The water buffalo or domestic Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is a large buffalo found on the Indian subcontinent to Vietnam and Peninsular Malaysia, in Sri Lanka and in Borneo. Water buffaloes are especially suitable for tilling rice fields, and their milk is richer in fat and protein than of the dairy cow. The large feral population of northern Australia became established in the late 19th century, and there are smaller feral herds in New Guinea, Tunisia and northeastern Argentina. Two groups have been described, termed Swamp and River types. There are at least 130 million domestic water buffalo, and more human beings depend on them than on any other domestic animal.
The Wild Asian Water Buffalo (Bubalus arnee) native to Southeast Asia is considered a different species that is listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List since 1986, as the remaining global wild population totals less than 4,000 individuals, with an estimate of fewer than 2,500 mature individuals. The population decline of at least 50% over the last 24–30 years is projected to continue. It most likely represents the ancestor of the domestic water buffalo.
Water buffaloes were domesticated in India some 5000 years ago, and in China 4000 years ago. Two types are recognized, based on morphological and behavioural criteria – the river buffalo of the Indian subcontinent and further west to the Balkans and Italy, and the swamp buffalo, found from Assam in the west through Southeast Asia to the Yangtze valley of China in the east. The origin of the domestic water buffalo is still an open question. Results of a phylogenetic study indicate that the swamp water buffalo may have originated in China, while the river water buffalo originated from India.
The ancestry of the African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is unclear, but it is not closely related to the water buffalo.
The skin of river buffaloes is black, but some specimens may have dark slate-coloured skin. Swamp buffaloes have a grey skin at birth but become slate blue later. Albinoids are present in some populations. River buffaloes have comparatively longer faces, smaller girth and bigger limbs than swamp buffaloes. The dorsal ridge extends further back and tapers off more gradually. Their horns grow downward and backward, then curve upward in a spiral. Swamp buffaloes are heavy-bodied and stockily built, the body is short and the belly large. The forehead is flat, the eyes prominent, the face short and the muzzle wide. The neck is comparatively long, the withers and croup are prominent. A dorsal ridge extends backward and ends abruptly just before the end of the chest. Their horns grow outward, and curve in a semicircle, but always remain more or less on the plane of the forehead. The tail is short, reaching only to the hocks. Height at withers is 129–133 cm (51–52 in) for males, and 120–127 cm (47–50 in) for females. They range in weight from 300–550 kg (660–1,200 lb), but weights of over 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) have also been observed.
Tedong bonga is a black pied buffalo featuring a unique black and white colouration that is favoured by the Toraja of Sulawesi.
The swamp buffalo has 48 chromosomes; the river buffalo has 50 chromosomes. The two types do not readily interbreed, but fertile offspring can occur. Buffalo-cattle hybrids have not been observed to occur, and the embryos of such hybrids do not reach maturity in laboratory experiments.
The rumen of the water buffalo has important differences from that of other ruminants. It contains a larger population of bacteria, particularly the cellulolytic bacteria, lower protozoa and higher fungi zoospores. In addition, higher rumen ammonia nitrogen (NH4-N) and higher pH have been found as compared to those in cattle.
River buffaloes prefer deep water. Swamp buffaloes prefer to wallow in a mudhole that they make with the horns. Their objective is to acquire a thick coating of mud. Both are well adapted to a hot and humid climate with temperatures ranging from 0 °C (32 °F) in the winter to 30 °C (86 °F) and over in the summer. Water availability is of high importance in hot climates since they need wallows, rivers or splashing water in order to reduce the heat load and thermal stress. Some breeds are adapted to saline seaside shores and saline sandy terrain.
Water buffaloes thrive on many aquatic plants and in time of flood will graze submerged, raising their heads above the water and carrying quantities of edible plants. They eat reeds, quassab, a giant reed, birdi, a kind of bulrush, kaulan, water hyacinth and marsh grasses. Some of these plants are of great value to local peoples in many ways; others, such as water hyacinth, are a major problem in some tropical valleys, and water buffaloes may help to keep waterways clear. Green fodders are used widely for intensive milk production and for fattening. Many fodder crops are conserved as hay, chaffed or pulped. Fodders include alfalfa and lucernes, berseem and bancheri, the leaves, stems or trimmings of banana, cassava, fodder beet, halfa, ipil-ipil and kenaf, maize, oats, pandarus, peanut, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane, bagasse and turnips. Citrus pulp and pineapple wastes have been fed safely to buffaloes. In Egypt, whole sun-dried dates are fed to milk buffaloes up to 25% of standard feed mixture.
Swamp buffaloes are generally slower than river breeds in arriving at breeding age. Young males in Egypt, India and Pakistan are put to the first service at about 3–3.5 years of age but in Italy they may be used as early as 2 years. Good service behaviour may continue until the animal is 12 years or even older. A good river male can settle 100 females a year. There is a strong seasonal influence on mating. Heat stress reduces libido.
Although buffaloes are polyoestrus, their reproductive efficiency shows wide variation throughout the year. Buffalo cows exhibit a distinct seasonal change in displaying oestrus, conception rate and calving rate. The age at first oestrus of heifers varies between breeds from 13–33 months but service at the first heat is often infertile and usually deferred until they are 3 years old. Gestation lasts from 281–334 days, but most reports give a range of between 300 and 320 days. Swamp buffaloes carry their calves for one or two weeks longer than river buffaloes. It is not rare to find buffaloes that continue to work well at the age of 30, and there are recorded instances of a working life of 40 years.
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Domestication and breeding
Water buffaloes were domesticated in India about 5000 years ago, and in China about 4000 years ago. Two types are recognized, based on morphological and behavioural criteria – the river buffalo of the Indian subcontinent and further west to the Balkans and Italy, and the swamp buffalo, found from Assam in the west through Southeast Asia to the Yangtze valley of China in the east. The present day river buffalo is the result of complex domestication processes involving more than one maternal lineage and a significant maternal gene flow from wild populations after the initial domestication events. There are 22 breeds of the river type water buffalo known including Murrah, Nili-Ravi, Surti, Jafarabadi, Anatolian, Mediterranean and Egyptian buffalo. China has a huge variety of buffalo genetic resources, comprising 16 local swamp buffalo breeds in various regions.
Results of mitochondrial DNA analyses indicate that the two types were domesticated independently. Sequencing of cytochrome b genes of Bubalus species implies that the domestic buffalo originated from at least two populations, and that the river and the swamp types have differentiated at the full species level. The genetic distance between the two types is so large that a divergence time of about 1.7 million years has been suggested. The swamp type was noticed to have the closest relationship with the Tamaraw.
Distribution of populations
The water buffalo population in the world is about 172 million head.
More than 95.8% of the world population of water buffaloes can be found in Asia including both river and swamp types. The water buffalo population in India numbered over 97.9 million head in 2003 representing 56.5 % of the world population. They are primarily of the river type with 10 well-defined breeds comprising Badhawari, Murrah, Nili-Ravi, Jafarabadi, Marathwada, Mehsana, Nagpuri, Pandharpuri, Toda and Surti. Swamp buffaloes occur only in small areas in the north-eastern part of the country and are not distinguished into breeds. The second largest population lives in China with 22.759 million heads in 2003. They are all of the swamp type with breeds that can be found only in the lowlands, and other breeds that live only in the mountains. The water buffalo is the main dairy animal in Pakistan with 22 million head, of which 76% are found in the Punjab. There are 3.2 million swamp type Carabao buffaloes in the Philippines, and nearly three million swamp buffaloes in Vietnam. Bangladesh had 772,764 buffalo head in 2003, and about 750,000 head were estimated in Sri Lanka in 1997.
In Europe and the Mediterranean
It is generally considered that water buffaloes were introduced to Europe from India or other Oriental countries. To Italy they were introduced about the year 600 in the reign of the Longobardian King Agilulf. As they appear in the company of wild horses, it seems probable that they were a present from the Khan of the Avars, a Turkish nomadic tribe that dwelt near the Danube River at the time. Sir H. Johnston knew of a herd of water buffaloes presented by a King of Naples to the Bey of Tunis in the mid 19th century that had resumed the feral state in northern Tunis.
European buffaloes are all of the river type and considered to be of the same breed named the Mediterranean. In Italy the Mediterranean type was particularly selected and is called Mediterranean Italian breed to distinguish it from other European breeds, which are not at the same genetic level. Herds can also be found in Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Kosovo and Republic of Macedonia, and a few hundred in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Hungary. There has been little exchange of breeding buffaloes among countries, therefore each population has its own phenotypic traits and performances. In Bulgaria, crossbreeding with the Indian Murrah breed was undertaken. Some water buffaloes in Romania have been crossbred with Bulgarian Murrah. Populations in Turkey are of the Anatolian buffalo breed.
Between 1824 and 1849, water buffalos were introduced into the Northern Territory from Timor, Kisar and probably other islands in the Indonesian archipelago. In 1886, a few milking types were brought from India to Darwin. They have been the main grazing animals on the sub-coastal plains and river basins between Darwin and Arnhem Land since the 1880s. In the early 1960s, an estimated population of 150,000 to 200,000 buffalos were living in the plains and nearby areas.
They became feral and caused causing significant environmental damage. Buffalo are also found in the Top End. As a result, they were hunted in the Top End from 1885 until 1980. The commencement of the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Campaign (BTEC) resulted in a huge culling program to reduce buffalo herds to a fraction of the numbers that were reached in the 1980s. The BTEC was finished when the Northern Territory was declared free of the disease in 1997. Numbers dropped dramatically as a result of the campaign, but have since recovered to an estimated 150,000 animals across northern Australia in 2008.
During the 1950s, buffalo were hunted for their skins and meat, which was exported and used in the local trade. In the late 1970s, live exports were made to Cuba and continued later into other countries. Buffalo are now crossed with riverine buffalo in artificial breeding (AI) programs, and may be found in many areas of Australia. Some of these crossbreds are used for milk production. Melville Island is a popular hunting location, where a steady population of up to 4,000 individuals exist. Safari outfits are run out of Darwin to Melville Island and other locations in the Top End, often with the use of bush pilots. The horns, which can measure up to a record of 3.1 metres tip-to-tip, are prized hunting trophies.
The buffalo have developed a different appearance from the Indonesian buffalo from which they descend. They live mainly in freshwater marshes and billabongs, and their territory range can be quite expansive during the wet season. Their only natural predators in Australia are large adult saltwater crocodiles, with whom they share the billabongs, and dingoes, which have been known to prey on buffalo calves and occasionally adult buffalos when the dingoes are in large packs.
Buffalos were exported live to Indonesia until 2011, at a rate of about 3000 for year. After the live export ban that year, the exports dropped to zero, and had not resumed as of June 2013.
In South America
Water buffalo were introduced into the Amazon River basin in 1895. They are now extensively used there for meat and dairy production. In 2005, the buffalo herd in the Brazilian Amazon stood at approximately 1.6 million head, of which approximately 460,000 were located in the lower Amazon floodplain. Breeds used include Mediterranean from Italy, Murrah and Jafarabadi from India, and Carabao from the Philippines.
In Argentina, many game ranches raise water buffalo for commercial hunting.
In North America
One of the first milking herds in North America was in Canada at Fairburn Water Buffalo on Vancouver Island. The farm is owned and operated by Darrel, Anthea, Maryann, and Richard Archer. The Archers started milking in 2006 with Murrah Water Buffalo imported from Bulgaria. The milk is made into fresh Mozzarella cheese by Natural Pastures Cheese Company. There are now several dairy farms on Vancouver Island as well as farms in Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec. Vermont Water Buffalo Inc., known as bufala di vermont, is a water buffalo farm and creamery located in South Woodstock, Vermont.
There are very limited commercial herds in the USA, for yogurt and cheese products. In Gainesville, Florida, a University of Florida professor, Hugh Popenoe, has raised water buffalo from young obtained from zoo overflow. He uses them primarily for meat production (frequently sold as hamburger), although other local ranchers use them for production of high-quality mozzarella cheese.