WILD SPECIES REPORT: The last wild herd in Thailand
Massive beasts with a mean temperament
Wild water buffalo calf by the river
Probably, the most significant species in Huai Kha Khaeng is the wild water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). Due to a very small population with only about 50-60 individuals surviving, the future of these remarkable creatures in Thailand is uncertain. Many perils threaten them, such as foot and mouth disease, which could easily be passed on by domesticated buffalo living just outside the southern boundary of the sanctuary. Poaching and encroachment are also serious concerns.
Mother buffalo fully alert to any danger
I once photographed a female (with a rope through her nose) and a few of her calves mingling with a wild herd in the sanctuary not far from the southern boundary. I made a report to the authorities, and these domestic buffalo were separated from the wild herd and quickly chased out by the rangers.
Domestic buffalo mingling with the wild herd
It is a fact though; some local villagers have deliberately mingled their buffalo with the wild buffalo so the offspring would be sturdy. This is a very dangerous situation, which if not checked, may lead to the total demise of all the ungulates like deer, pigs and wild cattle in Huai Kha Khaeng. It may sound drastic, but that could happen one day. Cattle disease has no boundaries.
The southern border at Krueng Krai ranger station still remains a gateway for danger and must be protected at all costs. However, enforcement is difficult due to low budgets and just a few rangers to look after a very large area. This needs a serious revamp. The Department of National Parks (DNP) has increased security here but some locals seem intent on slipping through.
Wild water buffalo herd
Stricter laws are needed as a deterrent, and increased budgets and personnel implemented so this wonderful place is properly looked after. Anyone caught in the interior with firearms and evidence of poaching should do a long prison term. Unfortunately, with the present laws and possibility of corruption, law-breakers usually get off light and become repeat offenders.
Over the years, I have seen these magnificent buffalo on numerous occasions. During the late 1990s’ while I was still shooting film and working in Huai Kha Khaeng at the southern area, I managed to get some good shots of a herd wallowing in the river. But it was not the first or the last time I would bump into wild water buffalo.
Wild water buffalo herd
In 2006 armed with a new Konica-Minolta D7 digital camera and 600mm lens, I bumped into two bulls right across from Krueng Krai ranger station. One was a very old bull with a huge set of horns, and the other a younger bull posed for the camera over the course of several days. I was using a boat-blind but had no power except a paddle, and getting around was a bit difficult. However, it was still very gratifying seeing these rare beasts and photographing them.
Late last year, I had a unique experience photographing a young male calf and its mother. Green peafowl and otters are plentiful but my main objective is always the same, photographing the buffalo. My last encounter was in March of this year. I again motored up-stream and bumped into two large bulls cooling off in the river. They were very shy and took off as soon as they saw me but not before I got a couple of good shots. Judging from their horns, these two were very mature bulls.
Very old wild water buffalo bull
At the beginning of the dry season, the river is very low but still deep enough to navigate up-stream using a new camouflaged kayak with pontoons on either side, and a silent trolling motor hooked up to a 12v truck battery for power and maximum maneuverability. Controlling the boat-blind is easy as I motor along using the electric motor and I can easily steer the craft with a rudder made of aluminum attached to the stern. I use three anchors (one fore and two aft) when I need to be steady in the water.
A Nikon 400mm f 2.8 lens and camera is firmly attached to the hull using aluminum tubing and braces plus a gimbal-styled tripod head suitable for a large telephoto. I sit comfortably behind the camera ready to shoot at a moments notice. This boat actually is very stable and has allowed some close encounters with large mammals. Camouflage material is draped over everything to blend in with the background.
Wild water buffalo herd
Over the years, quite a lot of research has been carried out on the buffalo in Huai Kha Khaeng. One of the first was Napparat Naksathit, the former chief of Khao Nang Ram Research station. He did an ecology and distribution survey of buffalo in 1984. Then Tanya Chan-art in 1986 and Wichan Ucharoensak in 1992, did consensus surveys to determine numbers. Dr Rattanawat Chaiyarat from Mahidol University did his thesis on the buffalo. Dr Terrapat Prayurasiddh, now the deputy director general of the Royal Forest Department, did an aerial survey using a helicopter, also to establish numbers. Around that time, the deputy chief of Huai Kha Khaeng, the late Pongsakorn Pattapong researched and photographed the buffalo. He was an avid photographer but passed away from too much exposure to chemicals while developing his own film. And finally, Manoch Yindee is currently working on wild buffalo genetics in the sanctuary, and domestic buffalo throughout the Kingdom.
A mature buffalo bull can weigh up to a ton with hooves more than 20cm (8 inches) across. They leave deep tracks in the sandy soil by the river. These magnificent bovids are much larger and more aggressive than their domestic counterparts. Wild buffalo have a distinct forehead with horn bases closer together than domestic buffalo, whose boss is wider apart.
Wild buffalo have a fierce temperament and if provoked, can be very dangerous to man. A herd will group together to face a predator like a tiger or Asian wild dog. Male solitary bulls charge without hesitation. Many a hunter has had a close call or been killed by these massive low-slung beasts. A bull will gore and then toss the intruder before stomping on the victim with its huge hooves. They are extremely determined and will sometimes continue to attack until the enemy perishes.
The author in an old boat-blind
Buffalo live in herds with one mature bull looking after the females. During the breeding season in October-November, the herd bull will fight other solitary bulls. Females have one calf, and gestation is about 10 months. A buffalo’s daily ritual is a visit to the river to drink and cool off. They will wallow to coat their hides with mud protecting it from biting insects.
This is the last wild herd in Thailand and, in Southeast Asia for that matter. India and Nepal have some large herds, and Cambodia may have a few individuals but they could be feral. Centuries ago, wild water buffalo were found in alluvial lowland plains and rivers throughout the Kingdom. As most waterways have been overcome by humanity, domestication of the wild buffalo was only a matter of time. It is said wild buffalo were domesticated before 2000 BC. Fossil evidence of buffalo from the Pleistocene Epoch has been uncovered in many sand deposits along the Chao Phraya River.
Antlers of a Schomburgk’s stag
The DNP is responsible for Huai Kha Khaeng and its management, and they should make protection and enforcement around the southern area a top priority. With only one location for wild water buffalo left in the Kingdom, total security is required so these magnificent creatures will be around for future generations to appreciate. It is hoped they will not end up like so many other animals that have gone extinct such as the Schomburgk’s deer and the Kouprey, and that would be a sad day indeed.
Trophy horns of a Kouprey bull