During two years of field research in Ruhuna (Yala) National Park on the arid south-eastern coast of Sri Lanka, my wife and I were fortunate enough to witness a fantastic array of intriguing and exhilarating wildlife behaviour. Of the myriad memories of those years that are permanently etched upon my mind, one of the most vivid originates from a dry and dusty late summer day when the blazing sun caused the vast coastal plains to shimmer and dance.
There on the baked, cracked earth the thunder of hooves resounded as an imposing pair of Indian or water buffalo (Bubalas bubalis bubalis) bulls attempted to settle their differences. The clatter of heavy horns and swirling clouds of dust churned up by the straining adversaries seemed to draw the attention of all in the vicinity, causing an unusual stillness to settle as other movement ceased while the collective gaze was drawn to the ongoing battle.
Finally the combatants broke apart, flanks heaving and nostrils flaring, the apparent victor, massive and proud, then found the adrenalin-fuelled strength to make one last charge from which his vanquished foe turned and fled.
As the defeated buffalo cantered past, a thin, crimson rivulet could be seen glistening in the sun, shaping its sinuous course from shoulder to immense chest. In the thorny thickets of scrub he disappeared, no doubt to find some remnant mud wallow in which to rest and recuperate and so to fight another day.
These two prime buffalo bulls were probably fighting over territorial rights which translate rather directly to mating rights. Usually, mature males lead solitary lives, occupying a particular area which they defend from potential competitors. In most instances a frontal charge is enough to see off any interloper, however, when the rutting season is at its peak so are levels of belligerence, leading to more serious, physical encounters.
The typical herd is made up of females and their assorted offspring with the occasional young bull thrown into the mix. The latter, however, often group together to form bachelor herds, roaming the land until heightened maturity sees them disperse to claim their own territories. Calves, usually born singly after a 10 month gestation, are woolly and gangly with long, spindly legs and soft, trusting eyes.
The mother gives birth in seclusion, taking herself away from the herd to deliver in some quiet, shady grove, rejoining her kin as soon as the calf can totter along with some ability. She will nurse for 6-9 months at which time her little charge will be weaned.
Adult males are more muscled and larger than females, with exceptional bulls weighing well over 900kgs. As with the body, there exists a sexual dimorphism in the horns. Females display a wide, thin, up-curving crescent while the male horns are usually thicker-set but shorter.
Wide variation on this theme exists with some individuals being the unfortunate possessors of down-curving horns, leading to a woeful countenance, while others have one horn up and one down forming a distinct and comical S-shape. According to W.W.A Phillips the largest set of horns on record in Sri Lanka measures 45 3/4 inches on the right side and 51 inches on the left, with a circumference of 14 1/2 inches. Whether these belonged to a male or female is unknown.
Most of the “wild” buffalo found in Sri Lanka are actually feral, having reverted to a wild state after being released or escaping from domesticity. Many are those that live a double life, penned during the dry season and released to roam the forest trails when the grasses and herbs upon which they feed are in flush.
A true wild strain does exist but can only be encountered in the more inaccessible dry zone forests of the country like the northern parts of Ruhuna and Wilpattu. There is a continual gradation between the wild and domesticated stock, dependent upon the degree of interbreeding, but for the most part the divergences are prominently written in the physical features and dispositions of the different types.
Like any animal kept subjugated by the demands of human owners, there is a sense of resignation that sets the features of domestic beasts. Greyish to purplish-black with rounded torsos and limbs that appear heavy-jointed and ungainly, the village buffalo tend to be almost disturbingly placid, eyes betraying no hint of concern even as vehicles flash past a milling congregation.
These buffaloes are leaner and lighter of foot than their yoked brethren but any appearance of diminished size is but illusion for these beasts represent the epitome of brute strength. Few sights in Sri Lanka’s expansive dry zone tracts can excite the imagination like that of a galloping herd of truly wild buffalo, muscles bunching and rippling as they pound across the open grasslands.
Quite apart from the physical characteristics that separate the real wild buffalo from their feral and domestic kin, the former seem to have a streak of fierce pride which makes them much more confrontational, although only really dangerous when persecuted or wounded.
In the early years of the previous century an outbreak of rinderpest, an acute intestinal virus, threatened to wipe out the wild buffaloes of Sri Lanka. This disease, much feared by stock owners and conservationists alike, was controlled, and subsequently wild populations have stabilized and even flourished in some areas.
Domestic buffalo meanwhile remain an integral part of many lowland communities. They are utilized extensively in the cultivation of paddy, both ploughing the fields prior to the sowing of seeds and threshing the harvested grains.
Their milk and its products, particularly the rich, yellowy ghee butter and smooth, tangy mee kiri or curd are village staples and urban treats. Even their waste, in the form of manure, is put to use as a tried and tested cheap fertilizer.
Wild or domesticated, all water buffalo, as their very name implies, love water. Whether in a remote and serene jungle pool or amid the bustle of the village wewa, these creatures are often fully submerged, with only a pair of nostrils and perhaps a horn or eye to betray their presence. The water fulfils the dual purpose of cooling the skin and keeping away the hordes of biting flies that otherwise tend to plague the animals.
While they may not have the physical presence of the elephant, the glamour of the leopard, or even the delicate beauty of the spotted deer, the Indian or water buffalo, with its two tribes and multiple variances, has its place secure among the wondrous diversity of this much-blessed island.