Why the water buffalo is vital to many asian families?

Image of a rice farmer on an Asian water buffalo.

‘Flee, flee! A tiger!’ shout the boys.

They rush to their buffalo, jump on their backs, and gallop away.

Suddenly, Saïdjah, one of the boys, loses his balance and plunges into the rice field—prey for the approaching tiger.

Saïdjah’s buffalo, however, sees what happened.

It turns back, places its broad body as a roof over its little friend, and faces the tiger.

The big cat attacks, but the buffalo stands firm and saves Saïdjah’s life.

This encounter, described by Eduard Douwes Dekker, a 19th-century writer living in Asia, shows an endearing trait of the water buffalo: faithfulness.

Today, fidelity is still its earmark.

“The water buffalo,” says one expert, “is like a family dog.

It gives you its lifelong affection as long as you treat it well.”

Children in Asia, even at four years of age, know how to do that.

Every day, they lead their bulky friends into the river, where they wash them down and, with their tiny hands, clean the animals’ ears, eyes, and nostrils.

The buffalo, in response, sighs in contentment.

Its dark skin absorbs much heat, and because the buffalo has far fewer sweat glands proportionately than cattle, it has a problem cooling off.

No wonder it loves these daily dips!

“Immersed in water or mud, chewing with half-closed eyes,” notes one source, buffalo “are a picture of bliss.”

Their love of water, though, is only part of the picture.

What other traits do they have? Why are they useful? To start with, what do they look like?

Water buffalo facts

The water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) looks like an oversize ox and weighs 2,000 pounds [900 kg] or more.

It has an almost bald, slate-gray skin.

Standing up to six feet [1.8 m] high at the shoulder—with sweeping horns, a straight back, a long body, a droopy neck, and a muscular frame—it is the picture of strength.

Its sturdy legs end in footwear ideal for mud treaders: large boxy hooves attached to extremely flexible joints.

That suppleness enables the buffalo to bend back its hooves, step over obstacles, and plod through boggy fields where cattle lose footing.

The world’s 150 million domesticated water buffalo come in two varieties: the swamp type and the river type.

From the Philippines to India, the swamp buffalo, with its four- to six-foot [1.2-1.8 m]-long backswept horns, forms a favorite postcard model.

When not posing, it is slushing knee deep through paddies or hauling carts over trails that would make any truck driver shiver.

The river buffalo is similar to the swamp type.

Its body is slightly smaller and its horns more modest—tightly coiled or drooping straight. But weighing in at 2,000 pounds [900 kg], it also looks impressive.

In the past, Arab traders brought this variety from Asia to the Middle East; and later, returning Crusaders introduced it into Europe, where it is still thriving.

Though you will not find water buffalo in the fast lane—they trudge along at a steady two miles per hour [3 km/hr]—both swamp and river buffalo are circling the globe.

A living tractor and more

For now, though, that claim belongs to India, home of nearly half the world’s buffalo.

There and in other Asian countries, thanks to the buffalo, millions of poor farm families are surviving on marginal land.

Without needing diesel oil or spare parts, their “living tractor” pulls, plows, harrows, carts, and supports the family for over 20 years.

“To my family,” said an old Asian woman, “the buffalo is more important than I am.

When I die, they’ll weep for me; but if our buffalo dies, they may starve.”

Besides being a farmhand, the buffalo is also a caterer.

Some 70 percent of all milk produced in India comes from river-type water buffalo, and buffalo milk is in such demand that cow’s milk can be hard to sell. Why do many prefer it?

It gives a lot of energy, tastes good, and is used in making mozzarella, ricotta, and other delicious cheeses.

What about buffalo meat? 

In taste-preference tests in Australia, Venezuela, the United States, and other countries, buffalo steaks were preferred over those of cattle.

In fact, millions of people around the world are often savoring buffalo meat while thinking they are nibbling on a juicy beefsteak.

The faithful and useful water buffalo is one of human’s best animal friends.