300 – 550 kg (Adult)
281 – 334 days
Male: 1.3 – 1.3 m (At the withers), Female: 1.2 – 1.3 m (At the withers)
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The water buffalo or domestic Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is a large bovid originating in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China. Today, it is also found in Europe, Australia, South America and some African countries. The wild water buffalo (Bubalus arnee) native to Southeast Asia is considered a different species, but most likely represents the ancestor of the domestic water buffalo.
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- Ecology and behavior
- Taxonomic history
- Domestication and breeding
- Distribution of populations
- In Asia
- In Europe and the Mediterranean
- In Australia
- In South America
- In North America
- Dairy products
- Meat and skin products
- Bone and horn products
- Environmental effects
- In culture
- Fighting festivals
- Racing festivals
- Religious festival
Two extant types of water buffalo are recognized based on morphological and behavioural criteria – the river buffalo of South Asia and further west to the Balkans, Egypt, 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 origins of the domestic water buffalo types are debated, although results of a phylogenetic study indicate that the swamp type may have originated in China and was domesticated about 4,000 years ago, while the river type may have originated from India and was domesticated about 5,000 years ago. Water buffalo were traded from the Indus Valley Civilisation to Mesopotamia, in modern Iraq, 2500 BC by the Meluhhas. The seal of a scribe employed by an Akkadian king shows the sacrifice of water buffalo.
At least 130 million domestic water buffalo exist, and more people depend on them than on any other domestic animal. They are especially suitable for tilling rice fields, and their milk is richer in fat and protein than that of dairy cattle. The large feral population of northern Australia became established in the late 19th century, and smaller feral herds are in New Guinea, Tunisia, and northeastern Argentina. Feral herds are also present in New Britain, New Ireland, Irian Jaya, Papua New Guinea, Colombia, Guyana, Suriname, Brazil, and Uruguay.
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The skin of river buffalo is black, but some specimens may have dark, slate-coloured skin. Swamp buffalo have a grey skin at birth, but become slate blue later. Albinoids are present in some populations. River buffalo have comparatively longer faces, smaller girths, and bigger limbs than swamp buffalo. Their dorsal ridges extend further back and taper off more gradually. Their horns grow downward and backward, then curve upward in a spiral. Swamp buffalo 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, and 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 (660–1,210 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, but the embryos of such hybrids reach maturity in laboratory experiments, albeit at lower rates than non-hybrids.
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.
Ecology and behavior
River buffalo prefer deep water. Swamp buffalo prefer to wallow in mudholes which they make with their horns. During wallowing, they 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 greater in the summer. Water availability is important in hot climates, since they need wallows, rivers, or splashing water to assist in thermoregulation. Some breeds are adapted to saline seaside shores and saline sandy terrain.
Water buffalo thrive on many aquatic plants and during floods, will graze submerged, raising their heads above the water and carrying quantities of edible plants. They eat reeds, Arundo donax, a kind of Cyperaceae, Eichhornia crassipes, and Juncaceae. Some of these plants are of great value to local peoples. Others, such as E. crassipes, are a major problem in some tropical valleys and water buffalo 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, the leaves, stems or trimmings of banana, cassava, Mangelwurzel, esparto, Leucaena leucocephala and kenaf, maize, oats, pandaros, peanut, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane, bagasse, and turnips. Citrus pulp and pineapple wastes have been fed safely to buffalo. In Egypt, whole sun-dried dates are fed to milk buffalo up to 25% of the standard feed mixture.
Swamp buffalo generally become reproductive at an older age than river breeds. Young males in Egypt, India, and Pakistan are first mated at about 3.0–3.5 years of age, but in Italy they may be used as early as 2 years of age. Successful mating behaviour may continue until the animal is 12 years or even older. A good river male can impregnate 100 females in a year. A strong seasonal influence on mating occurs. Heat stress reduces libido.
Although buffalo are polyoestrous, 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 mating at the first oestrus is often infertile and usually deferred until they are 3 years old. Gestation lasts from 281–334 days, but most reports give a range between 300 and 320 days. Swamp buffalo carry their calves for one or two weeks longer than river buffalo. It is not rare to find buffalo that continue to work well at the age of 30, and instances of a working life of 40 years are recorded.
Carl Linnaeus first described the genus Bos and the water buffalo under the binomial Bubalis bubalus in 1758; the latter was known to occur in Asia and as a domestic form in Italy. Ellerman and Morrison-Scott treated the wild and domestic forms of the water buffalo as conspecifics whereas others treated them as different species. The nomenclatorial treatment of wild and domestic forms has been inconsistent and varies between authors and even within the works of single authors.
In March 2003, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature achieved consistency in the naming of wild and domestic water buffalo by ruling that the scientific name Bubalus arnee is valid for the wild form. B. bubalis continues to be valid for the domestic form and applies also to feral populations.
Domestication and breeding
Water buffalo were domesticated in Indian subcontinent 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. Twenty-two breeds of the river type water buffalo are known, including Murrah, NiliRavi, 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.
More than 95.8% of the world population of water buffalo are 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 buffalo occur only in small areas in the north-eastern part of the country and are not distinguished into breeds.
In 2003, the second-largest population lived in China, with 22.76 million head, all of the swamp type with breeds kept only in the lowlands, and other breeds kept only in the mountains; as of 2003, 3.2 million swamp-type carabao buffalo were in the Philippines, nearly three million swamp buffalo were in Vietnam, and 772,764 buffalo were in Bangladesh. About 750,000 head were estimated in Sri Lanka in 1997. In Japan, water buffalo is domestic animal throughout the Ryukyuan islands or Okinawa prefecture.
The water buffalo is the main dairy animal in Pakistan, with 23.47 million head in 2010. Of these, 76% are kept in the Punjab. The rest of them are mostly in the province of Sindh. Breeds used are NiliRavi, Kundi, and Azi Kheli. Karachi has the largest population of water buffalos for an area where fodder is not grown, consisting of 350,000 head kept mainly for milking.
In Thailand, the number of water buffalo dropped from more than 3 million head in 1996 to less than 1.24 million head in 2011. Slightly over 75% of them are kept in the country's northeastern region. The statistics also indicate that by the beginning of 2012, less than one million were in the country, partly as a result of illegal shipments to neighboring countries where sales prices are higher than in Thailand.
Water buffalo are also present in the southern region of Iraq in the Mesopotamian Marshes. The draining of the Mesopotamian Marshes by Saddam Hussein was an attempt to punish the south for the 1991 uprisings in Iraq. After 2003 and the Firdos Square statue destruction, these lands were reflooded and a 2007 report on Maysan and Dhi Qar shows a steady increase in the number of water buffalo. The report puts the number at 40,008 head in those two provinces.
In Europe and the Mediterranean
Water buffalo were probably introduced to Europe from India or other Oriental countries. In Italy, the Longobard King Agilulf is said to have received water buffalo in about the year 600. These were probably a present from the Khan of the Avars, a Turkic nomadic tribe that dwelt near the Danube River at the time. Sir H. Johnston knew of a herd of water buffalo 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 buffalo are all of the river type and considered to be of the same breed named Mediterranean buffalo. In Italy, the Mediterranean type was particularly selected and is called Mediterranean Italian breed to distinguish it from other European breeds, which differ genetically. Mediterranean buffalo are also found in Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Kosovo, and the Republic of Macedonia, with a few hundred in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Hungary. Little exchange of breeding buffalo has occurred among countries, so each population has its own phenotypic features and performances. In Bulgaria, they were crossbred with the Indian Murrah breed, and in Romania, some were crossbred with Bulgarian Murrah. Populations in Turkey are of the Anatolian buffalo breed.
Between 1824 and 1849, water buffalo 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 subcoastal 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 buffalo were living in the plains and nearby areas.
They became feral and are 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 insemination 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 up to 4,000 individuals exists. Safari outfits are run from 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 m (10 ft) 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 adult saltwater crocodiles, with whom they share the billabongs, and dingoes, which have been known to prey on buffalo calves and occasionally adult buffalo when the dingoes are in large packs.
Buffalo were exported live to Indonesia until 2011, at a rate of about 3000 per 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 roughly 1.6 million head, of which 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
In 1974, four water buffalo were imported to the United States from Guam to be studied at the University of Florida. In February 1978, the first herd arrived for commercial farming. Until 2002, only one commercial breeder was in the United States. Water buffalo meat is imported from Australia. Until 2011, water buffalo were raised in Gainesville, Florida, from young obtained from zoo overflow. They were used primarily for meat production, frequently sold as hamburger. Other US ranchers use them for production of high-quality mozzarella cheese.
The husbandry system of water buffalo depends on the purpose for which they are bred and maintained. Most of them are kept by people who work on small farms in family units. Their buffalo live in very close association with them, and are often their greatest capital asset. The women and girls in India generally look after the milking buffalo while the men and boys are concerned with the working animals. Throughout Asia, they are commonly tended by children who are often seen leading or riding their charges to wallowing places. Water buffalo are the ideal animals for work in the deep mud of paddy fields because of their large hooves and flexible foot joints. They are often referred to as "the living tractor of the East". It probably is possible to plough deeper with buffalo than with either oxen or horses. They are the most efficient and economical means of cultivation of small fields. In most rice-producing countries, they are used for threshing and for transporting the sheaves during the rice harvest. They provide power for oilseed mills, sugarcane presses, and devices for raising water. They are widely used as pack animals, and in India and Pakistan also for heavy haulage. In their invasions of Europe, the Turks used buffalo for hauling heavy battering rams. Their dung is used as a fertilizer, and as a fuel when dried.
Buffalo contribute 72 million tones of milk and three million tones of meat annually to world food, much of it in areas that are prone to nutritional imbalances. In India, river-type buffalo are kept mainly for milk production and for transport, whereas swamp-type buffalo are kept mainly for work and a small amount of milk.
Water buffalo milk presents physicochemical features different from that of other ruminant species, such as a higher content of fatty acids and proteins. The physical and chemical parameters of swamp and river type water buffalo milk differ. Water buffalo milk contains higher levels of total solids, crude protein, fat, calcium, and phosphorus, and slightly higher content of lactose compared with those of cow milk. The high level of total solids makes water buffalo milk ideal for processing into value-added dairy products such as cheese. The conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) content in milk ranged from 4.4 mg/g fat in September to 7.6 mg/g fat in June. Seasons and genetics may play a role in variation of CLA level and changes in gross composition of the water buffalo milk.
Water buffalo milk is processed into a large variety of dairy products:
Meat and skin products
Water 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. 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 preserve it, an important factor in hot climates where refrigeration is not always available.
Their hides provide tough and useful leather, often used for shoes.
Bone and horn products
Wildlife conservation scientists have started to recommend and use introduced populations of feral domestic water buffalo in far-away lands to manage uncontrolled vegetation growth in and around natural wetlands. Introduced water buffalo at home in such environs provide cheap service by regularly grazing the uncontrolled vegetation and opening up clogged water bodies for waterfowl, wetland birds, and other wildlife. Grazing water buffalo are sometimes used in Great Britain for conservation grazing, such as in Chippenham Fen National Nature Reserve. The buffalo can better adapt to wet conditions and poor-quality vegetation than cattle.
Currently, research is being conducted at the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies to determine the levels of nutrients removed and returned to wetlands when water buffalo are used for wetland vegetation management.
However, in uncontrolled circumstances, water buffalo can cause environmental damage, such as trampling vegetation, disturbing bird and reptile nesting sites, and spreading exotic weeds.
The world's first cloned buffalo was developed by Indian scientists from National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal. The buffalo calf was named Samrupa. The calf did not survive more than a week, due to genetic defects. A few months later, a second cloned calf was successfully born, named Garima.
On 15 September 2007, the Philippines announced its development of Southeast Asia's first cloned buffalo. The Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD), under the Department of Science and Technology in Los Baños, Laguna, approved this project. The Department of Agriculture's Philippine Carabao Center (PCC) will implement cloning through somatic cell nuclear transfer as a tool for genetic improvement in water buffalo. "Super buffalo calves" will be produced. There will be no modification or alteration of the genetic materials, as in genetically modified organisms.
On 1 January 2008, the Philippine Carabao Center in Nueva Ecija, per Filipino scientists, initiated a study to breed a super water buffalo that could produce 4 to 18 litres of milk per day using gene-based technology. Also, the first in vitro river buffalo was born there in 2004 from an in vitro-produced, vitrified embryo, named "Glory" after President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Joseph Estrada's most successful project as an opposition senator, the PCC was created through Republic Act 3707, the Carabao Act of 1992.