IFAW's Ian Robinson on Releasing Water Buffalo Back into the Wild
Ian Robinson is the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Emergency Relief program director, he recently spent four weeks in India working with our partner organizations and visiting projects…
The mighty Brahmaputra river flows down from the Himalayas and across the breadth of Assam, before entering Bangladesh and emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The heavy monsoon rains bring floods – both a blessing and a curse. Silt washed from the soils of the high Himalayas brings great fertility to the floodplain each year, which not only supports the rice paddies of the human population, but a great wealth of natural flora and fauna, making this area a biodiversity hot spot.
When the floods run high, they drive both people and animals from their homes, seeking the safety of higher ground. On this journey many animals become displaced as they run a gauntlet of human development that surrounds each National Park in the region, and commonly infants get separated from their mothers. Which is how IFAW ended up with two wild buffalo calves to rear, rehabilitate and return to the wild in the first place...
The National Park of Dibru – Sikova is an island entirely surrounded by the Brahmaputra river, an ideal habitat for water loving wild buffalo. Hand reared at our rescue center on the outskirts of Kaziranga National Park, these two young buffalo were transferred a year ago to a large electric fenced release paddock on the island. This move was a feat in itself, with over a hundred people involved in carrying the buffalo, each in a wooden crate supported on long bamboo poles – teams of 20 – 30 people took it in turns to carry the crates the 3km from the boat to the release paddock.
Now, coinciding with my trip to the North East of India, we were going to sedate our two male buffalo and fit them with radio collars so that we could track them on release from their temporary home, so that we can monitor their adaption back into the wild. To reach the site, first we have to cross the river, on a wooden boat that looks like the big sister of the ‘African Queen’. She probably dates from the turn of the century; this large flat bottomed barge is steered by an ancient chain mechanism linking the helmsman at the bow with the rudder at the stern. The helmsman’s other tool is a small buzzer with which he communicates with the engine room – a differing combination of buzz indicating the required speed of the engine. In this way we navigated through the murky waters which conceal ever shifting banks of sand and mud.
On arrival we walked and waded across the sandbanks and streams to the park guard’s camp near our paddock. Here the park guards live for months at a time while on duty patrolling to prevent poaching in the park. With the most rudimentary accommodation, no electricity and a hand pump for water, it is a hard life. Despite this they cheerfully gave me the best seat in the camp and made delicious tea, boiled on a stove made of an old oilcan over a wood fire.
When we arrived the buffalo were enjoying themselves as only buffalo can – wallowing in thick grey mud then thrashing their horns in the vegetation until their heads were garlanded with a thick tangle of vines, making them look like some mythical beast. The problem was, could we dart them with sedative while they were in the wallow, on the assumption that the sting of the dart hitting would persuade them out? If not we would have to deal with the sleepy buffalo up to our waists in the mud! Fortunately they decided to vacate in time and we were able to dart the first buffalo on dry ground. Startled by the dart, he ran off into the undergrowth, but soon became sleepy and we were able to approach him and fit the collar, complete with radio transmitter. We then followed the same procedure for the second, smaller male. He was now a bit more wary, and it took time to get close enough to fire the dart from outside the pen. Finally, we got a clear shot with the dart gun and down he also went. However, he was quickly on his feet again, whilst the larger male, darted first was still sleeping deeply. The difference between the two was remarkable, as the first male slept for another three hours before finally standing. By this time it was getting dark and we had to hurry back across the streams and sandbanks to find our boat in the fading light. By the time we were heading out across the river it was pitch dark. Logically, but rather worryingly, the plan for navigation in the dark was to turn off all the navigation lights on the boat , to enable the pilot to better see sandbanks beneath the swirling current. Fortunately there was little other traffic out on the river at that time. We did manage to run aground on a newly shifted sandbank, requiring considerable effort with poles, and eventually several of the crew leaping off the boat, to push us back into deeper water. Soon we were back on the shore and heading home.
After a couple of days to settle down following their experience, the buffalo were released by simply removing a stretch of the electric fence and allowing them to wonder out at will. So far they have explored new territory outside their paddock. The larger male has already encountered wild buffalo, and fought briefly with a wild male. Fortunately neither animal was injured, and our boy was able to retreat with only bruised dignity. Hopefully these events will soon fade as the two newcomers are accepted by the wild herds in the neighborhood. We are able to follow their progress on a daily basis with a simple radio receiver – this would never be possible without the radio collars and gives invaluable insight into the success of our rehabilitation and release techniques.
For more information on the International Fund for Animal Welfare's efforts around the world, please visit, http://www.ifaw.org.