Water Buffalo Herds Growing in the United States
These unique, niche market animals start to make inroads.
A scenic Vermont meadow with grazing water buffalo is becoming a more common occurence.
For most people, a mention of water buffalo conjures images of the African savannah, perhaps accompanied by a calm voice, “Watch now, as Jim flings himself from the helicopter into the midst of the herd …” Those ferocious-looking animals from the Wild Kingdom are a completely different species than the docile, easily led animals that have come to grace water buffalo farms in the United States.
“They respond just like a dairy cow,” says Kent Underwood, self-proclaimed “Water Buffalo Guru” and former manager of Vermont Water Buffalo. “They’re more of a flight animal than a fight. A lot of people get them mixed up with the Cape Buffalo in Africa, but they really are more of a companion animal.”
At home in many lands
The buffalo of the world are classified into two main groups, the Asian and the African. The African species, the Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) mentioned above, has huge horns that join in the center to look like parted hair. For clarity, what we tend to call the North American Buffalo are really Bison, which are more closely related to cattle than to Asian water buffalo. The wild Asian water buffalo is an endangered species, from which the domesticated water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) was tamed around 5,000 years ago.
Since then, two main types of domestic water buffalo have found prominence. The swamp type is mainly found in China, Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Indonesia. Uniquely suited to hotter climates, they are primarily draft and meat animals, and they have broad, wide horns, lighter-colored legs and large hooves. River Buffalo originated in India and Pakistan. They have been bred toward dairy production, though they also provide meat and power. River Buffalo have more curled horns, hold their heads higher than their swamp brethren and are the preferred type for milk production. Large herds live in Bulgaria, Romania and Italy.
The history of the water buffalo in Italy is cloaked in mystery with hypotheses that suggest the animals were introduced to Europe in the seventh century by invading Goths, in the Middle Ages by returning Crusaders, or even that they originated on Italian soil. In any case, water buffalo are entwined with Italian food, providing milk for mozzarella di bufala (most often produced in southern Italy, chiefly in Campania), a cheese prized for its taste and texture.
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