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The wild buffaloes of Assam

M Krishnan |

The wild buffaloes of Assam are really wild — that is, they have never been tamed. Now, all strains of the familiar village buffalo are descended directly from this wild progenitor and most of them look very like it except that they are smaller and, being domesticated much less aggressive. However, this difference in temperament and build between the wild and the village buffalo is entirely a question of degree and not, as in many other domesticated animals a radical change fixed in the strain.

Take domestic strains of the humped cattle, for instance. In many places in India they have been allowed to run wild and after generations, they remain very much what they were. And the finest pedigreed draught breed anywhere, the very distinctive Amrit Mahal was actually evolved under semi-wild conditions so as to improve its mettle and rangy power.

Village buffs, on the other hand, if given their freedom soon become almost indistinguishable from their wild ancestor. The “wild buffaloes” of Ceylon are really feral, that is domestic stock allowed to run wild. And authentic wild buffalo bulls will seek out village herds and mate with the domesticated cows in them. In fact, near Kaziranga village there is such a wild bull, of imposing proportions.

The point I began with is that wild buffaloes in Assam have never been domesticated and that Assam has played a notable part in saving this most magnificent of wild oxen from extinction.

It is a curious fact that although the domesticated buffalo was much-prized all over India 2,000 years ago and exported to other countries, within the last two centuries the wild buffalo (a peculiarly Indian animal if one excludes Nepal) had a comparatively limited range, more or less confined to the delta areas of eastern India north of the Godavari. It was rapidly wiped out over most of this area, and today it is Assam that is the main stronghold of our wild buffalo.

There are several herds distributed over the Kaziranga sanctuary but this is not the only sanctuary in Assam which can boast of these noble animals, there are plenty in Manas, and also in the less well-known Laokhowa and Sonai Rupa sanctuaries.

At Mihimukh there was a herd that like many other animals here, permitted a close approach. In wild buffaloes the horn is mainly of two types, long sabre-curved and more or less alongside the reck or rising upwards in a steeper curve both horn types occur in the same herd and a cow in the Mihimukh herd (cows generally have longer but thinner horns that the bulls) had quite remarkable horns almost meeting overhead in a circle. The bull of this herd massive and long though not tall, was given to a demonstration that amused me. I took my time gradually getting close to him on elephant back in an aimless-seeming zigzag and every time he felt we were approaching close he would stop stare at us, and then come trotting three steps forwards in an intimidatory gesture to come to a rocking halt about 70 feet away, then he would go back.

Another demonstration indulged in by a long bull we surprised at a wallow was much more the usual threat-gesture of wild oxen, he lowered his head and butted the mire savagely. Gaur bulls and even the bulls of domestic humped cattle demolish termite heaps and mounds of earth in such demonstrations. It is of course wise to halt when any wild animal is demonstrating and beat an unostentatious retreat, but it is my experience that when a gaur or buffalo bull really means to charge, he wastes no time on formal demonstrations.

Except that we are familiar with village, buffaloes and that they look so like the wild ones the sanctuaries of Assam would be more renowned for their buffaloes than even for their rhinos. Anyway nowhere else is there such a large population of wild buffaloes and Assam’s achievement in saving these magnificent beasts deserves more acclaim than it has had.

 

This was published on 24 June 1968