One afternoon I watched a farmer lead two of his water buffalo through the mud, turning underwater furrows of harvested rice. He flicked a switch at their long ears to let them know to pull more to the right or left. Water buffalo’s hide is smooth and slate grey, and looks rubbery. I’m fairly sure they did not feel the switch—it was just a visual aid. They have barrel shaped bodies and stocky legs with sensible cleft hooves, giving them sure footing in the muck. Their horns grow outward and look heavy. Their eyes are deep fathomless black.
Evidence from India suggests the great river water buffalo has been in service to humankind for over 50,000 years. Carvings at Angkor Wat depict water buffalo pulling carts or plowing rice fields during the time of Jayarvarman II in 800 C.E. Most of the world’s population of water buffalo, 95%, live in Asia. Along the rough red dirt road where I live now, I see water buffalo going about their business, wading up to their withers in the rice fields, grazing underwater. Occasionally you will see them placidly ruminating in the shade with their fellows.
Here’s an interesting fact: “The rumen of the water buffalo contains a larger population of bacteria, particularly the celluoytic bacteria, lower protozoa, and higher fungi zoospores than other ruminates. In addition, higher rumen ammonia nitrogen (NH4-N) and higher pH have been found as compared to those in cattle.” So don’t you go kissing water buffalo. Water buffalo are substantial creatures who take their time with whatever they do. Gestation takes upwards of 320 days—nearly a year. Their milk has more fat and protein than dairy cows. They can work for more than 40 years, if they aren’t eaten before that.
When I stop to photograph water buffalo in my neighborhood, I am aware of their quiet strength and pointy horns. Their black eyes follow me with curiosity, but have never appeared challenging. Young Cambodian children ride on their backs to the fields. They appear unperturbed, as though they have seen it all before. They seem to know they are beasts of burden; they’ve had the job for as long as they can remember.