Many visitors to Africa when they see buffaloes make the mistake of calling them water buffaloes so I thought it was time to have a thread on true water buffaloes.
The water buffalo Bubalus bubalis is an Asian species that originally may have occurred from Mesopotamia in the West all the way to China and in much of South Asia and South East Asia it is best known as a domestic farm animal. Water buffalo were domesticated on at least two separate occasions in India around 5,000 years ago and in China about 4,000 years ago. Two different forms the river buffalo and the swamp buffalo have given rise to numerous different breeds which have spread across Asia westwards to south Eastern Europe, Italy and also Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in North Africa. Water buffalos are also extensively farmed in South America and one of the apparent advantages of keeping these animals is that unlike domestic cows they have not lost their instinct and ability to defend themselves against predators and are therefore far less likely to be predated by jaguars. When threatened the cows will form a defensive circle with their calves in the middle while the bulls will attempt to drive off the predator, keep water buffalos and cattle together may be sufficient to deter jaguar attacks.
Some examples of domesticated water buffalos
Domestic Water Buffalos in India
Feral populations of water buffaloes have been established in Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Australia and New Guinea and also in Argentina, both in Australia and Argentina valuable trophy hunting industries have developed around these animals.
Although all domestic buffalo breeds must ultimately descend from the wild water buffalo this animal was originally classified as a different species Bubalus arnee and this is still the scientific name that is most often used for wild water buffaloes. In recognition of the fact that they are really the same species the name bubalis should become the accepted species name as taxonomic rules dictate that the earlier name always takes precedent. However in this case because the name bubalis was first applied to the domestic buffalo it has been argued that the name arnee should be kept and this is the name still used by the IUCN.
The wild water buffalo is now a highly endangered species as most of its favoured habitat of floodplain grasslands has been taken over for agriculture leaving just a relatively few scattered populations in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. True wild water buffaloes are much bigger and more muscular than domestic buffaloes are generally uniform grey in colour with a pale ‘V’ shape on the neck and dirty white stockings. The most obvious difference from most domestic buffalo though is their huge long horns which project out sideways and curve up at the end and are the longest horns of any wild animal. Only a few thousand wild water buffaloes at most still survive, aside from loss of habitat and poaching wild water buffalo are also threatened by diseases spread by domestic livestock. However perhaps the greatest threat to many populations is hybridisation with domestic buffalos which often stray into protected areas.
In India wild water buffalos are primarily restricted to the northeast in Assam Manas Sanctuary, Laokhowa Sanctuary, Kaziranga National Park, and Dibru Sanctuary also in Arunachal Pradesh and then couple of populations in central India in Madhya Pradesh Indravati NP and Udanti Sanctuary. The buffalos in MP were said to be purer than those in Assam but in all likelihood there are probably no truly pure wild water buffalos left anywhere in India.
Wild Water Buffalo in Kaziranga NP in Assam
In neighbouring Bhutan wild water buffalos are found only in Royal Manas NP which adjoins Manas NP in Assam.
In Nepal just one population that is probably not viable in the long term survives in the small Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve in the east of the country, sometime ago it was suggested that a group of cows should be moved from Koshi Tappu and taken to Chitwan NP along with some bulls brought in from Kaziranga but nothing has come of this so far. The last wild water buffalos in Chitwan died out in the 1960’s probably from disease.
In Thailand wild water buffalo probably still survive only in Huai Kha Khaeng National Nature Reserve
In Cambodia a small number can still be found in the Srepok River region of Mondulkiri in the East of the country near the Vietnamese border an area formerly known as “The Serengeti of Asia” because of its abundance of big game.
They are very likely extinct in Vietnam any wild buffalos there or elsewhere in South East Asia or Indonesia are presumed to be feral and of purely domestic origin.
In Sri Lanka water buffaloes occur in national parks like Yala, Wasgomuwa and Uda Walawe the exact origins of these apparently wild water buffaloes is not exactly certain but the general view is that they are probably feral in origin and descended from domestic stock that was introduced to the island. Whether water buffaloes were ever really native to Sri Lanka is not known for sure but in India wild water buffaloes have never been known to have occurred south of the Godavari River so it seems unlikely that they could have been native to Sri Lanka. In any case most of Sri Lanka’s water buffaloes were wiped out during a rinderpest epidemic in the 19th Century so if there was in fact a population of native buffaloes on the island that survived into modern times it’s likely that there are no pure animals left just hybrids. However many of the buffaloes that you can see in Sri Lanka’s parks do at least look very similar to wild water buffaloes.
There are also three other species of true buffalos in Asia although they’re not generally called buffaloes the lowland anoa Bubalus depressicornis and the mountain anoa Bubalus quarlesi both from the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia and the tamaraw Bubalus mindorensis on the Island of Mindoro in the Philippines.