'Water Buffalos in a Waterhole' by Asienreisender

Water Buffalos live symbiotic with different kinds of birds. The birds take place on the buffalo's back and relieves him from insects, mostly flies and mosquitos. Images by Asienreisender, Surin, 10/2015

'Water Buffalos in the Areng Valley' by Asienreisender

Water Buffalos in the Areng Valley. Images by Asienreisender, 2/2016

Water Buffalo by Asienreisender

This animal wonders about the photographer. Image by Asienreisender, Roi Et Province, Isan, 2006

'A Waterbuffalo Statue in Prasat Ta Muen Thom' by Asienreisender

A water buffalo as a stone figure, found in Prasat Ta Muen Thom, 66.5cm tall, 11th to 12th century, Baphuon to Angkor Wat style. Image by Asienreisender, Surin National Museum, 2015

Water Buffalo Painting in the Royal Palace in Bangkok by Asienreisender

Water buffalos in the Ramakien epos. Painting in the royal palace in Bangkok. Image by Asienreisender, 2006

Water Buffalo in Muang Sing, Laos, by Asienreisender

A water buffalo aside the road around Muang Sing, Laos. The poor animal became apparently nervous when the photo was made. Image by Asienreisender, 2010

Water Buffalo in a Stable in Muang Noi, Thailand by Asienreisender

A water buffalo in a stable in Muang Noi, Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 2011

Water Buffalo in Cambodia by Asienreisender

Coming close to his 'core family', this buffalo is raising and taking a protective pose. Image by Asienreisender, Kampot, 2014

Water Buffalos


Water Buffalos in Southeast Asia

Water buffalos coin the Southeast Asian landscapes. At the moment one leaves a city or town, they adorn the countryside.

Water buffalos are very lovely and sweet animals and, despite of their size, mostly harmless. Even kids shepherd them. It's just if one comes very close to a water buffalo and the big animal makes an unexpected, abrupt move it, without intention, could harm a human. Their huge horns are pretty impressing, though, and if a stranger comes close, they take in a position of defense.

Painting of Water Buffalos

A herd of water buffalos in a typical river and marshland landscape. Painting seen in Chiang Saen, north Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

A domestic water buffalo gains a weight of up to 500kg and a lenght of two meters at a height of 150cm to 160cm. The wild ones grow much larger, can gain a thousand kilogramms and a length of 3m at a tallness of 180cm. Exceptionally a wild bull could attack a human or even an elephant, in case he feels threatened himself or defends his fellow animals. Also injured bulls, particularly wild ones but also domestic, can be aggressive and attack a human.

Nowadays there are 74 different kinds of water buffalos known worldwide. Almost all of them are domestic animals. The origins of domestication is not fully clear; it first happened either in China or India and dates back at least 4,000 years. To Southeast Asia the domesticated water buffalos came particularly from India, but also from China. The Malay water buffalo is the most common one in Indochina and Indonesia, while the Carabao water buffalo is endemic in parts of the Philippines and Guam (exterritorial USA).

Water Buffalos in Kok River by Asienreisender

Water buffalos in the Kok River, north Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 2007

Iron Buffalo by Asienreisender

The next generation: technical unemployment for water buffalos. They get replaced by what the small farmers call 'iron buffalos'. Image by Asienreisender, Kampot, 2013

Utilization of Buffalos

Water buffaloes are deployed in field work for ploughing the rice paddies, pulling carts, and sometimes they end up in the diet, particularly when they got too old to work anymore. By the way, they can't get the horrible BSE disease under which cows in the west suffer sometimes.

The buffalo's leather can be used and the cows can give nutricious milk. Milk plays no prominent role in Southeast Asia, though.

Buffalos and Economy

In terms of microeconomics, water buffalos are often the most valuable possession of Southeast Asian peasants. The loss of a water buffalo can mean a big desaster for a rural family. Dowries for example are traditionally payed in buffalos instead of money in many Southeast Asian societies.

Buffalo Fight in Sumatra by Asienreisender

One of the infamous buffalo fights around Bukittingi on Sumatra. It's a frequent event and pretty famous there. It's also one of the idiotic tourist attractions... The bulls are actually not aggressive but are made so by the holders. Image by Asienreisender, 1996

Remarkable is the decline of the water buffalo population in Thailand. After the official statistics the 2009 population was above 1.3 million, while it declined to below a million in 2012. It's not only because the water buffalos face 'unemployment' by being replaced by tractors, but they bring a higher selling price outside of Thailand, which led to a mass deportation in the last years.

In some areas are buffalo fights part of the local folklore. I have seen such a disgusting event once around Bukittingi. The whole infamous thing is of course again about betting money. It's one of the notorious variations of gambling.

In other regions annual buffalo races take place. It's of course also about money and gambling.

Wild Water Buffalos

Ancient Water Buffalo

'Skeleton of an Ancient Water Buffalo in Ban Chiang' by Asienreisender

The skeleton of a pre-historical water buffalo at Ban Chiang Archaeological Site. It's roughly 2,000 years old, maybe older. Unfortunately there is no dating given for it. The skeleton shows traces of transporting goods and pullung heavy weights (ploughs). Seen in the National Museum of Ban Chiang. Image by Asienreisender, 12/2015

The differences between the common domestic water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) and the wild species (Bubalus arnee) are slight. The wild one is clearly the ancestor of the domestic one, but it's widely disappeared as such. In fact it's classified as a 'critically endangered' species. Since the difference is so small, it's difficult to distinguish wild water buffalos from escaped domestic ones. An escaped domestic one would, if finding a herd of wild buffalos, join them and interbreed with them. In Cambodias eastern province Mondulkiri might be some wild ones left, in Thailand are an estimated 50 individuals left in Huai Kha Kaeng reservat, what covers parts of Kanchanabury province and the region north of it, at the border to Burma / Myanmar. For Burma there are no numbers known. In Laos and Vietnam they are extinct. Nevertheless, the wild water buffalos 'Bubalus arnee' are native in Southeast Asia.

Water Buffalos in the Mud by Asienreisender

In the surroundings of Vang Vieng: water buffalos enjoying a hot midday in the cooling mud. Image by Asienreisender, 2010

The water buffalos natural habitat is open marshlands, swamps, swampy forests and densly grown river valleys. The big animals have the habit to dig into deep mud or stay in the water, holding their faces only above the water line. There they find protection against particularly mosquitoes and other bloodsucking insects. The rest in the mud also cools the archaic looking animals, and after leaving the mudhole, the buffalo is covered with a mud layer which gives him further skin protection.

The original live of the water buffalos is coined by wandering through the landscapes, particularly wetlands, in herds of around 30 animals, led by an old, experienced cow. This herds consisted of femal animals and their kids. Bulls are chased out of the herd and gather themselves in smaller bachelor herds of around ten individuals. The bulls become solitairs when growing older, exept from their seasonal joining a herd with females. After a time of mating they are again chased away by the leading cow.

A cow can get a calf once in two years. The duration of a pregnancy is eleven months, nursing time is around six months, sexual maturity comes in the age of three years. In the time while nursing a buffalo cow can be aggressive. A wild water buffalo has a life expectancy of 25 years, domestic ones live a few years longer.

Water Buffalo at Field Work by Asienreisender

A water buffalo employed in ploughing. When watching them it looks very much that they have their own will and are not easy to control. In Europe the oxes have been replaced by farm horses in the 13th century; horses are a much better working animal for field work. Image by Asienreisender, Nong Khiaw, Laos, 2006

The water buffalos feed mostly from grass and some kinds of other vegetation. They can become a crop pest when they invade gardens and plantation who are not protected with a fence. I could observe this problem on Samosir Island, Lake Toba.

The only natural enemies for them are, besides humans, tigers and crocodiles. An attacking tiger can be defeated by a coordinated defence of some adult buffalos. There are cases reported that they killed a tiger with their horns. That's why tigers try to prey on calfs who walk a bit too far from the herd.

Between the domestic water buffalos are two distinguished kinds. In Southeast Asia the swamp buffalo is endemic. In India and west of it there are mostly river buffalos living.

A very rare and valuable witness of medieval times in Cambodia gives us the Chinese envoy Zhou Daguan, who spent almost a year in Angkor Thom in the years 1296/97 CE. After a journey around Angkor Thom he describes the landscapes towards the Mekong River as follows:

Cries of birds and animals weave a tissue of sound. Half-way on one's journey the country opens up suddenly, without a sign of trees. As far as the eye can see there is nothing but an abundance of wild millet. Wild buffaloes, by hundreds and by thousands, gaze in groups in this region.

Zhou Daguan:
'The Customs of Cambodia
Siam Society, 1992

Buffalo as an Insult

By the way: In Thailand water buffalo ('kwai') is a bad word. Calling someone 'kwai' means insulting him (or her) in a comparable way as calling someone a 'pig' in the west. I want to add here that this is pretty unfair against the lovely, sensitive and intelligent animals.

Water Buffalo Herd in the Yonok Wetlands, Chiang Saen, by Asienreisender

A herd of water buffalos in the Yonok Wetlands south of Chiang Saen, Thailand. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

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Published on February 15th, 2014

166 | Buffalos

Last update on December 13th, 2015