The water buffalo originates in Europe and southern Asia. Like other large herbivores, it plays a key role in maintaining a diverse landscape through its activities. While grazing and wallowing, it enriches wetland ecosystems and creates new habitats for various species of flora and fauna. The endangered Asian water buffalo (Bubalus arnee) is the world’s sole surviving wild species. It has a dark-coloured coat, with horns up to 2 metres long, and can grow to a height of 2 metres, reach a length of 3 metres, and weigh up to 1,200 kg. The domestic subspecies Bubalis bubalis and Bubalis carabanesis are prevalent throughout Asia; though they are generally smaller than Bubalus arnee, they can perform a similar ecological function when allowed to roam freely in the wild.
Water buffalo first appeared in Europe and southern Asia in the middle of the Pleistocene epoch, between 770,000 and 126,000 years ago. Bubalus murrensis, the European water buffalo, inhabited swamps and forests near major rivers in central and western Europe, living alongside other interglacial fauna, such as the aurochs (Bos primigenius), until it became extinct some 12,000 years ago. Its closest living relative is the wild Asian water buffalo (Bubalus arnee), which was once common across southern Asia, but now survives in a few isolated populations in Nepal, Bhutan, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and India.
The decline of Bubalus arnee is the result of several human factors. One major threat to its survival derives from the independent domestication of two subspecies in different parts of Asia about 5,000 years ago. This has led to significant hybridisation between wild and domestic populations, leading to the absorption of the wild water buffalo and a continued loss of genetic diversity in the species. The subspecies involved in domestication were the river buffalo (B. bubalis bubalis, chromosome number 2n=50), which was probably from and later domesticated in the west of the Indian subcontinent, and the swamp buffalo (B. bubalis carabanesis, chromosome number 2n=48), which likely originated in Indo-China. Given that each inhabited different geographical regions, it is estimated that they began to diverge genetically well before domestication took place, between 270,000 and 128,000 years ago.
Each domestic subspecies can be easily distinguished: the river buffalo has a black body and curved horns, and weighs 400–1000 kg, while the swamp buffalo is grey, with straighter horns and white markings on the throat, lower legs and tail tip, weighing 325–450 kg. While they are able to interbreed, hybrid offspring have lower fertility than purebreds, owing to the variation in the number of chromosomes between the two subspecies. The river buffalo is used primarily in milk production, with traditional mozzarella cheese being made exclusively from its milk, and ranges from southeast Asia to north Africa and western Europe. The swamp buffalo is bred mainly for draught work and meat, and is found throughout southeast Asia (its geographical range overlaps with that of the river buffalo in eastern India and Bangladesh). In 2010, the global population of domestic water buffalo stood at 194 million in 40 countries. It is believed that more people depend on this species for their livelihood than on any other domestic animal.
Domestic water buffalo were introduced to eastern Europe soon after domestication took place in Asia, around 3000 BC. Over the centuries, they gradually went out of use, causing their numbers to decline, but recent projects have reintroduced small herds to European reserves in order to support wetland ecosystems and carry out the ecological function of Bubalus murrensis and other extinct species of large grazer.
Behaviour and Ecology
The wild water buffalo prefers to inhabit environments with adequate space and water. During the heat of the day, it browses in dense riparian forests and wallows in rivers or pools; by night, it grazes in alluvial or well-watered grasslands and open woodlands. As much of its time is spent in swampy areas, the animal has evolved wide, splayed hooves and flexible lower-leg joints enabling it to walk in deep mud without sinking. It also has a high tolerance of saline water, and is therefore able to drink from a wide range of water sources when venturing far from permanent water holes.
The animal’s diet consists primarily of grasses and sedges, but it may also eat fruits, herbs, shrubs and tree bark, and has been known to invade farmland to eat crops such as rice, sugar cane and jute. It can travel great distances while feeding selectively, altering the structure of the landscape along the way and boosting its biodiversity. In hot weather, it likes to wallow in mud baths, creating a coat of mud to keep cool and protect against insect bites. Wallowing can enrich ecosystems by enlarging pools or puddles and making spaces for insects, amphibians and fish to inhabit. Digested seeds of over 200 plant species may also germinate in the animal’s droppings, or else propagate themselves by clinging to its coarse body hair.
With the exception of solitary older males, the water buffalo commonly lives in two types of group: the maternal clan, made up of approximately 20 closely-related females and their offspring, and typically inhabiting a home range of up to 1000 hectares; and the bachelor herd, comprising up to 10 adult males. The size and range of herds vary with the climate: in the wet season, members may be widely scattered, while larger herds gather around permanent water holes in the dry season. Water buffalo have a strong attachment to familiar terrain, leading them to use certain routes repeatedly and cause significant erosion.
The wild water buffalo was classified as endangered in 1986. Over the last 30 years, its global population has declined by approximately 50%. There are now thought to be less than 4,000 individuals left in the wild, though it is difficult to accurately estimate the size of the current population, as some domestic, feral and hybridized animals are closely related and similar in appearance to their wild descendants. In addition, it is possible that half or less of the global wild population is truly pure, given its fragmented range and proximity to domestic buffalo populations.
The species is legally protected in India, Bhutan, Nepal and Thailand. While legal protection has led to a decline in hunting in certain areas, the survival of the species remains threatened. Major threats include the loss of genetic diversity as a result of hybridisation with domestic and feral water buffalo; the transmission of diseases from livestock; competition for resources with domestic cattle, especially where cattle roam freely; hunting (particularly in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar); and habitat loss due to agriculture.
A number of actions are suggested to help preserve the wild water buffalo: the integrity of all wild populations should be assessed and those which are most vulnerable conserved as a priority; contact with domestic populations should be minimised as far as possible; and efforts to raise public awareness of the importance and plight of the species should be continued.
The domestic water buffalo has a healthy population and wide range, and therefore its survival is not threatened. However, it is recommended that projects introducing the animal to European reserves be continued in order to further enrich wetland ecosystems and expand ecotourism opportunities.
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