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Our friend Poi Fai, a swamp buffalo

February 12, 2011

The French explorer Dr Clovis Thorel spent many years in the Mekong region describing plants, animals and culture (The Mekong Exploration Commission Report (1866-1868), reprinted and translated by White Lotus in 2001).

Thorel claimed that in the 1860’s, the elephants were considered vermin raiding the farmlands, and a luxury pet for the rich. The water buffalo was considered the most useful animal. Since the water buffalo is not that common anymore in Lanna (northern Thailand), I am afraid the culture of rural Thailand disappears in silence, and that tourists get the wrong impression that Thai farmers used to ride elephants to work.

Theoretical knowledge is a good basis, but hands-on experience tells you the truth. For instance, we used to keep two water buffaloes at Dokmai Garden in Chiang Mai (Thailand). However, they turned nasty and dangerous, not at all fitting the literature which romantically describes docile creatures cared for by five-year-old Thai children. We had to sell them as we can not keep dangerous animals in a garden. The veterinarian explained that if a previous owner is used to hitting his animals, such animals would never trust any human.

Recently we began a search for a new and docile water buffalo. Khun Densak, the head gardener at Dokmai Garden, has a long experience from working with buffaloes in farming situations. He said that he wanted a male, as females are generally more nasty. We asked our local gardeners if they knew anybody owning water buffaloes, but rural development in Thailand has resulted in water buffaloes being replaced by tractors. The water buffaloes are now rare, and to the modern Thai farmer it is a symbol of poverty. Villagers say buffaloes demand much more care than a tractor. In India, the river water buffalo is an animal for milk and meat, a substitute for the sacred cattle, while in Thailand the swamp water buffalo is (was) a worker, not a source of food. You still see swamp water buffaloes in less developed rural areas in Burma and southern China, but their days are counted.

The swamp water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is indigenous to Thailand. It is a species different from cattle (Bos primigenius), North American buffalo (Bison bison) or African buffalo (Syncerus caffer). The use of the English word ‘buffalo’ for three different animals is confusing. American buffalo should be called ‘bison, African buffalo should be called ‘nyathi’, and since the Indian and Southeast Asian water buffaloes are different too, even having different chromosome numbers, it would be better to call the Southeast Asian species ‘swamp buffalo’ or ‘kwai’ (48 chromosomes), and call the Indian species ‘river buffalo’ (50 chromosomes).

Anyhow, eventually the Dokmai Garden staff got hold of a young male swamp buffalo, which Ketsanee named Poi Fai, after an Esan comedian. Our wild boars Lala and Lolo are also named after Thai comedians. This buffalo mows the lawns quietly, provides manure, attracts birds and is a beautiful relic of the past Thai rural landscape, a garden ornamental. It is a lovely experience to see the beauty of a swamp buffalo in the mornings, or a huge horned shape at night. Docile swamp buffaloes are simply lovely, but ten years from now, Thai swamp buffaloes might only be seen in zoos.

Eric Danell

New faces at Dokmai Garden: Poi Fai

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Kaarina o Boerje permalink
    February 16, 2011 8:05 PM

    How nice to read that you have got a buffalo again. I was astonished to learn that your former buffaloes had a bad temper. As you know I have been working with both swamp and river buffaloes, hundreds of them during more than 20 years. During that time I have only been in contact with two buffaloes with bad temper. Maybe due to the fact that most buffalo owners treat their only one buffalo very gentle as it represent the most important income source for them and they usually have the same life time as the owner, that is ca 40 years.

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