LivestockWorking Animals

Hooray for the Water Buffalo!

They are called water buffalo for good reason
Photos Copyright © Craig Mackintosh

Did you know that more than five percent of the world’s milk supply comes from water buffalo? Yes, that’s it, just like the one enjoying a leisurely soak above.

There are approximately 160 million water buffalo in the world, and about 95% of these are found in Asia (and about half of those are in India). Between 20-30% of farm power in asia is provided by these self-replicating, fertiliser-producing tractors. (Animal Diversity Web). Most of our readers will be oblivious to how dependent a large percentage of the world’s population are on these enormous, domesticated bovines.

In Vietnam I had opportunity to see these mild mannered friends of humanity at work and at play, and so thought I’d share a few pictures in a bid to give them a little credit for their labour on our behalf.

A water buffalo at the car wash

Walking past a water buffalo for the first time can be a little disconcerting (they are huge, weigh as much as a small car, and their horns are often up to or over a metre long). They’ll stare as you walk by, but their overwhelming nonchalance about… well… pretty much everything, quickly becomes obvious. I’ve seen these guys sit in the middle of a busy road – the main north/south road that runs down the east coast of the country – causing buses and trucks to stop and wait for a gap in oncoming traffic before they can divert around them. Drivers don’t even bother to honk their horns, as they know it’ll do no good. Cars must be particularly careful – being as likely to bounce off a buffalo as to knock one down.

The only time I’ve ever seen a water buffalo run was when dogs a fraction of their size fooled the beast into thinking they were somehow a threat. If only the buffalo would take a moment to notice the dogs never got that close, for a reason.

According to the many people I spoke to, water buffalo rarely become aggressive or hurt humans, and if they do it is normally because an owner has tried to break up a domestic dispute between two of them, and got caught in the middle.

At least on small side roads there’s often someone about to ‘motivate’ them….

"Can’t a buffalo get any rest around here?!"

Water buffalo serve multiple uses in Asia, where they are a major part of the economy and an important contribution to the resilience of the people. Sometimes they’re used as pack animals, but more often they pull ploughs and lumber or provide the power for other low tech devices. As mentioned above, they’re a champion source of milk (higher in fat and protein and also normally whiter than cow’s milk), which is in turn used to create butter (ghee) and even cheese in some regions (no, not Vietnam). Animals are obviously culled for meat as well.

As you can see, there are several advantages of owning a water buffalo over owning a Massey Furguson. A Massey is not particularly palatable after it’s come to the end of its useful life. A Massey is not compostable. And, a water buffalo doesn’t require any hire purchase agreements, with its associated risk of bankruptcy.

What’s more – a Massey usually only comes in red. I’ve seen water buffaloes in dark brown, rust red, grey, white, and more.

Oh, and buffaloes are not dependent on waning supplies of fossil fuels.

A child in Na Sai plays with a ‘child’ water buffalo

A water buffalo calf looking for a child to play with?

Why sit on dry land, when you can sit in a puddle?

However, despite their docility and their uses, their sheer size and weight can cause problems at times. I’ve seen water buffalo just ‘stroll’ right through what otherwise seemed sturdy wooden fences – just to access juicier grass on the other side. And, whatever you do, you don’t want to get on the wrong side of a wild water buffalo (unlikely today though, as they’re an endangered species – thought to be less than 4,000 individuals left).

And, unfortunately some people take advantage of their normally obliging disposition and compliance. The next two photos show an illegal logger making a rather naive water buffalo an accomplice – a partner in crime – as she smuggles a protected rainforest tree down river out of Laos into Vietnam (water buffaloes will even walk completely submerged for a time – strolling along the river bottom until it ascends sufficient for them to breathe again).

I think any judge in the land would let the buffalo off the hook though. Don’t you think?

Oh, before you go, if you’re one of the few dozen people left on the planet that haven’t already seen the following clip – the Battle at Kruger – then it’s about time you did. It doesn’t feature the domesticated Asian water buffalo I’ve shared photographs of above, but the African wild cape buffalo instead. Their ancestry and possible common heritage is not well understood, but, that aside, this amateur footage is fascinating evidence that buffalo as a species aren’t completely apathetic about life, the universe, and everything. The main character in this story is a poor buffalo calf, that at one point is literally in the middle of a tug of war between lions and an enormous crocodile. Click play, and witness a bunch of buffalo decide enough is enough and team up to save the overwhelmed calf from certain death.

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  1. Thank you for posting this! In our country we call them carabao, kalabaw, karabao, and they were the main beast of burden and transport for a very long time. We developed wheels late, as our tropical underfoot is very subject to weather and plants.

    My grandfather once accidentally bumped one on the road with his new car. The vehicle was destroyed in a bad way, but the carabao only fell down, got back up, and walked away nonchalantly. The resilience it was born into.

    Though very mild mannered, the carabao was known sometimes (during the American occupation of our country) to attack enemy soldiers. Never local soldiers :D

  2. Thanks for the briefing on these great beasties Craig. Being in Vietnam I may get to meet some over the next few weeks so will be reassured by your tales of nonchalence (but less so based on the shoeing the lion got on the horns of one of them in the video!). Keep up the great letters.

  3. Nice photos and interesting article. I came across this whilst researching for the Chonburi Buffalo Races….so if you want to see one run you must get to Pattaya for the beginning of October. Thanks.

  4. Enjoyed the article and images. I started an educational discussion group about water buffalo that currently has more than 600 members from around the world. I have linked it to my name below.

  5. Love your story and your pictures are beautiful! I believe someone made a typo, however, when they wrote that 5% of the world’s milk supply comes from water buffalo. The fact is, it is 15%! People can’t believe this when we tell them, that is a lot of buffalo milk! Check out our website and visit us on Facebook! Ontario Water Buffalo Company, Stirling, Ontario :)

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