Close encounters with wild buffalo

Now protected like the rest of Sri Lanka’s fauna, the wild buffalo was once hunted for sport. Incidentally, this beast has rarely been hunted for food; those Sri Lankans who are non-vegetarians are not partial to the taste of buffalo meat.

The wild buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is a tough customer. British sportsmen have left hair-raising accounts of shooting charging buffalo at close range—and of the mayhem that ensued when they missed. Back in colonial times, the wild buffalo (or water buffalo) was considered a top trophy. It was hunted relentlessly from the 1840s to about the 1930s, the golden age of big-game hunting in Ceylon.

There’s no way of determining how this buffalo wound up dead on the banks of the Menik Ganga (River of Gems) in Yala National Park. It could have died of thirst during a drought, when stretches of the river dry up.

A pair of leopards can bring down a buffalo separated from its herd, especially if it’s old or ailing. But other than that the wild buffalo has little to fear.

The buffalo immerses itself in water or mud whenever either is available, and feeds on grass and aquatic plants. Buffalo tend to stay together in small herds, although you may occasionally see a solitary male roaming the jungle.

You can’t always tell the truculent wild buffalo from their placid domesticated counterparts ruminatively chewing their cud or plowing furrows in the paddy fields of Sri Lanka. You do find domestic buffalo wandering into patches of jungle in the dry zone, but any buffalo encountered in the wild is best considered wild—and treated with respect.

Wild buffalo kill a number of human beings in Sri Lanka every year. The victims are more likely to suffer massive internal injuries from being butted than from being gored by the buffalo’s (usually) backswept horns.

If you pause to examine a buffalo skull—and you may see one on display in your Yala or Tissamaharama hotel lobby, or spot one lying beside the jeep tracks winding through Yala National Park—you’ll notice the thickness of its frontal bone.

Getting butted in your chest, abdomen or pelvic region by a charging buffalo must feel like getting hit by an anvil. But we’re just guessing; not many people who’ve been injured by a wild buffalo have lived to talk about the encounter. To be safe, make sure you obey the most important rule of wildlife photography in Sri Lanka: stay in your vehicle at all times.

Copyright © David Graham