Any of three subspecies of oxlike bovid (species Bubalus bubalis). Two have been domesticated in Asia since the earliest recorded history. The animal is named for its ability to work on waterlogged land and in humid climates. The largest breeds stand 5–6 ft (1.5–1.8 m), is up to 9 ft (2.8 m) long, and may weigh over 2,000 lb (900 kg). The dull black or dark gray body has little hair. The horns spread outward and upward, measuring up to 7 ft (2 m) across. One subspecies, the swamp buffalo, is the principal draft animal of southern China and South and Southeast Asia. Another, the river buffalo, is used for dairy and meat production and draft work in southern and South Asia and Egypt. The third subspecies is the wild water buffalo, of which only a few dozen herds remain. It is larger than domestic buffaloes and is sometimes referred to as a separate species (B. arnee).
Learn more about water buffalo with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The Domestic Water Buffalo or Domestic Asian Water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is abundant in Asia, and widely used in South America, southern Europe and elsewhere. It is a large ungulate and a member of the bovine subfamily. There are established feral populations in northern Australia but the dwindling true wild populations are thought to survive in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Thailand. All the domestic varieties and breeds descend from one common ancestor, the wild Asian water buffalo, which is now an endangered species.
Buffalo, apart from their use as draft and dairy animals, are also used to pull bullock carts in the developing world. Their dung is used as a fertilizer and as a fuel when dried. In Chonburi, Thailand, and in South Malabar Region in Kerala, India, there are annual water buffalo races. A few have also found use as pack animals carrying loads even for special forces.
American bison are often called buffalo; however, this is technically incorrect as they are not true buffalo. The bison group comprises the American bison and the European bison or wisent. They are a related group of wild bovines, more closely related to cattle, gaur, banteng, and yaks. The buffalo genus includes water buffalo, tamarau and anoas in Asia, but not the African buffalo (or Cape buffalo) in Africa.
The slightly smaller African buffalo is not closely related to the water buffalo, and its ancestry remains unclear. Owing to the African buffalo’s unpredictable nature, which makes it highly dangerous to humans, it has not been domesticated, unlike its Asian counterpart. The domestic Asian water buffalo is the product of thousands of years of selective breeding carried out by ancient civilizations, particularly in the Indian subcontinent.
The IUCN Red List of threatened species classifies wild Asian water buffalo (Bubalis arnee) as an Endangered species. The total number of wild Asian water buffalo left is thought to be less than 4,000, which suggests that the number of mature individuals will be less than 2,500, and an estimated continuing decline of at least 20% within 14 years (ca. 2 generations) and at least 50% within 21 years seems likely given the severity of the threats, especially hybridization with the abundant domestic Asian water buffalo leading to genetic pollution.
Adult water buffalo range in size from 300 kg to 600 kg for the domestic bred. In the wild, Wild Asian Water Buffalo can weigh up to 800 kg for females, and males, 1200 kg. They can stand as tall as 1.8m at the shoulder, and stretch up to 2.9m in body length. However, the wild buffalo subspecies found in Bangladesh and the Assam state of Northern India, where they inhabit monsoon forests along the foothills of the Himalaya, are notably larger. Here, the average weight of a wild adult buffalo is 900 kg, with the male considerably larger than the female. The average height at the shoulder for a male is about 1.7m, and may reach even 2 metres. These wild buffaloes, which are of the purest breed in India, are now mostly found in the forests of Kaziranga and Manas national parks, both of which are UNESCO world heritage sites. They have also been known to spread into the northwestern region of the neighboring country, Myanmar.
With the establishment of the 20,000 km2. Hukaung Valley tiger reserve in 2004 in Myanmar, the largest ever protected wildlife reserve, now these huge wild buffaloes may have the hope of long-term survival. They are classified as critically endangered, suffering mainly from interbreeding with the domestic buffaloes (known as genetic pollution). Buffaloes are believed to have originated in South Asia. Today, outside India, the true wild water buffaloes can only be found in Thailand in extremely low number of about 50 individuals, and in the Annamites range (also called Truong Son range) forests running along the border of Vietnam - Laos -Cambodia. Populations found elsewhere in Asia are feral breeds, not true wild water buffalo.
The swamp buffalo is primarily found in the eastern half of Asia and has 48 chromosomes. The river buffalo is mostly found in the western half of Asia, and has 50 chromosomes. The two types do not readily interbreed, but fertile offspring can occur. Buffalo-cattle hybrids have been reported in the former U.S.S.R. and in China, but these reports are considered unlikely, as cattle have 60 chromosomes (30 pairs).
Asia is the native home of the water buffalo, with 95% of the world population of water buffalo, with about half of the total in India. Many Asian countries depend on the water buffalo as its primary bovine species. It is valuable for its meat and milk as well as the labour it performs. As of 1992 the Asian population was estimated at 141 million. The fat content of buffalo milk is the highest amongst farm animals and the butterfat is a major source of ghee in some Asian countries. Its success in Asia is evident by its extensive range. Both variants occur in Asia. River buffalo are found in elevations of 2,800 m in Nepal, and swamp buffalo are found throughout the lowland tropics. Part of their success is due to their ability to thrive on poor foodstuffs and yet be valuable economically. Moreover they are much better suited to plough the muddy paddy fields as they are better adapted than common cattle (Bos taurus) to move in swamps.
Wild water buffalo are found in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Thailand, but very few pockets still exist. Like its other family members the tamaraw and the anoa, buffalo are generally found in swamplands and grass jungles and move in herds. The Indian buffalo has the largest horns of any living animal - the average spread is about 1 m (3 ft 3 in), but one bull shot in 1955 had horns measuring 4.24 m (13 ft 11 in) from tip to tip along the outside curve across the forehead. Buffalo use their horns effectively to defend themselves against their only predators, tigers, which can kill a full-grown male weighing 1000-1200kg. However, only an experienced tiger will attempt to prey on them. When faced by a tiger, they form a line facing the predator and charge with noses out and horns laid back.
Today, the estimated population of wild Asian water buffaloes is about 4000, but, this number takes into account all wild population, including feral herds and hybrid buffaloes. In fact, it is possible that no true wild specimens exist anymore.
A smaller breed of water buffalo, the Carabao or swamp water buffalo, is the national animal of the Philippines.
Introduced into the Northern Territory early in the 19th century as a beast of burden, it quickly escaped and is now feral. As a result of its feral status it may be hunted. Melville Island is a popular hunting location, where a steady population of up to 4,000 individuals exist. Buffaloes are also found in Arnhem Land and the Top End. Safari outfits run out of Darwin to Melville Island and other locations in the Top End often with the use of bush pilots. The government has unsuccessfully attempted several eradication programs. Their only natural predator in Australia is the saltwater crocodile.
The buffaloes live mainly in freshwater marshes and billabongs, and their range can be quite expansive during the Wet season. They have developed a different appearance from the Indonesian buffaloes from which they descend.
Grazing water buffalo are being used to manage the conservation of Chippenham Fen NNR. The buffalo are better suited to the wet conditions and poor quality vegetation than cattle.
There are very limited commercial herds in North America, for yogurt and cheese products.
Milk from these animals is used by many human populations, and is the traditional raw material for mozzarella cheese and curd due to its higher fat content. In Africa and other locations, water buffalo milk is used for yogurt, as in Vermont, USA. The chief dairy breed of Buffalo is the Murrah breed. Buffalo meat, sometimes called "Carabeef", is often passed off as beef in certain regions and is also a major source of export revenue for India which has the largest population of buffaloes in the world. However, in many Asian regions, buffalo meat is less preferred due to its toughness, however, recipes have evolved (Rendang for example) where the slow cooking process and spices not only make the meat palatable, but also preserves it; an important factor in hot climates where refrigeration is not always available. Water buffalo horns are used for the embouchure of musical instruments such as ney and kaval. Water buffalo hide provides a tough and useful leather often used for shoes and motorcycle helmets.
Wildlife and conservation scientists have started to recommend and use introduced populations of feral Domestic Asian Water buffaloes in far away lands to manage uncontrolled vegetation growth in and around natural wetlands. Introduced Asian Water Buffalo at home in such environs provide cheap service by regularly grazing the uncontrolled vegetation and opening up clogged water bodies for waterfowls, wetland birds and other wildlife.
The water buffalo has also seen its appearance in a few Veggie Tales episodes, notably in the very first Silly Song with Larry, "The Water Buffalo Song", though it also appears briefly in the "Song of the Cebu", when Larry says: "Oh wait - that's a water Buffalo."