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  • Tasneem Johnson-Dollie

What the water buffalo means to the past and present of human beings

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

BY: Tasneem Johnson-Dollie

Water buffaloes and humans have a shared history spanning more than 50 centuries. But, how well do we really know one of our earliest animal companions, and what are we doing to ensure that they’ll be around for centuries to come?

The water buffalo is a cousin of the cow and, just like cows, this buffalo species has played a major role in the development of society. 

Let’s learn more about the water buffalo, and how they became an important part of human history. 

How is the water buffalo different from other types of buffalo?

buffalo in Limpopo, South Africa

There are two buffalo species in the world, the African buffalo – also known as the Cape buffalo, and the Asian buffalo – also known as the water buffalo.

The water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) differs from the Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) in a number of significant ways:

  1. First of all, the Cape buffalo is only found in Africa while the water buffalo is found on all seven continents.

  2. Water buffaloes live in wetlands and marshes in the tropical and subtropical forests of Asia, while the Cape buffalo lives in the savannah and forests of Africa.

  3. Because they live in different habitats, their foot structure is quite different. The water buffalo has splayed hooves that prevent it from sinking into wet sand while the Cape buffalo’s hooves are less splayed and adapted to the harder terrain of the savannahs.

  4. Water buffaloes can grow to be much bigger – and heaps heavier – than other buffaloes.

  5. The Cape buffalo is thought to be much more aggressive than the water buffalo.

But, did you know that, due to their domestication, there are now also different types of water buffalo?

The different types of water buffaloes

bushwise water buffalo in the water

Original image: Water Buffalo by Kosala Bandara is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

After centuries of living different lifestyles, it’s no surprise that domestic water buffaloes have undergone some major adaptations that make them quite different from wild water buffaloes:

  1. While both species of buffaloes come in shades of grey and black and have off-white “socks”, domesticated breeds have more white on their bodies.

  2. The large curved horns seen in the water buffaloes of the wild are much smaller or absent in domestic water buffaloes.

  3. While water buffaloes are one of the biggest members of the Bovidae family – cattle-like animals with hooves – wild water buffaloes can be more than four times heavier than domestic water buffaloes.

  4. Domestic types of water buffaloes can live for up to 40 years, while some sources claim that water buffaloes can live for as little as nine years in the wild

Today domestic water buffaloes are known as the “tractors of the East” because they still play a big role in the farming industry in Asian countries

Why are water buffaloes an important part of human history?

Volunteers share stories around a camp fire

With more than 70 breeds of domestic water buffalo in existence, it’s clear that human beings weren’t just taken aback by these bulky bovines, but they were keen to keep them close. 

Why did human beings decide to domesticate the water buffalo in the first place?

Well, it started with water buffaloes inhabiting the same environments as human beings – which made them a viable option for domestication. The idea gained momentum because these animals had the type of temperament that allowed them to be domesticated. And, tons more animals were domesticated because of the realisation that keeping water buffaloes made it much easier for human beings to survive. 

What is it about water buffaloes that had human beings hooked? Well, just like the cow, the water buffalo could provide a wide variety of resources like the following:

  1. Food: Their meat, milk and butterfat are highly nutritious.

  2. Materials for various uses: Their horns and hides can be used to make clothing and equipment, and their dung can be used to fortify buildings and fuel fires.

  3. Farm labour: They’re powerful animals and can easily pull field-ploughing machinery, and can transport people and crops. 

Centuries later, research by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) shows that more people depend on water buffaloes for their livelihoods than on any other domesticated species on Earth. 

What’s the future look like for the water buffalo?

water buffalo

While there are more domestic water buffaloes around than you can shake a stick at, the same can’t be said for wild water buffaloes. 

In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, states that there are only 2,500 wild water buffaloes left, and their species is classified as endangered. 

So, what’s the problem, since there are still tons of domestic water buffaloes? Well, because wild types of water buffaloes are so different to domestic water buffaloes – they inhabit and contribute to different environments in different ways – we really can’t depend on domestic water buffaloes to take their place. 

It’s important that we work to conserve these creatures in order to conserve the environments they live in. If not, we run the risk of seeing this buffalo species becoming extinct, and finding out what effect their loss would have on environments worldwide.

Get involved in the conservation of the water buffalo by signing up for a Bushwise Field Guides, Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) Professional Field Guide course or a Nature Enthusiast FGASA online course


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