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An adventure with buffaloes in Assam : a story from the days of the Raj

Wild Buffalo in Assam

In the 1901 edition of Countries of the World (Volume 1: Abyssinia to Bengal), the entire set of which my mother bequeathed to me, there is an interesting article on Assam.

Assam had been mentioned in a journal I had been reading recently, and I felt I needed a better background on the country, never having been there. The article I found in Countries of the World was written by Sir Bampfylde Fuller K.C.S.I., C.I.E., famous in 1901 for his book The Empire of India. Fuller had been at one time the Governor of Assam, and in this position had fallen out with various parts of the British government over the best way to govern British India. I saw a photograph of him somewhere he cuts a stern, Edwardian figure with a heavy waxed moustache and piercing eyes.... a man, I thought, not to be trifled with. And having grown up with the name Bampfylde and survived, I assume he had been well-toughened from childhood.

But he clearly had a great affection for Assam, and I enjoyed his article very much, especially the opening paragraph:

To most people, Assam is merely a word of the tea table. But to those who have lived there – and come away – it may be a very pleasant dream. For in this corner of India the dry season loses its dusty squalor; we are in a region of perennial green, contrasted with the glittering surface of huge rivers, and tiers upon tiers of blue mountains, forest-clad or dominating the plains with precipitous cliffs that are festooned with waterfalls. The dry winds of the Indian cold and hot seasons cease on the threshold of Assam......

The article goes on to describe a country that was still, in the 19th century, a backwater and sparsely inhabited. It consisted of the two broad valleys of the Brahmaputra and Surmar rivers, with an intervening mass of lofty hills below the confused welter of mountains that lie between Tibet, China and Burma (in the words of Sir Bampfylde). Being land-locked and penetrable only through narrow passes along the rivers, it was a place that had subsisted independently for centuries.

The natural vegetation of the lowlands of this region at that time, was a dense growth of elephant grass, growing up to eight feet in height; upslope were superb sal (Shorea robusta) forests, interspersed with rice paddies and tea plantations, and then in regions over 3,000 feet elevation, fine forests of pine and oak. In 1901, these wild lands teemed with elephant, rhinoceros, wild buffalo, deer and tigers.

While I was surprised to hear that there was a species of rhino indigenous to India, and then not surprised to find it was considered endangered even in the 1890s, it was the mention of the Wild Buffalo (Bubalus arnee) that caught my eye. I had recently been in Australia’s Northern Territory and seen buffalo in the bush there, and learned to give them a very wide berth. These are not the Asian Wild Buffalo, but a related species, the Domestic Water Buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). They were introduced to northern Australia in the 19th century to provide remote settlements with meat, but escaped and bred up in the bush. They might be escapees from domesticity that have gone feral, but they are still pretty wild. Take no notice of Crocodile Dundee – the female buff is a fearless and aggressive animal when defending her calf, and the bull buffalo is like that all the time. Near Darwin I also noticed domesticated buffalo in a farm paddock and learned that the milk from these animals sells for a fortune in Melbourne, where it is made into mozzarella cheese. There is more to buffalo than I had up to that time realised.

A herd of Domestic Buffalo milkers in the Northern Territory

To digress momentarily, my favourite book about the wild animals of the Asian jungles is Elephant Bill by J.H. “Bill” Williams. In it he gives a graphic account of the way a mother elephant defends her calf from attacks by tigers. The tiger knows that in a head-to-head battle, the elephant nearly always wins, so its strategy is to leap onto a mother elephant’s back and start to claw and bite her. The aim is not to kill the mother, but to enrage and stampede her, thus leaving the calf vulnerable, and it is to the calf that the tiger then turns its attention. However, mother elephants are generally equal to this strategy and are able to tear the tiger off their backs with their trunk and dash it to the ground, whereupon they trample it with their huge feet or gore it with their tusks. Mothers with small calves are also usually accompanied by sister elephants or “aunts” who will come to her assistance when a tiger attacks and who use their trunks like flails to knock a tiger flying.

According to Elephant Bill the only other animal that can defend itself successfully against tigers is the Wild Buffalo. If a tiger is trying to take a calf from the herd, the mother buffaloes band together to attack and drive the tiger off or kill it. This is done with great and well-coordinated violence, and in the sort of cold fury that only mothers defending their young understand.

Rudyard Kipling draws on this lore in one of his stories in The Jungle Book, where Mowgli organises a buffalo stampede in order to destroy his enemy, the marauding tiger Shere Khan. The buffaloes:

....tore through the creepers. They knew what the business was before them – the terrible charge of the buffalo herd, against which no tiger can hope to stand...Shere Khan knew if the worst came to the worst, it was better to meet the bulls than the cows with their calves....

An illustration from my old copy of The Jungle Book, showing Mowgli mounted on a Wild Buffalo, seeing off the marauding tiger Shere Khan

All of this led me to re-read a wonderful story in the 1887 edition of my favourite journal, The Indian Forester, copies of which can still be found in a dusty corner of the library where I once worked. The story is set in Assam in the 1840s, and the storyteller signed himself ‘Senex’:

“My first experience of the large game of Assam dates from a very early period. I was then about six or seven years old and my father was Surgeon of an Irregular Corps called the Second Assam Sebundies, commanded by Major P. Mainwaring. The head quarters of the Regiment was at Rangagora, a military station in Upper Assam. The Regiment [later] ceased to exist, but at the time of which I am writing, Rangagora was a thriving little Military Cantonment, newly established and requiring a great deal of jungle clearing and house building to make it habitable. There were immense wastes in all directions, teeming with game of every description.

My experience, however, was limited in the matter of [wildlife] to witnessing the shooting of a splendid wild buffalo, and it came about this way.

[In Assam at the time] the milking of cows was unknown. Buffalo milk was, however, procurable and in order to obtain a permanent supply … my father invested in four milch buffaloes. These animals were a great source of delight to my brother Tom, who was about four years older than me. He became quite expert in riding and guiding them. They were magnificent beasts, much bigger than the attenuated race of Bengal buffaloes, since introduced into the Province. They had fine horns, the smallest of which were not under 9 feet from tip to tip - dimensions almost unknown now among cow buffaloes in Assam, owing to the admixture of the puny Bengal and North-West species.

…For some months milk was abundant in the household, and there was more butter than we could well consume. But everything is fleeting in this sub-lunary sphere, even the supply of buffalo milk, and one morning we were surprised and grieved to learn that our small herd of buffaloes had eloped, taking their calves with them. From enquiries made it was ascertained that they were last seen in the company of a stalwart bull buffalo, a good speci­men of the genuine wild race. He had apparently persuaded our buffaloes to exchange their life of servitude for one of freedom. No one dared to interfere, as the cover was thick, and it was not devoid of danger to follow him and his new companions into the forests.

We were thus reduced to a milk famine, as the villagers were unable, at a short notice, to supply us with any. For­tunately our buffalo keeper ascertained in a few days that the run-aways were in the habit each afternoon of taking a siesta on the sands at a bend of the Debril River, some few miles from the station, while they spent the remainder of their time in dense and unapproachable cover. Being satisfied of the correctness of the information, my father obtained the use of a dugout with two rowers. He carefully loaded a muzzle­loading 12-bore gun, and with a small supply of ammunition sallied forth to recover his property. My brother Tom ac­companied him of right, but I had considerable difficulty in being allowed to join the party, though on promising to be very quiet, and sit well inside the dugout, I was permitted to enter it, and we rowed away on our expedition with the good wishes of all who saw us off from the ghat.

The river was by no means a broad one, neither was it very deep throughout its course. At some points it was shallow enough for a man to wade across; on both sides there were dense forests and under­growth relieved only at the bends by small spots of sand fringed by grass jungle. We rowed down silently for nearly an hour, the river being very tortuous. At length the herdsman who ac­companied us whispered to my father that we were approaching the spot where the wild one and the run-aways were in the habit of disporting themselves. My father at once saw to the caps on the nipples of his gun, and got ready for the emergency. An­other turn of the river brought us full in view of the happy party. They were all lying on the warm sand thoroughly en­joying themselves. A slight noise made by one of the rowers at once aroused the vigilance of the wild bull, and he sprang to his feet and advanced towards the boat, which was then in a remark­ably shallow part of the stream; my father covered him with his gun, and as the brute showed signs of following us into the water, he fired and hit him about the right temple. The brute at once charged into the stream, which was not more than knee deep, and dashed at the boat, but as he approached, my father fired again at close quarters into his shoulder. This quite sick­ened him, and he swerved from his charge, bounding across the stream in a few plunges instead of returning to his companions, who remained motionless all the time. My brother no sooner saw the wild buffalo on the opposite bank than he jumped into the river, and waded on to the sands to where the tame buffaloes were. He soon secured the principal one, and the herdsman securing another, the other two with all the calves followed, and we returned in triumph to the cantonment, the riders of the buffaloes finding a short cut by the river bank.

The next morning, my father sent a tracker to follow up the spoor of the wounded wild buffalo, and it was found dead within a few yards of the bank, the second bullet having gone very near his heart. His horns were magnificent, and long remained a family trophy. As a matter of course, to our great delight, the milk famine ceased at once........”

Sadly today, Assam is no longer renowned for its prized forests of sal, most of which have been cleared away and the forest converted to tea gardens. To some extent this is understandable: Assam tea is world-famous, a strong black tea renowned for its “briskness and malty flavour” and regarded, at least in England, as the premier breakfast tea. It is a major source of income to Assam’s people. I enjoy it, but it is too expensive for everyday consumption at my place (where mostly I drink Nerada Tea, grown in Queensland).

Sadly, the Wild Buffalo of Asia are mostly gone, hunted almost to extinction and constrained by loss of habitat. The riverine and swampy areas they once enjoyed became prized for rice-growing, and the species is now listed as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List. Where a century ago there were herds of thousands of them across the wilds of the northern regions of the subcontinent, it is now estimated that the total number of wild buffalo left in the world is only 3000, and most of these live in Assam.

Wild Buffalo, photographed in a national park in India

Similarly, the One-Horned Rhinoceros and Indian elephant survive in the wild in Assam, but only just.

As an aside, the feral water buffalo of northern Australia is also on the way out. Carriers of brucellosis, they are gradually being eliminated by the authorities. They are also shot by hunters and in some cases are eaten by local communities. My forestry mate Mal Parker was once invited by the Tiwi people to a BBQ on Melville Island for which a bush buff had been shot and butchered. As guest of honour he was offered a prime steak. It was on the rare side of completely rare, Mal said, singed rather than cooked, and was only slightly more tender than a slab of rubber cut from a steel-belted radial.

Back to Assam. It is still a producer and exporter of silk as well as tea .... and in more recent times has become one of India’s main producers of crude oil. This resource was mentioned in Sir Bampflyde Fuller’s 1901 article, but he believed at the time that the deposits were too inaccessible to be of any value. Little did he know how much the value of that particular resource would escalate over the next 100 years.

Rangagora, where Senex lived and his family’s domestic buffalos were ridden and milked, also seems to have survived, although it is no longer a military cantonment. The internet tells me that today it is a city where I can book a motel and hire a car. A glance at Google Earth reveals a well-cultivated agricultural region, around which no longer “the immense wastes” of jungle and mountain “extend in all directions” as they did in Senex's time.

As for our storyteller Senex, who knows what became of that 10-year-old boy after his adventure with the Wild Buffalo? I like to think that he and Sir Bampfylde became friends, and shared reminiscences over pink gins at the Sahib’s club in their declining years, with Sir B becoming increasing testy as the years went by, having heard too many recountings of the shooting of the bull buffalo on that memorable day in the 1840s.

There is, however, one last story about water buffalo that I would like to relate. My colleague Oliver Raymond once told me about his grandfather, who was a railway engineer in India in the late 19th Century, in the days of the Raj. Surveying the route for a new railway line, engineer Raymond had found his way blocked by a deep and impassable river. No vessel was available to get him and his survey team across. However, there was a herd of domestic buffalo in the village nearby and he was able to hire three of them. The idea was that Raymond and his crew would ride on the buffalo’s backs (as the villagers routinely did) and the animals would swim them across. At worst, only their boots would get wet.

All went well, the animals approaching the river, survey party aboard. They confidently strode out into the water towards the far bank about 50 metres away. However, being Water Buffalo, not horses, they preferred walking to swimming. Also, unlike horses, they were accustomed to being under water. The buffs gradually submerged and proceeded to cross the river … but on foot, walking on the river bed some metres below the surface.

It is tempting to round off this story with the report that the last anyone saw of the survey party was a trail of bubbles breaking the surface of the river, and a pith helmet floating downstream. But Oliver tells me his grandfather and survey team managed to get ashore without loss of life or equipment. On the other hand, the experience reinforced their understanding of why the animal is called a “water” buffalo …

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Jun 11, 2022

Actually, my grandfather rejoiced in the name of Ernest Flower - he probably wouldn't have survived school days in an Australian school, with a name like that! He was, of course, my mother's father, and was an extremely likeable old chap.

Oliver Raymond.

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