Feral Water Buffalo

Buffalo Hunter 1928 Adelaide River

The Feral Water Buffalo in Australia An Introduced Species with a Significant Impact

The water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is a large bovine native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. In the 19th century, water buffaloes were introduced to Australia’s Northern Territory as a source of meat and labor for remote settlements. However, when these settlements were abandoned, the buffaloes were released into the wild, where they quickly established feral populations. Today, the feral water buffalo is a significant presence in the Top End region of Australia, particularly in the northern floodplains.

Feral Water Buffalo
Feral Water Buffalo

History and Distribution

Water buffaloes were first brought to Australia between 1825 and 1843, with around 80 animals imported to Melville Island and Cobourg Peninsula. These early settlements relied on the buffaloes for meat and as working animals. When the settlements were abandoned in the mid-1900s by Europeans, the buffaloes were left to roam free.

Buffalo team CC BY 4.0 Library & Archives NT
Buffalo team c1900s Darwin NT CC BY 4.0 Library & Archives NT

The released buffaloes thrived in the wetlands and floodplains of the Top End, with their population growing rapidly. By the 1980s, it was estimated that there were as many as 350,000 feral water buffaloes in the Northern Territory. Although a significant culling program in the 1980s and 1990s, known as the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign (BTEC), greatly reduced their numbers, the population has since rebounded. As of 2022, it is estimated that there are around 200,000 feral water buffaloes across northern Australia.

Physical Characteristics

Feral water buffaloes in Australia are large, heavy-bodied animals. Adults can weigh between 450 and 1,200 kg, with males being significantly larger than females. They have a shoulder height of 1.5 to 1.9 meters and a head-and-body length of 2.4 to 3.0 meters.

The water buffalo is well-adapted to the wet conditions of the Top End. They have large, splayed hooves that prevent them from sinking into soft mud, and their skin is thick and sparsely covered with hair, which helps them withstand biting insects and heat.

Feral Water Buffalo wallowing
Feral Water Buffalo wallowing

Charlie the Water Buffalo

CC BY 4.0 Library & Archives NT

Charlie the Water Buffalo became a celebrity after featuring in the movie “Crocodile Dundee,” where he was memorably subdued by Mick Dundee. Discovered as an orphaned calf in 1974 during a cull of feral herds, Charlie later found a home at the Adelaide River Inn. Post-filming, he became a beloved fixture there, entertaining visitors until his death in 2000 from pneumonia.

To preserve his legacy, his owner had Charlie taxidermied and placed him at the bar of the inn, where he continues to attract admirers. The Adelaide River Inn itself has been a staple since 1874 and is conveniently located on the Stuart Highway, offering various accommodations and dining options to travelers exploring the heart of Australia.

Buffalo Dangers

Buffaloes are formidable creatures whose strength and size pose significant risks to humans and vehicles. Known for their unpredictable nature, buffaloes can become extremely aggressive, especially when threatened or during the mating season. Their powerful build and horns make them capable of goring and trampling, leading to severe injuries or fatalities.

They have been involved in numerous vehicle incidents. Motorcycles and cars colliding with these massive animals can result in fatal consequences for both the passengers and the buffalo. Such encounters highlight the lethal potential of buffaloes and underscore the importance of exercising caution and maintaining a safe distance when in proximity to these powerful animals.

Environmental Impact

The presence of large numbers of feral water buffaloes has had a profound impact on the ecosystems of the Top End. The buffaloes’ grazing and wallowing behaviors have led to significant changes in wetland habitats.

One of the most visible impacts is the creation of ‘swim channels’ in floodplains. As buffaloes move through these areas, they create deep, eroded channels that can alter water flow patterns and lead to saltwater intrusion into freshwater habitats. This has resulted in the loss of large areas of paperbark forest in some regions, such as the Mary River floodplains.

Feral water buffaloes have also been implicated in the spread of invasive weeds, particularly Mimosa pigra, which can form dense thickets on floodplains. The buffaloes’ grazing has also been linked to reduced nesting activity of magpie geese, which has cascading effects on the ecosystem.

Management and Control

Given the significant environmental impacts of feral water buffaloes, there have been ongoing efforts to manage and control their populations. Aerial shooting has proven to be the most effective method of population control, although ground shooting is also used in some areas.

The BTEC program of the 1980s and 1990s significantly reduced buffalo numbers, but since then, populations have rebounded in many areas. In Arnhem Land, which has the largest feral buffalo population, numbers are increasing and expanding in range, with limited management currently in place.

In some areas, buffalo are being managed as a resource. Some herds have been domesticated, and there is a pet meat industry and live export trade. These activities only account for a small proportion of the total feral population.

Significance to Indigenous Communities

Buffalo Hides Indigenous people at Adelaide River CC BY 4.0 Library & Archives NT
Buffalo Hides Indigenous people at Adelaide River CC BY 4.0 Library & Archives NT

Feral water buffaloes have become a part of the landscape and the culture of many Indigenous communities in the Top End. In some areas, such as Arnhem Land, buffalo are hunted for meat and hides, providing a source of food and income.

The feral water buffalo is a complex issue in Australia’s Top End. Their impact on the environment has been profound, altering wetland habitats and contributing to the spread of invasive weeds.

Efforts to manage and control feral water buffalo populations are ongoing, with aerial and ground shooting being the primary methods used. However, in some areas, particularly Arnhem Land, buffalo numbers are increasing with limited management.

As we move into the future, finding a balance between managing the environmental impacts of feral water buffaloes and respecting their cultural significance will be an ongoing challenge. But by understanding the complex history and ecology of these animals, we can work towards solutions that benefit both the environment and the communities that live alongside them.