhabit the mountains of China, Bhutan, Burma, and India (in other words, around the vaunted Third Pole), but genetic studies attribute this propinquity to convergent evolution.

A 2,000 year old silver plaque found in Mongolia which may be depicting a muskox. Source: Spassov (1991) in Lent (1999)

The Arctic musk ox may have Chinese roots, however. A possible ancient ancestor, the comedically named Boopsis, can be traced to the Late Pliocene period in China some 5.3-2.58 million years ago. More recently, though muskox, like wooly mammoth (a new kind of which has been identified thanks to the discovery of million-year old permafrost-preserved teeth), emerged out of the frosty Siberia tundra, from where they migrated to North America during the Ice Age 20,000-90,000 years ago.

While a population of musk ox may have survived in southern Siberia and Mongolia, where a 2,000 year old silver plaque depicting what may be a musk ox was discovered at a burial site for the nomadic Xiongnu, the animals don’t seem to have pushed south into the warmer latitudes of China – at least not until the twentieth century, when the U.S. offered Beijing a pair.

Musk ox diplomacy gone amok

In 1972, two musk ox finally made it to China.

A pair of furry beasts from San Francisco named Milton and Matilda, who had been born to a pair of animals imported from Canada, were offered by Washington, D.C. in the lead-up to President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. Beijing had supposedly expressed an interest in displaying the animals at the Peking Zoo.

Out of gratitude for the musk ox, and as part of its strategy of “panda diplomacy” in the 1970s, China sent two black and white bears to Washington, D.C. This offering was monumental: pandas were so rare outside of China that few Americans had ever had a chance to gawk at the iconic species before. The U.S. capital joined the Moscow, London, and North Korean zoos as the only other ones with pandas at the time.

While the two pandas gifted to the U.S. survived for over twenty years until the 1990s, sadly, neither musk ox fared very well in China. The director of the U.S. National Zoo, Theodore Reid, recounted that “Milton had a runny nose, cough, and hair loss at the Beijing Zoo. He might be a little depressed. Matilda is said to be in poor condition.” The Arctic animals also suffered from poor skin conditions.

When George Bush was director of the U.S. liaison office to the People’s Republic of China from 1974-1975, he was not permitted to visit the zoo. He pondered that this might have been because as American orthnithologist Dillon Ripley noted after his own visit, there was only one musk ox left rather than two.

President Nixon to Zhou Enlai: So how are those musk ox doing?
(Shanghai, 1972. Source: AP/Bob Daugherty)

As it turns out, Milton died after swallowing a sharp object in 1975, and Matilda died in 1980.

Flogging a dead musk ox?

A Chinese-language Beijing Tourism Net article reveals how hard the loss of the two musk oxen were taken in China:

“It is said that Feng Youqian, the third director of the Beijing Zoo, recalled: When the musk ox was sick, I did not go home in the zoo for 23 days. They were given by the United States as a gift to China.”

It seems that the musk ox wolfed down watermelons, but the heavy fruit was hard to source in winter in Beijing. Even leafy greens were scarce and had to be imported by air all the way from Guangzhou, in the south next to Hong Kong.

The eventual death of both musk ox reportedly alarmed the central government’s leaders. Feng, the zoo’s third director, recalled, “It is a gift animal, representing Sino-US friendship… Chairman Mao has to explain to the American people.”

Bush’s letters indicate that he debated sending a replacement ox, but concluded it “would not be appropriate for President Ford to bring an Ox with him.” In the end, he concluded:

“I am perfectly willing to let the subject drop from this end. Why should we flog a dead Musk Ox?”

George HW Bush, June 24, 1975, then Director of the US Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China

Two more musk oxen arrived in China in 1988 thanks to the efforts of a dedicated Alaskan woman, but they, too, later died. While places like the Grandview Mall Aquarium in Guangzhou, China now house Arctic animals in appalling conditions, they don’t seem to have any musk ox. Conditions in Chinese zoos, let alone malls, simply do not seem up to the task of housing these creatures comfortably and humanely.

After passing away, one of the two musk oxen from Peking Zoo was stuffed and displayed. Source: Bili Bili

Happy niu year

I suppose this deep-dive into musk ox and water buffalo ushers in the Year of the Ox (niú 牛 in Chinese) on a rather sad note, but there you have it.

Musk ox, neither thousands of years ago nor today, do not seem to fare well in China. Water buffalo do. While the two species may not be closely related, at least the appearance of the rather less furry horned beast on the beach makes me recall fond memories of watching musk ox from a distance in colder climes.

Ultimately, I was grateful I could celebrate Lunar New Year at all. Any celebrations that were held in Asian communities across the Arctic would likely have been a far cry from those thrown by 250 Chinese dam workers constructing Iceland’s massive Kárahnjúkar hydropower plant back in 2005 – reportedly “the largest celebration of Chinese New Year to have been held” in the country at the time of writing. Iceland Review reports, “To celebrate the New Year, workers ate a large lunch including tofu, pork and delicacies, watched Chinese movies, and sang karaoke.”

Last year, the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible for nine Chinese workers employed in Royal Greenland’s fish processing plant in Maniitsoq, who had traveled back home in January in advance of the new year, to return. I’m not sure what ultimately happened to them, but if anyone does, please get in touch. Happy Year of the (Musk) Ox!

Chinese workers helping to construct the Kárahnjúkar hydropower plant in Iceland in the early 2000s. Source: Alamy
Categories: Asia & the Arctic

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