(Warning: This post contains graphic images that some readers may find disturbing.)
The water buffalo, which many have heard of by different names like the Asian water buffalo or the domestic water buffalo. Now you may be thinking, as we are, that they are unusual-looking animals.
And it would be true to say that they are not the type of animal that many people, if any, say that they love. But in many cultures, these animals are worshipped and even considered god-like.
The water buffalo can be found all across the world, from Europe to Africa, and is also domesticated in most of these countries. They provide assistance to farmers working in the fields on a daily basis.
We’ll take a closer look at some of the jobs they do, and the habitats they live in later on, but for now, let’s jump straight into what a water buffalo looks like, some quick history facts we think you’ll love, and all their unique characteristics!
What Is Water Buffalo
There are two main types of water buffalo that are alive today and are luckily not extinct. These are the river buffalo and the swamp buffalo.
Water Buffalo is part of the Bovini family, and there is no doubt that these animals are the largest members of that family. But what makes them a part of this family?
Well, in order to be part of this family, you are required to have hooves. So this means that animals like yaks, wild cattle, African buffalo, cows, and any other animal with hooves are a part of this family. As you can guess, it makes for a pretty big family gathering!
Now there are two types of water buffalo the domesticated and the wild. As you can guess, domesticated buffalo are a lot more relaxed, they don’t have to deal with lions trying to eat them at every opportunity and feel pretty secure where they live.
While wild buffalo are known for being a bit more aggressive when they need to be especially when it comes to protecting their family from predators and other dangers. They have even been known to stand off against lions!
What Does a Water Buffalo Look Like?
On average, water buffalos will vary in size from being 5 foot tall to over 6 foot tall up to the shoulder – that’s like the size of an average human being, and that’s just up to their shoulders!
Adult males have absolutely enormous horns, in fact, they are often almost 5 feet in length, and these horns grow outward.
Naturally, adult females are smaller in weight and size, but they are still not an animal you would want to cross. Their horns, although smaller than the males, can still do some definite damage!
Both the male and female water buffalo have a gray or black coat, apart from a few who have a similar coat to the highland cow – now, those are some adorable animals!
History of Water Buffalo
Lots of research has shown that the river water buffalo have come from western India and India generally. These then became domesticated water buffalo around 6000 years ago.
However, researchers also think that the other buffalo, the swamp type originated independently from southeast Asia and are believed to have been domesticated around 4000 to 7000 years ago.
Some people do wonder where they get their name from, and it’s actually pretty simple! They often spend most of their day submerged in water with just their little nostrils poking out this helps them to keep cool and also keep those pesky biting insects at bay – living in a swamp can be hard!
There are a few different types of buffalos around today than there once were. This is mainly because the domesticated species, that we are more familiar with, originally came from the wild buffalo.
But this does mean that both species have a slightly different taxonomic hierarchy, which in simple terms, is the process of classification used for living organisms. So let’s take a closer look at the taxonomic hierarchy for the water buffalo, both domesticated and wild.
Starting with the domesticated buffalo:
- Kingdom: Animalia (animal kingdom)
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Artiodactyla
- Family: Bovidae
- Subfamily: Bovinae
- Genus: Bubalus
- Species: Bubalus bubalis
The wild buffalo is very similar with just a slight change in the species name.
- Kingdom: Animalia (animal kingdom)
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Artiodactyla
- Family: Bovidae
- Subfamily: Bovinae
- Genus: Bubalus
- Species: Bubalus arnee
Indian Water Buffalo Characteristics
The Indian Water buffalo is also known as the wild water buffalo, and these animals are huge, weighing up to 2,600 pounds and standing almost 2 meters tall, definitely intimidating, wouldn’t you agree! But these animals are not aggressive unless they feel threatened, and then they are a force to be reckoned with.
It is unusual to see them during the daytime as they tend to spend most of their time wallowing in mud or water right up to their nostrils, this helps them not only to keep cool but fend off those pesky biting insects.
Indian Water Buffalo can live up to 40 years on average, which is quite a long life for an animal. However, the wild water buffalo doesn’t live as long, even if it’s in captivity which is quite sad, so it’ll average at around 25 years.
The way water buffalo adapt to various temperatures and climates is pretty cool, and it allows them to stay safe and warm when their habitats change.
When it gets colder in the winter, the wild water buffalo will gain woolly and thick coats, which make sure that they don’t freeze to death. In fact, some people say that this coat is so good at its job that even when snow falls on them, the insulation means that the snow will just stay there. They really are a winter soldier!
Their diet also lets them survive the tougher winter climates. It may not sound as appealing to us, but wild water buffalo have adapted to eat things like grass which actually helps them to fight away the storms – no soups or stews for them! We’ll touch on their diet more in a second!
Where Do Water Buffaloes Live?
In the wild, water buffalo are often found living in wet grasslands, tropical and subtropical valleys, and they use the water to help keep themselves cool and also to keep away insects. But some buffalo species can also be found living in swampland, marshes, and even forests if there is enough water for them.
Due to their falling numbers, they can only be found in protected areas in India, Nepal, and Bhutan in small groups.
Unfortunately, a lot of the water buffaloes’ habitat has been lost due to the impact that we humans have on the land they once called home.
What Do Water Buffalo Eat?
Like any other animal, water buffalo have a routine of food that they like to eat, and it’s pretty straightforward – if only all diets were like that!
Water Buffalo are herbivores, and so they eat lots of plants and various vegetation – how healthy! However, they’ll also consume aquatic plants because they really love the water!
During the wetter seasons of November through to April, water buffalo really do enjoy aquatic grass and plants. However, they eat a lot more in the dryer seasons, and their plate is a lot broader. In fact, every day, male buffalos will actually eat around 30 kilograms of dry food – that’s crazy!
Ecology and Behavior of Water Buffalo
There are two different types of water buffalo, river and swamp, who both enjoy different types of water. River buffalo prefer deeper water, and swamp buffalo prefer mud holes that they make themselves.
They’re great at dealing with the heat, thanks to all the different countries they’ve had to adapt in. They’ve also learned to adapt to saline sandy terrain and seaside shores to make sure they have plenty of water for thermoregulation.
Reproduction and Development
Swamp buffaloes start reproducing much earlier than river breeds, but let’s take a look at when exactly this tends to happen.
The starting age for breeding changes depending on which country you look at as Egypt and India tend to start at around 3 and a half years, but Italy might start as early as 2. The animal will then continue to mate until they are roughly 12, but of course, this can vary.
It’s also amazing to see how many mates a single male water buffalo can have in its lifetime, with numbers reaching around 100 for certain animals.
Another interesting fact is how their climate can change how well a mating season goes. Heat stress causes a lower libido, so you’re more likely to see a better mating season for water buffaloes in winter.
Almost the entire reproductive cycle varies throughout the year, which can be seen through calving and conception rates through different seasons. Heifers will usually display their first oestrus anywhere from 13 to 33 months but tend to be infertile at this point.
Because of this, heifers are also usually kept until 3 years before they begin reproducing. They will then carry their baby for anywhere between 281 and 334 days, with swamp buffaloes carrying for a week or two more than river buffalo.
Habits and Lifestyle
So, what about their habits and their lifestyle? Well, wild water buffaloes are actually diurnal and nocturnal, which is a pretty cool thing to consider. Female adults, with their younglings, also love to form clans of their species, and these can have up to 30 animals in there – that’s crazy!
Bulls may sometimes be a part of these clans and groups and are led by the old cows. They do everything together, like resting, drinking, and grazing, which sounds lovely! Older males do enjoy their time alone, though, so if you find a water buffalo alone in the wild, chances are it’s a male that’s getting on a good bit.
Like lots of other animals, they are seasonal breeders, and this season starts roughly in October or November, but some may want to breed all year round!
If you were to describe water buffaloes in one word, it would easily be “grazers”. They do love to graze, being alone or with their clan, on grass, herbs, and things of the sort! However, some crops can actually hurt them and do more harm than good.
Breeding and Domestication
The chances of the water buffalo’s ancestor being the wild water buffalo is pretty high, and they lived around southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
The most common buffaloes (the swamp buffalo and river buffalo) are thought to have been domesticated alone, and we have mentioned this briefly already! Let’s take another quick look at it just to refresh our memories.
So, around 6300 years ago, scientists and researchers believe that the River water buffalo was domesticated. They think it came from western India!
The swamp type, on the other hand, has a bit of a bigger range of when it could have been domesticated. Scientists think that it could date back from 3000 to 7000 years ago, which is a pretty broad range in comparison to the domestication estimate of the river buffalo.
They think that this one came from the mainland of southeast Asia and can now also be found in the Yangtze River valley!
Dna Analysis of Water Buffalo
Now for the fancy biology part! Mitochondrial DNA analysis has proved that both types of water buffalo have domesticated alone and apart from each other and have come from two different populations.
In fact, if we’re going to talk about genetics, the genetic distance between both species of water buffalo population is so vast that scientists have actually suggested a divergence time of 1.7 million years – woah!
There are around 172 million of these animals across the globe, which means there’s no doubt about the fact that they are very spread out. They can apparently be found in around 77 countries, so let’s take a closer look at some of these.
You’ll find the majority of water buffalo in Asia, as there were around 97.9 million in India alone in 2003 – that’s a lot of buffalo!
They are split into two groups, river and swamp buffalo, which are then split into smaller groups again. The river species has 10 breeds within it, but there are much less swamp species, so these are not broken up into breeds.
Did you know buffalo are also the main source of dairy in Pakistan? Because of this, there were 23.47 million in the country in 2010.
In the Mediterranean and European Regions
Buffalo has also been in Europe for some time because of the fact that King Agilulf of Italy received the animal in 600 AD – that’s a long time!
They are also all river-type water buffalo called the Mediterranean buffalo. This breed can be found in many countries across the continent, including Romania, Greece, and Serbia.
Now they haven’t been in Australia for quite as long, but they’ve still been around for their fair share of time. They were introduced in around 1824 and have now become one of the main grazing animals.
Buffalo did, however, have some problems settling in Australia and became feral very very quickly. They also don’t have many predators in the country as only crocodiles, and dingoes hunt them, and this is limited to the smaller animals.
Because of this, they were hunted in the nineteenth century, although the population has once again reached around 200,000 in 2022.
In North America
Water buffalo didn’t reach North America until 1974, when four were sent from Guam to be studied in Florida. They were often used for their meat up until 2011, as the meat is now imported from Australia.
They are now used to make a certain type of mozzarella instead and often come from overflowing zoos.
In South America
Buffalo are mostly used in South America for meat and dairy and were introduced around 1895. There were around 1.6 million in the Brazilian Amazon in 2005, which included many different breeds.
The number has slightly dropped to 1.39 million recently, but there are still large numbers in places like Colombia, Argentina, and Venezuela.
Usage in Dairy Products
Dairy products are always a good shout, who doesn’t love cheese? However, buffaloes are used a good bit in the dairy industry! Mozzarella, yeah, that has buffalo milk in it!
For Meat and Leather
Often, buffalo meat is actually eaten. Asians will use it for kebabs, curries, sausages, and corned meat. It’s actually quite common to eat in Asia and apparently tastes quite yummy!
Products From Bone and Horn
As upsetting as it may seem, buffalo bones and horns are commonly hunted and are used for different products.
For example, buffalo horns and bones are actually used to create lots of homeware and glue – crazy right? So, if you take a look at the ingredients that are in some of your household’s products, chances are they’re part buffalo!
Believe it or not, water buffalo can actually have a huge effect on the environment, and much of that is actually environmental damage.
A lot of their habitat is quite muddy and sludgy, and once they start wallowing, it stirs up all this mud making it almost impossible for aquatic plants to live and grow there. It also doesn’t provide a stable surface for aquatic animals.
They also eat a substantial amount of grass and strip the bark from trees. This means that native wildlife is actually competing with a much bigger beast for food which, unfortunately, is a fight they all too often lose.
On the flip side, water buffalos can actually be quite good for the environment by supporting smaller river channels and cleaning anything that’s silted. They also enjoy making themselves smaller lakes that increase biodiversity by bringing more birds and reptiles into their area.
Water Buffalo Predators
Despite the water buffalo loving a good standoff with other animals to prove their dominance and authority, it doesn’t mean that they’re not prey for other animals. In fact, the water buffalo actually has a fair few predators!
Some of the main predators that hunt for water buffaloes are large carnivores. Some of these include tigers and leopards as well as lions!
Yes, they don’t have as many predators as other animals, mainly because of their large size, but they are certainly still at some threat! Young calves are especially at risk of being eaten by wolves, crocodiles, and even dingoes.
These bovine can also suffer from the same diseases as the common cows, such as foot and mouth and bovine brucellosis.
Water Buffalo Threats and Conservation
The Asian water buffalo is considered an endangered species, with hydroelectric and irrigation projects destroying the last of their natural habitats.
African buffaloes are the same, but their biggest threat is from humans poaching them and next losing their habitat.
Unfortunately, we humans threaten the existence of these water buffaloes, and as a result, the numbers are decreasing rapidly.
In terms of conservation, lots of protected areas have been introduced to ensure that the number of water buffalo doesn’t decrease to such a point that they can no longer be saved. These protected areas also allow for small families of water buffaloes to inhabit their natural habitat for hopefully many years to come.
The WWF also plays a key part in ensuring that numbers don’t decrease to a ridiculously low point. The Wildlife Conservation Society is also an institute that is trying to keep this species safe in the wild and is setting up a protected area in Bhutan.
Research on Water Buffalo
There’s been lots of cool research conducted on water buffalo, and so there’s a lot to learn and understand about these creatures. So what are some cool facts about these animals?
- They are the biggest set of bovines meaning bigger limbs and bigger everything!
- They love a good fight and are super speedy – they can charge up to 30 miles per hour.
- Water buffalo milk is actually really good for you and has higher levels of calcium, iron, and protein than normal cow’s milk! Maybe we should introduce water buffalo milk production onto the scene!
Cultural Significance of Water Buffalo
Not only are water buffalo scientific and pretty cute, but they also have cultural significance to many people. So, what are the wild water buffaloes’ significance for many people’s culture? Let’s take a look.
In Fighting Festivals
Now, this is quite a controversial topic that lots of people don’t agree with, but usually happens in places like Vietnam. These festivals bring hundreds of spectators to the arena to watch two wild water buffalo fight each other – they’re super popular!
The selected bulls’ wild water buffalo will be trained especially for about three or four months before the event.
Why do they do it? Well, Vietnam has a tradition of doing these festivals to worship a water god – it’s quite interesting!
Remember, these fighting festivals aren’t only held in Vietnam and are held in many different areas like Thailand on New year’s day. Two males will fight against each other, and they’ll most definitely use their horns!
If the water buffalo runs away, then that’s the loser, and the winning buffalo will all of a sudden become worth lots of money!
In Racing Festivals
We race horses and some race buffalos! Every May in the Philippines, there is a racing festival for water buffaloes.
Some places in the Indian subcontinent will also race Asian buffalo. They do this by making them race through ditches and draw men on wooden planks behind them.
Like any race, the first to cross the line is the winner, but not only do you have to do that, but the winner is also determined by the one raising water the most.
In Religious Festivals
Religious festivals also play a key role in the cultural use of water buffalos.
An example of a religious festival that water buffalos are used in is the Pulilan Carabao Festival, also in the Philippines every May. It’s mainly used as a form of thanksgiving for a good harvest.
They’ll parade their buffaloes, and they’ll sometimes kneel them in front of the church as an act of gratefulness.
Is a Buffalo a Herbivore?
Buffaloes are definitely herbivores. And they love nothing more than chowing down on some fresh greens from grass to herbs. But they have also been known to take a liking to other types of food, such as aquatic plants and sometimes even trees if they can get a hold of them.
How Fast Is a Water Buffalo?
Now there’s no denying that this is a speedy animal. Did you know that wild water buffalos can reach up to 30 mph if they feel threatened in any way? You wouldn’t want to get caught in the way of one of these, that’s for sure!
What Are Domesticated Buffalos?
Domesticated buffaloes are just water buffalo that have been tamed. They are often used for farming, but they have also been bred for their meat and milk.
Are Buffalos Dangerous?
Domestic buffalo are rarely considered to be dangerous. But there are some species of buffalo that are considered extremely dangerous such as the Cape buffalo that kills around 200 people every year.
Can Buffalos Be Kept in the Zoo?
Buffalo have been kept in zoos, and the fact that many have been in captivity actually prevented them from becoming extinct. If you’re looking for somewhere to get a closer look at one of these amazing animals, then the Smithsonian’s National Zoo currently has two female buffalo called Lucy and Gally.
Water buffalo are amazing creatures, whether they are wild or domesticated, and who knew there was so much to know about them?
In the wild, these animals live in small family groups, and spend a lot of their day up to their nose in water or mud, but did you realize how much their lives are intertwined with our own?
The domesticated buffalo is used in everything from plowing fields to transporting people and crops. They have also helped humans survive with the use of their meat, hide, horns, and even milk.
Although both wild and domesticated buffalo live very different lives, they all come from the same genetic makeup.
So, hopefully, this article has helped you understand and learn more about the water buffalo, from their history to their habitat.