I remember the first time I saw a wild water buffalo in the Kaziranga National Park. It wasn’t exciting in the least—I was waiting to catch sight of tigers, rhinos, bears. Instead here was a great big buffalo lazing in a swamp. Twenty years later,and perhaps wiser, I realise that I am not alone. The resemblance to their domestic seers has placed them at the bottom of the viewer’s list and this perpetual neglect has in turn, pushed an entire species to the edge of extinction.
In 1986, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature(IUCN) listed the Asiatic Wild Water Buffalo (Bubalusarnee) as endangered in its Red List, as the remaining population totals less than 4,000, with an estimate of fewer than 2,500 mature individuals (IUCN, 2008). A more recent, 2013 IUCN report states that the highest ranking state is Assam with about 3,000 bovines.
Although the Wild Water Buffaloes may bear a likeness to their domestic counterparts, they are much bigger in size reaching a height of six feet and weighing between 700 and 1200 kg. They possess massive chests, with rather short legs. Ranging from ash grey to murky black, both sexes sport coarse, long and sparse hair on their haunches. A little tuft on the forehead and a bushy tail-tip is also not uncommon. Their large and splayed hooves help them move around in muddy water bodies.
The most striking feature of these bovines are however, the long, crescent shaped horns of the males, stretching close to 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length with deep crests on their surface. Extending sideways from the skull, the horns curve backwards in a majestic bow. In the Indian buffalo, the horns often curve in a semicircle, while those from Thailand and Cambodia have horns that spread much more to the side with minimal curvature at the tips. Females possess comparatively smaller horns.
The Asiatic Wild Water Buffalo spends most of its time submerged in murky waters or wallowing in mud as it protects them from biting insects. These timid bovines are seen in small to medium herds, often led by an adult female. The calves follow the females with the remaining adults at the rear. They are known to be exceptionally protective of their young and when threatened the females form a protective line in front of the herd.
Asiatic wild water Buffaloes are endemic to India’s tropical wet grasslands and densely vegetated river valleys. Apart from India, they are also found in Nepal, Cambodia, Bhutan and Thailand. Although records indicate their presence in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Laos and Vietnam, today they are exterminated in these regions.
Assam houses the major population in India, followed by Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. A small population is also found scattered in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. In Assam, the species is found in Manas, Laokhowa and Dibru-Saikhowa Sanctuary apart from Kaziranga National Park.
The chief threats that endanger the wild water buffalo are poaching, loss of habitat and interbreeding with domestic and feral counterparts. Diseases and parasites (transmitted by domestic livestock) and competition for food and water between wild buffalo and domestic stock are also serious threats. After a population decrease by over 50 per cent over the last three generations, wild buffaloes are now found only behind the protective fences of wildlife sanctuaries (IUCN, 2008).
Specialists claim that it is difficult to map the integrity of the population of Asiatic Wild Water Buffaloes as differentiating the animal from domestic bovines is a major challenge. This, according to wildlife experts, is the main reason why pre-emptive action has been thwarted from actualising.
The GoI’s conservation attempts to rescue the buffalo population from its brink of extinction still remains nebulous. Although official reports about the GoI’s recent interest and investments seem heart warming, yet the efficacy of these steps are yet to be palpable.
On December 11, 2011, the Indian government declared the Kolamarka forest area in Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra a Wild Water Buffalo sanctuary to save the critically endangered wild buffaloes in India, which was duly approved by the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL). Interestingly, what comes as a surprise is that the Kolamarka forest area houses only 15 Asiatic Wild Water Buffaloes while Assam is the home to 91 per cent of its global population, yet no research study or conservation programmes were initiated there.
Recently, in June 2015, photographs of two herds in the Kolamarka forest, Maharashtra, has infused wild life enthusiasts with hope. The visuals were captured by forest officials while monitoring sensors used to track giant squirrels. According to John Mathew, an expert member of the National Biodiversity Authority, it was an extremely exciting spectacle as these animals are absolutely wild without any gene corruption. He also reportedly spotted four females in the herd.
The Supreme Court on 2012, directed Chhattisgarh to abide by an ‘Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats’ scheme to save wild buffaloes, Chhattisgarh’s state animal, from extinction. It urged the State to take necessary steps to help cease interbreeding between wild and domestic buffaloes. It also directed the Central Government to fund the State’s efforts. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change forwarded one-time grant of Rs 1 crore to the State to jump start the Project Wild Buffalo.
Chhattisgarh’s Chief Wildlife Warden, Ram Prakash, talking to G’nY correspondent seemed passably optimistic about the conservation attempts. “Of late, there has been immense stress to redeem the population of our Asiatic Wild Water Buffaloes. Initially, there were 12 of these animals in the Udanti Wildlife Sanctuary, of which only one was female. We are relying on artificial reproduction techniques to bolster their population. As of now, we have been successful with four calves, one of which is female”.
Talking about the obstacles posed by insurgency, he added, “considerable areas in the Indravati National Park are controlled by insurgents and it hampers wildlife protection activities. We haven’t been able to conduct any census studies in this Park.”
In 2003, a three day workshop attended by the IUCN SSC Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group attempted to build towards a conservation programme for Asiatic Wild Buffaloes in India. Co-hosted by the State Governments of Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, the Wildlife Trust of India, and the Satpuda Foundation, the workshop concentrated on identifying methods of protecting the Wild Asian Buffalo. The conclusion of the summit was an action plan titled ‘Status Review and National Recovery Programme for Wild Buffalo in India’.
G’nY correspondent spoke with Founder-President of Satpuda Foundation from Amravati, Maharashtra, Kishor Rithe, whose interests and efforts in this field are noteworthy. Unlike Prakash, Rithe believes that the conservation efforts put forth by the Indian government are at a very nascent stage. “I do not think the steps taken by Indian government are enough to conserve this species. In my opinion, both the state and central governments need to urgently emphasise on proper surveys and research to expedite sustained population. It is also important that expert and local knowledge be combined to provide recommendations to address”, he said.
A dip in the population of endemic species could potentially upset the balance of its environment and affect biodiversity. With increasing number of endemic species on the brink of extinction, it is perhaps time that we understood the importance of ‘lesser’ species—as compared to the haloed tiger. For a species, which was once ubiquitous, to be relegated to an experiment in the laboratory speaks volumes about the present state of affairs. As the nation’s scientific strength rejoices over India’s first successful attempt to clone the Asiatic Wild Water Buffalo with the birth of a healthy female calf on December 12,2014, at National Dairy Research Institute (NDRI), Karnal, in Haryana, we need to stand back and look at the big picture. As Director in the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, and former Chief Conservator of Forest, Sikkim, Anjan Kumar Mohanty told G’nY, that decline in endemic populations is particularly alarming because “the species only survives in a restricted geographical area; it is progressively left with a small gene pool and thus faces even higher chances of being wiped out.”