New water buffalo species in Sri Lanka | Page 3 | Sunday Observer

New water buffalo species in Sri Lanka

12 June, 2022
A water buffalo in the Yala National Park
A water buffalo in the Yala National Park

For a long time, we believed that the water buffalo was not native to Sri Lanka, but introduced from the Asian mainland. However, recent DNA evidence suggests that an indigenous species also existed.

A herd in the Kumana National Park

Conservation Biologist, Prof Mayuri Wijesinghe (Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences, University of Colombo) in an interview with the author revealed that Sri Lanka has historically had two species – the Asian wild buffalo (Bubalis Arnee) and the Swamp buffalo (B. bubalis carabanensis), the latter is most likely introduced via domestic stock from mainland Asia. 

‘Rewilding’ project

The horned giant is a very hardy and adaptable animal indeed. It’s presence as a feral (domesticated turned wild) animal outside its native Asian range in places such as Australia, Brazil, Italy and elsewhere only attest to this. Even in a relatively colder nation such as Ukraine, water buffalos have been successfully farmed and even introduced into the wilderness as part of a ‘rewilding’ project.

According to Michel Jacobi, the Ukrainian buffalo fills the niche of an extinct breed that once roamed Europe in the prehistoric era. In Sri Lanka, they can be seen in all parts of the island and most visitors to national parks are almost certainly guaranteed to see them in massive herds. They are also a common sight on farms across Asia for their adaptability and work skills and widespread globally nowadays.

Recently, B. arnee in Sri Lanka was identified through genetic studies of three museum skulls; one specimen was in Giritale. The work was done in collaboration with Dr. Saminda Fernando (Department of Zoology at the Open University of Sri Lanka). The Sri Lankan subspecies is different from the one found in the mainland. Wijesinge said that the existence of a Sri Lankan Arnee subspecies in the wilderness needs to be clarified through future DNA studies.

Bubalis Arnee in Assam, India

Bubalis Arnee, globally is critically endangered and numbers an estimated 3,000 animals mostly in India, Nepal, Burma and surrounding nations (compared with 200 million domestic and feral buffaloes). Just like Australian wild dogs (dingos) and European wild cats interbreeding with stray and domestic animals, the threat of hybridisation on the gene pool is a similar concern to wild buffaloes within their native range. Like the ancestors of modern horses and cattle, the true wild form could become functionally extinct soon, but have hybrid descendants. 

Dr Kalinga Padmalal, Senior Zoology Lecturer at the Open University said, “Occasionally a few buffaloes in Yala especially and maybe elsewhere in the country have a more wild/ bubalis arnee look.  This is most obvious when you notice the shape of the horns. It is, therefore, possible that they have interbred”. We often discover new animals due to DNA breakthroughs, such as five new lorises recently described in Sri Lanka, a few frog species.

Bigger animals

However, it is rarer to identify bigger animals. Notable exceptions are the kabomani tapir, African golden wolf and Tapanuli Orang Utan, all described recently thanks to DNA analyses.

DNA studies in the South-East on buffalo specimens have proved inconclusive regarding B. arnee stock and studies in the North-West part of the island, are yet to be carried out. 

The Palaeontologist, Paul Deraniyagala in the 1950s suggested that an indigenous buffalo species once existed. But this is the first time the theory has been officially confirmed by DNA.

Post-independence land clearing for agriculture and the bovine disease, rinderpest are suggested to have added to the decline in wild stock.

The gaur or Indian bison (gawara in Sinhala) also once existed in Sri Lanka and is believed to have gone extinct around 200 years ago, also due to similar circumstances.  The latest research indicates that we have concrete evidence that a native wild buffalo once existed in Sri Lanka.

Whether the modern free roaming buffaloes in the island have Bubalis arnee DNA mixed in with that of domestic escapees is yet to be confirmed.