Two extant types of domestic water buffalo are recognized based on morphological and behavioural criteria – the river buffalo of the Indian subcontinent 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 in 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.
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.
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. During floods, they will graze submerged, raising their heads above the water and carrying quantities of edible plants. Water buffalo 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.
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 binomialBos bubalis in 1758; the species was known to occur in Asia and was held 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.
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 bgenes of Bubalusspecies 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.
More than 95.8% of the world population of water buffalo are kept 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 Bhadawari, Banni, Jafarabadi, Marathwadi, Mehsana, Murrah, Nagpuri, Nili-Ravi, Pandharpuri, Surti and Toda. Swamp buffalo occur only in small areas in north-eastern India 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. It was also recorded that 889,246 buffalo were in Nepal.
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.
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 kept 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.
A feral water buffalo in Australia
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 also occur 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 are kept 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
Murrah buffalo in a Brazilian Farm
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. Water buffalo are also kept in the Caribbean, specifically in Trinidad and Tobago and in Puerto Rico.
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 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 tonnes of milk and three million tonnes 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, including:
Creamchurns much faster at higher fat levels and gives higher overrun than cow cream.
Butter from water buffalo cream displays more stability than that from cow cream.
Ghee from water buffalo milk has a different texture with a bigger grain size than ghee from cow milk.
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.
The bones and horns are often made into jewellery, especially earrings. Horns are used for the embouchure of musical instruments, such as ney and kaval.
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 super carabaos at the milking and breeding station
In 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.
In the state of Gujarat and some parts of Rajasthan in India, mostly Rayka as well as many other communities worship goddesses Vihat, who rides on a male buffalo. She is claimed of having twenty hands and uses a male Buffalo as her Vahana. Also goddess Varahi in Indian culture is shown to possess a Buffalo and ride it.
A buffalo head was a symbol of death in Tibet.
According to another folk lore, Mahishasura, a half-buffalo and half-human demon, was killed by goddess Durga.
The Yoruban Orisha Oya (goddess of change) takes the form of a water buffalo.
In Vietnam, water buffalo are often the most valuable possession of poor farmers: 'Con trâu là đầu cơ nghiệp'. They are treated as a member of the family: 'Chồng cày, vợ cấy, con trâu đi bừa', meaning 'the husband ploughs, the wife sows, water buffalo draws the rake'. Children talk to their water buffalo: 'Bao giờ cây lúa còn bông. Thì còn ngọn cỏ ngoài đồng trâu ăn'. Hà Nội used to be named Kim Ngưu - Golden Water Buffalo.
Many ethnic groups use the horn of water buffalo as a game trophy, musical instruments and ornaments.
Do Son Water Buffalo Fighting Festival of Vietnam is held each year on the ninth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar at Do Son Township, Haiphong City in Vietnam. It is one of the most popular Vietnam festivals and events in Haiphong City. The preparations for this buffalo fighting festival begin from the two to three months earlier. The competing buffalo are selected and methodically trained months in advance. It is a traditional festival of Vietnam attached to a Water God worshipping ceremony and the Hien Sinh custom to show martial spirit of the local people of Do Son, Haiphong.
"Hai Luu" Water Buffalo Fighting Festival of Vietnam has existed since the 2nd century B.C. General Lu Gia at that time, had the buffalo slaughtered to give a feast to the local people and the warriors, and organized buffalo fighting for amusement. Eventually, all the fighting buffalo will be slaughtered as tributes to the deities.
"Ko Samui" Water Buffalo Fighting Festival of Thailand is a very popular event held on special occasions such as New Year's Day in January, and Songkran in mid-April, this festival features head-wrestling bouts in which two male Asian water buffalo are pitted against one another. Unlike in Spanish Bullfighting, wherein bulls get killed while fighting sword-wielding men, Buffalo Fighting Festival held at Ko Samui, Thailand is fairly harmless contest. The fighting season varies according to ancient customs & ceremonies. The first Buffalo to turn and run away is considered the loser, the winning buffalo becomes worth several million baht.
"Ma'Pasilaga Tedong" Water Buffalo Fighting Festival, in Tana Toraja Regency of Sulawesi Island, Indonesia, is a popular event where the Rambu Solo or a Burial Festival took place in Tana Toraja.
Kambala races of Karnataka, India, take place between December and March. The races are conducted by having the water buffalo (he buffalo) run in long parallel slushy ditches, where they are driven by men standing on wooden planks drawn by the buffalo. The objectives of the race are to finish first and to raise the water to the greatest height and also a rural sport. Kambala races are arranged with competition, as well as without competition and as a part of thanks giving (to god) in about 50 villages of coastal Karnataka.
Chon Buri Water buffalo racing festival, Thailand In downtown Chonburi, 70 km (43 mi) south of Bangkok, at the annual water buffalo festival held in mid-October. About 300 buffalo race in groups of five or six, spurred on by bareback jockeys wielding wooden sticks, as hundreds of spectators cheer. The water buffalo has always played an important role in agriculture in Thailand. For farmers of Chon Buri Province, near Bangkok, it is an important annual festival, beginning in mid-October. It is also a celebration among rice farmers before the rice harvest. At dawn, farmers walk their buffalo through surrounding rice fields, splashing them with water to keep them cool before leading them to the race field. This amazing festival started over a hundred years ago when two men arguing about whose buffalo was the fastest ended up having a race between them. That's how it became a tradition and gradually a social event for farmers who gathered from around the country in Chonburi to trade their goods. The festival also helps a great deal in preserving the number of buffalo, which have been dwindling at quite an alarming rate in other regions. Modern machinery is rapidly replacing buffalo in Thai agriculture. With most of the farm work mechanized, the buffalo-racing tradition has continued. Racing buffalo are now raised just to race; they do not work at all. The few farm buffalo which still do work are much bigger than the racers because of the strenuous work they perform. Farm buffalo are in the "Buffalo Beauty Pageant", a Miss Farmer beauty contest and a comic buffalo costume contest etc.. This festival perfectly exemplifies a favored Thai attitude to life — "sanuk," meaning fun.
Babulang Water buffalo racing festival in Sarawak, Malaysia, is the largest or grandest of the many rituals, ceremonies and festivals of the traditional Bisaya community of Limbang, Sarawak. Highlights are the Ratu Babulang competition and the Water buffalo races which can only be found in this town in Sarawak, Malaysia.
Vihear Suor village Water buffalo racing festival, Cambodia, each year, people visit Buddhist temples across the country to honor their deceased loved ones during a 15-day period commonly known as the Festival of the Dead but in Vihear Suor village, about 22 miles (35 km) northeast of Cambodia, citizens each year wrap up the festival with a water buffalo race to entertain visitors and honour a pledge made hundreds of years ago. There was a time when many village cattle which provide rural Cambodians with muscle power to plough their fields and transport agricultural products died from an unknown disease. The villagers prayed to a spirit to help save their animals from the disease and promised to show their gratitude by holding a buffalo race each year on the last day of "P'chum Ben" festival as it is known in Cambodian. The race draws hundreds of spectators who come to see riders and their animals charge down the racing field, the racers bouncing up and down on the backs of their buffalo, whose horns were draped with colorful cloth.
The Pulilan Carabao Festival is held annually every 14 and 15 May in the Philippine town of Pulilan in honor of St. Isidore the Laborer, the patron saint of farmers. As thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest every year, farmers parade their carabaos in the main town street, adorning them with garlands and other decorations. One of the highlights of the festival is the kneeling of the carabaos in front of the parish church.
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