The Water Buffalo

The Water Buffalo

The Water Buffalo

by H.P Garland, 1922

Editor’s Note: Kristi gifted me this lovely old book from which we have selected some content. Much of the remainder dealt with the Water Buffalo hide industry from way back then. LRM

Chapter I

The Water Buffalo (Often called The Mud Buffalo)

The water or mud buffalo (bubalus buffelus), from whose hide rawhide loom pickers are made, inhabits the Malay Archipelago and southern China, and is also found in the Philippines. It should not be confounded with the so-called American buffalo, which is not a buffalo but a bison, differing from the true buffalo both in appearance and anatomy.


The wild buffalo is found in the plain of Brahmaputra and the Ganges, at the foot of the Himalayas, from eastern Assam to Tirhut and along the coast of Midnapur and Orissa provinces in India, as well as on the grass lands of the eastern portions of the Central Provinces, especially in Mandla, Raipur, Sambalpur and Bastar, whence it extends as far south as the Godavari and Pranhita valleys. It is also found in Burma, in the northern part of Ceylon and in the Philippines. It lives in the tall grass jungles and in the neighborhood of swamps, feeding in the evening and early morning and lying down in the water or mud of the swamp during the day.

The Water Buffalo

A Chinese Water Buffalo.

In the wild state the buffalo is one of the largest, strongest and most ferocious animals in existence. “A buffalo,” declares Baker, “if not killed will surely destroy its adversary. There is no creature in existence that is so determined to stamp out the life of its opponents and the intensity of its fury is unsurpassed when a wounded bull buffalo rushes forward upon the last desperate charge.” It is more than a match for the tiger and, because of this, the native Indian princes used to arrange a fight between these two animals for the entertainment of their guests.

The Water Buffalo

A street scene in Manila.

The natives of the interior of Java at the period of the Mohammedan New Year sometimes stage a Rampok, or tiger and buffalo fight, when a tiger and a domesticated water buffalo, usually a bull or cow with a young calf, are placed in the arena. The tiger invariably attempts to kill his enemy by leaping on his shoulders and breaking his neck, but when he is in the air midway of his leap the buffalo usually lunges forward and strikes him a stunning blow with his head and horns; then, before he can scramble to his feet, the buffalo is upon him kneeling and kneading his body with such terrific force that he is left a bloody, mutilated and lifeless pulp. Sometimes two tigers are pitted against one buffalo, and it is seldom that he fails to vanquish them.

The Water Buffalo

Water Buffaloes ploughing in the rice fields in Ceylon.

The Burmese when referring to a desperate combat of any kind say “Kywe knit Kya lo beh” – like a fight between a buffalo and a tiger – meaning to the death. Buffaloes, both wild and domesticated, have a great hatred for the tiger, and the domesticated animals have been known to rescue their herdsmen from his attack. It was with a herd of buffaloes that Mowgli, in Kipling’s Jungle Tales, killed Shere Khan, the tiger, and regained his power over his jungle friends.

The wild herd when attacked is said to form a ring , with the cows and calves on the inside and the bulls on the outside, with lowered horns pointing outward, a ring which no wild animal can break through. They are hunted by beating with a line of elephants, by tracking on a single elephant or on foot, and no big game shooting is attended with greater danger.

The cape buffalo (bubalus caffer) is a native of South Africa and perhaps is the largest and most ferocious of all. Its horns are peculiar, being very large and almost touching near their base to form a cap to protect the forehead. They swell near the skull and then bend backwards, rising a little in height in front, with the points approaching each other. Its hide is so thick and tough that the natives use it for shields. They are not domesticated and are fast disappearing.

The Water Buffalo

Buffaloes are good swimmers but are ungainly in their movements on land.


The domesticated buffalo is found in India, Burma, the Straits Settlements, Java, southern China and throughout the entire Malay Archipelago. It is also found in the Philippines, where it is known as the carabao. In its domestic state it differs but little from the wild buffalo, probably because of the semi-wild conditions in which alone it can be kept peaceable in captivity. *

* They are also found on Mellville Island, off the northern coast of Australia, where they were introduced many years ago and now number thousands. Here they are hunted for their hides. -Zinn in “Wild Animals of Yesterday and Today.”

It is not known when these animals became domesticated, but certainly many centuries ago. They were used by the Egyptians in the fifth century and at the same time the Arabs brought them to Persia. They were at about this period used in Greece and Hungary, and in 600 A.D. were introduced by the Romans for agricultural purposes. In recent times Napoleon on his return from Egypt introduced them in Landes, a department of France bordering on the Pyrenees, and the Bay of Biscay, where the land on the shore is so swampy or sandy that the peasants walk on stilts when tending their herds, but the venture was not a success, due perhaps to lack of the tropical heat to which the buffalo is accustomed.

The Water Buffalo

The buffalo feeds on aquatic grasses and reeds which line the banks.

Few animals have changed less in captivity than the buffalo, which never interbreeds with the native humped Indian cattle. The buffalo matures at the age of four, lives about twenty years and is worth from twenty-five to thirty-five dollars. The pairing season is in the autumn and the calves, not infrequently two at a birth, are born in the summer, the period of gestation being ten months. The cow has five or six calves during her life.


The buffalo is large in size and possesses enormous strength, some breeds in India averaging in weight from 1600 to 1800 pounds and measuring 6-1/2 feet high at the shoulder. Its horns, which are black and bend back toward the neck, are of great size, having been known to measure 6 feet from tip to top. The finest pair of horns on record is said to be in the British Museum, the length along the outer curve of one horn being 77-3/8 inches and the basal girth 17-7/8 inches. They are more or less flattened and angular at the base, with rings for one-half their length, and are pointed at the tip, differing from the other members of the genus Bos by the distinctly triangular section of their horns as well as by the rounded form of the hinder part of the skull. It has a powerful neck, short thick legs and black hoofs, which, being broad and splayed, prevent its sinking too deep in the mud when ploughing in the rice fields.

The Water Buffalo

Mountain Carabao at Bengues in the Philippines.

The buffalo, when young, has a certain amount of coarse bristly hair of a dark color, sometimes with a reddish tint, over the head and body, but, unlike the African buffalo, this hair is directed forward from the haunches to the back of the head, a whorl in the hindquarters marking the point at which the hair of this region commences to be directed backwards. The hair, however, disappears almost entirely with age, when the animal shows only a skin of a dark color not unlike that of an elephant and has only the knees, feet and end of the tail ornamented with thick coarse hair.


It eats food which other animals will not touch and it can even go without food for some time, provided it can wallow in mud and water. It swims well, but is ungainly in its movements on land. Its sight is poor, but its hearing and sense of smell are good.

As its name implies, the buffalo loves the water and mud, and prefers to live where it can feed on the coarse aquatic grasses and reeds which line the banks and spring from the shallow waters of tropical streams, and where it can wallow in the mud undisturbed.

The Water Buffalo

Buffaloes prefer the mud and water.

When lying in the water or mire, it is constantly ducking its head under to drive away from the top of the head between the horns the swarm of bot flies which attack it at a place where it has no other means of defense. When out of the water small birds hover around the animal to feed upon the flies and insects which pester it. Even in the domesticated state, the buffalo must be given a chance for a daily wallow or it becomes vile tempered and unmanageable and sometimes runs mad. When it lacks its daily bath, buckets of water are sometimes thrown over its body when harnessed to a cart, as otherwise when passing a stream or canal it is likely to dash into the water with its burden. It is for this reason that cattle are preferred in India for hauling carts, especially in the drier parts of the country.

The Water Buffalo

Buffaloes are usually driven singly or yoked in pairs but occasionally driven tandem.


The buffalo is a dangerous animal but at the same time timid. In charging, he lowers his head sidewise and rips upward with one horn. He dislikes strange objects and has a particular aversion to a woman in European dress or a boy on a bicycle. A sign of fear is quickly recognized by a charging buffalo, when it becomes extremely dangerous, but a shout and a wave of the arms cause it to stop and run away. The animal is, however, usually kind and gentle to those whom he knows, particularly children, who guide him with a twig and whom he seems to delight to have ride on his back.

The Water Buffalo

The buffalo, although a dangerous animal, is gentle to those whom he knows, particularly children.

Chapter II

The Buffalo A Beast Of Burden

It is as a beast of burden that the buffalo is invaluable. Its prodigious strength enables it to do an enormous amount of work; being able to live on food which other animals refuse makes it less expensive to keep, and its ability to live and do heavy, hard work in the hot humid atmosphere of the tropics makes it particularly suitable for the conditions which prevail in the Far East.

It is often harnessed to a cart, but its fondness for water, as already stated, makes this attendant with some risk. In Burma it is especially valued for dragging heavy logs up the steep river banks to the saw pits where the logs are sawed by hand. The logs are scarfed off on one end so that they can be dragged along the ground, a hold made near the end and a chain fastened to the log and yoke. A pair of buffaloes in this way will easily drag an immense log which two yoke oxen could not start.

The Water Buffalo

Buffalo about to charge the photographer.


It is in the rice fields, however, that the buffalo excels. Rice is not sown broadcast; it is first planted in nurseries, and when about 12 inches high is transplanted a spear at a time into the soft mud of the fields which has been prepared by ploughing. Rice grows best under about 4 inches of water, and the ploughing which produces the richest mud produces the best crop.

The Water Buffalo

In preparing the ground for the rice, no animal is equal to the buffalo, for in the mud and water of the field it is in its element. Its great weight causes it to sink deep in the mud and its enormous strength enables it to plough deeper than can be done in any other manner. The ploughing may be done by a single buffalo dragging a wooden plough or they may be yoked in pairs. The yoke is a straight, heavy beam of hard wood turned to a diameter of about 5 inches. Instead of a bow such as the old ox-bow of New England, two straight, heavy hard-wood pins are put through holes in the yoke down each side of the buffalo’s neck. And a plaited rope is placed under the neck and fastened at each end to the top of the pins. A yoke of this kind the buffalo cannot cast. They are driven with reins, the driver walking or riding behind, and are sometimes guided by a rope attached to a nose ring.

The Water Buffalo

The Carabao can be kept peaceable in captivity.


Rice is the staple article of food throughout the Far East, so that the prosperity of the people depends largely upon the quantity of rice raised and its price. In Burma at one time the area given to rice was small because a royal decree prevented its exportation upon the theory that the cost of rice would be less; but when the prohibition against the exportation was removed, the acreage increased enormously, so that irrigated land away from the rivers and streams was used for rice planting. The buffalo under these conditions could not be used to as good advantage as the bullock, owing to the absence of rivers and swamps in which to wallow. Because of this, bullocks were used for ploughing, and when the ploughing season was over were tied up and stall fed. The buffalo on the other hand is cared for with difficulty when the ploughing is done, as it must be given a chance for a daily mud bath or it runs amuck and becomes dangerous. Then, too, the bullock is used for driving in place of horses, and can be used in other than the ploughing season. Disease, especially the hoof and mouth disease and the cowpox seem to be more prevalent among buffaloes than among bullocks, so that the farmer takes greater risk in raising buffaloes than in raising cattle. The bullock, therefore, is in some cases displacing the buffalo in the interior. These conditions have a tendency to decrease the number of buffaloes and consequently the supply of buffalo hides.

The Water Buffalo


The horns and sometimes the hoofs of the animal are used by the natives in making large transparent lanterns, and, before the prohibition of opium, large quantities were made into cups for packing and storing the drug. They are exported in large quantities to Europe and the United States – 1,000,000 pounds from China alone in 1917 – to be used in making combs, shoehorns, knife handles, buttons, toilet articles and a clever imitation of ebony.

The Water Buffalo

Water buffalo ploughing in a rice field in Burma.


The milk of the buffalo is very white and very rich. In northern India “ghee” or a rancid butter used instead of lard is made of it, but in Burma it is seldom used because it is contrary to the Buddhist religion to take the life of the animal and to drink the milk which they say is the life of the calf.

“The percentage of fat and protein in the milk of the Chinese buffalo cow is very high, higher than that of buffaloes in other parts of the world. More than eight hundred analyses which have been made during the past two and one-half years of fifty buffalo cows have shown an average of 12.60 per cent fat. Ten analyses have shown the milk to contain 6.04 per cent protein, 3.70 per cent sugar, 0.86 per cent ash and 76.80 per cent water. Similar analyses have show that European cows’ milk in southern China contains: Fat, 3.80; proteids, 3.23; sugar, 5.96; ash, 0.81 and water, 86.20. The total solids in buffalo milk is 23.20 per cent as compared with 13.80 in European cows’ milk. Three buffalo cows in one dairy herd gave milk testing as much as 15 per cent fat for a period covering seven months. None of the cows averaged less than 10 per cent fat for a lactation period.

The Water Buffalo

On cart in Anam (French Indo-China).

“Although individual buffalo cows in other regions have given milk with more than 10 per cent fat, the average has been far from that of southern China. Milk of the Chinese buffalo is pure white in color, and butter made from it contains but a faint tint, if any, of yellow. It is wholesome and palatable when produced under sanitary conditions. Like most kinds of milk, when clean, it contains little or no odor. In recent years some dairies in Canton and Hong Kong have been using the buffalo for milk, and by selection and good feeding now have cows giving up to twelve pounds and more milk a day, testing from 6 to 15 per cent fat.” *

* U.S. Commerce Reports, July 11, 1919