The Water Buffalo—Faithful and Useful
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN BRAZIL
‘Flee, flee! A tiger!’ shout the boys. They rush to their buffalo, jump on their backs, and gallop away. Suddenly, Saïdjah, one of the boys, loses his balance and plunges into the rice field—prey for the approaching tiger. Saïdjah’s buffalo, however, sees what happened. It turns back, places its broad body as a roof over its little friend, and faces the tiger. The big cat attacks, but the buffalo stands firm and saves Saïdjah’s life.
THIS encounter, described by Eduard Douwes Dekker, a 19th-century writer living in Asia, shows an endearing trait of the water buffalo: faithfulness. Today, fidelity is still its earmark. “The water buffalo,” says one expert, “is like a family dog. It gives you its lifelong affection as long as you treat it well.”
Children in Asia, even at four years of age, know how to do that. Every day, they lead their bulky friends into the river, where they wash them down and, with their tiny hands, clean the animals’ ears, eyes, and nostrils. The buffalo, in response, sighs in contentment. Its dark skin absorbs much heat, and because the buffalo has far fewer sweat glands proportionately than cattle, it has a problem cooling off. No wonder it loves these daily dips! “Immersed in water or mud, chewing with half-closed eyes,” notes one source, buffalo “are a picture of bliss.”
Their love of water, though, is only part of the picture. What other traits do they have? Why are they useful? To start with, what do they look like?
The water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) looks like an oversize ox and weighs 2,000 pounds [900 kg] or more. It has an almost bald, slate-gray skin. Standing up to six feet [1.8 m] high at the shoulder—with sweeping horns, a straight back, a long body, a droopy neck, and a muscular frame—it is the picture of strength. Its sturdy legs end in footwear ideal for mud treaders: large boxy hooves attached to extremely flexible joints. That suppleness enables the buffalo to bend back its hooves, step over obstacles, and plod through boggy fields where cattle lose footing.
The world’s 150 million domesticated water buffalo come in two varieties: the swamp type and the river type. From the Philippines to India, the swamp buffalo, with its four- to six-foot [1.2-1.8 m]-long backswept horns, forms a favorite postcard model. When not posing, it is slushing knee deep through paddies or hauling carts over trails that would make any truck driver shiver.
The river buffalo is similar to the swamp type. Its body is slightly smaller and its horns more modest—tightly coiled or drooping straight. But weighing in at 2,000 pounds [900 kg], it also looks impressive. In the past, Arab traders brought this variety from Asia to the Middle East; and later, returning Crusaders introduced it into Europe, where it is still thriving.
Though you will not find water buffalo in the fast lane—they trudge along at a steady two miles per hour [3 km/hr]—both swamp and river buffalo are circling the globe. They have settled along the coast of northern Australia, have walked ashore on the islands of the Pacific, and are even making trails in the Amazon forest. Amazon?
Ecotourists plying the Amazon often scan the riverbanks in vain for elusive jaguars or king-size anacondas. However, they do not need binoculars, or even glasses, to see the jungle’s new arrivals—water buffalo, by the thousands.
If you feel that these Asian immigrants wallowing in the Amazon are threatening the ecosystem, you may consider demurring to the police on Marajó, an island in the river delta. But beware! You will not get an impartial hearing when you arrive at the station, for the officer on duty may be about to leave for street patrol on the back of an intimidating federal worker. That’s right, a water buffalo—and a swamp type at that! Who wants to complain anyway?
Actually, the water buffalo is an asset to the Amazon region, says Dr. Pietro Baruselli, a veterinarian working for one of the two water-buffalo research centers in Brazil. He told Awake! that buffalo have a superb digestive system that enables them to fatten on pastures that leave cattle emaciated. Cattle farmers continually need to clear forest to create new pasture, but buffalo thrive on pastures that are already there. Dr. Baruselli says that water buffalo “can help to conserve the rain forest.”
To survive in the jungle, however, the buffalo has to be an improviser—and it is. The book The Water Buffalo: New Prospects for an Underutilized Animal relates that in the rainy season, when the Amazon drowns pastures, the buffalo adapts to its wet surroundings. While cattle, marooned on patches of high ground, look on with envious eyes and empty stomachs, buffalo around them, treading water, feast on floating plants and even graze underwater. When the pastures emerge again, the buffalo looks as sleek as before.
Water buffalo in other parts of Brazil are flourishing as well. Since the early 1980’s, the country’s herd has jumped from four hundred thousand to several million head. In fact, buffalo are increasing at a much higher rate than cattle. Why?
Wanderley Bernardes, a buffalo breeder in Brazil, explains that a buffalo is ready to mate at two years of age. After ten months of gestation, it gives birth to its first calf. Some 14 months later, the second calf is born. With low mortality among calves and high resistance to diseases, buffalo enjoy a long and fertile life. How long? An average of more than 20 years. How fertile?
“I’ll show you,” says Mr. Bernardes as he strides into the rolling pastures of his 750-acre [300 ha] farm, some 100 miles [160 km] west of São Paulo. “This is Rainha (Queen),” he says with affection while pointing to an animal whose worn skin and chipped horns display a record of long buffalo life. “She is 25 years old, a grandmother many times over, but,” he adds, beaming, “she just gave birth to her 20th calf.” With grandmas like Rainha, it is no wonder that some experts predict that in the next century, the world’s largest buffalo herd may be grazing in Brazil!
A Living Tractor and More
For now, though, that claim belongs to India, home of nearly half the world’s buffalo. There and in other Asian countries, thanks to the buffalo, millions of poor farm families are surviving on marginal land. Without needing diesel oil or spare parts, their “living tractor” pulls, plows, harrows, carts, and supports the family for over 20 years. “To my family,” said an old Asian woman, “the buffalo is more important than I am. When I die, they’ll weep for me; but if our buffalo dies, they may starve.”
Besides being a farmhand, the buffalo is also a caterer. Some 70 percent of all milk produced in India comes from river-type water buffalo, and buffalo milk is in such demand that cow’s milk can be hard to sell. Why do many prefer it? “Buffalo milk,” explains the book The Water Buffalo: New Prospects for an Underutilized Animal, “contains less water, more total solids, more fat, slightly more lactose, and more protein than cow’s milk.” It gives a lot of energy, tastes good, and is used in making mozzarella, ricotta, and other delicious cheeses.
What about buffalo meat? “We can’t keep up with the demand,” says rancher Bernardes. In taste-preference tests in Australia, Venezuela, the United States, and other countries, buffalo steaks were preferred over those of cattle. In fact, millions of people around the world are often savoring buffalo meat while thinking they are nibbling on a juicy beefsteak. “Often people have a prejudice,” observes Dr. Baruselli, “but buffalo meat is as good as, and often better than, beef.”
Shrinking the Buffalo
Though the buffalo is growing in numbers, it is in trouble. “Large bulls that would be best for breeding purposes,” notes Earthscan Bulletin, “are often selected as draft animals and castrated, or sent to slaughter.” That way, hereditary traits for large size are lost, and the buffalo are shrinking in size. “Ten years ago in Thailand,” say experts, “it was common to find buffalo weighing 1,000 kg [2,200 lb]; now it is hard to find 750-kg [1,700 lb] specimens.” Can this problem be solved?
Yes, says a report compiled by 28 animal scientists, but “urgent action is needed . . . to preserve and protect outstanding buffalo specimens.” So far, they admit, the buffalo has been neglected, but “better understanding of the water buffalo could be invaluable to many developing nations.” More research, they say, will help its “true qualities to emerge.”
At last, scientists worldwide are discovering what Asian farmers have known for centuries: The faithful and useful water buffalo is one of man’s best friends.
[Box on page 27]
“IT IS widely believed,” notes the book The Water Buffalo: New Prospects for an Underutilized Animal, “that the water buffalo is mean and vicious. Encyclopedias reinforce this perception.” In reality, however, the domesticated water buffalo is “one of the gentlest of all farm animals. Despite an intimidating appearance, it is more like a household pet—sociable, gentle, and serene.” How, then, did the water buffalo end up with this undeserved reputation? It may be confused with the African Cape buffalo (Synceros caffer), which is indeed mean-tempered although a distant relative. Yet, water buffalo will not breed with them. They prefer to keep such cranky relatives where they are—at a distance.