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The Curious Incident of a Wild Water Buffalo in Panna

The mysterious appearance of an endangered wild water buffalo, near Panna Tiger Reserve in Central India, in 1979 sets off speculation and a series of theories about its origins

By Raza Kazmi

Drained by the Indravati river, the forbidden forests of the mythical Dandakaranya in Central India have long been a land of mysteries and legends. Perhaps it is only fitting then that in the heart of this enchanted forest dwells a secretive mammal that few have ever seen, despite its imposing size. The twin forests of southeastern Bastar and southeastern Gadhchiroli are the last stand of, arguably, the rarest large mammal of mainland India — the Central Indian wild water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). Even by the most optimistic of estimates, there are less than a hundred of these wild buffaloes left in the sal forests of Central India. Yet, endangered as these wild bovines are, they rarely make their way into the consciousness of wildlife enthusiasts.

Far and wide
Wild water buffalo is the state animal of Chhattisgarh. Known as “van bhainsa” (literally, “forest buffalo”), they were once spread across the sal forests of Central India and beyond. The vast region it once occupied ranged from the Satpuras in Madhya Pradesh to Saranda in Jharkhand, and from the catchment forests of the Godavari in Andhra Pradesh-Telangana to the grasslands along the Ganga in Bihar’s Purnea district. But that was then, before a multitude of factors did these giants in.

The British officer Captain Glasfurd authored three books on his hunting experiences in Central India at the turn of the 20th century. He used to hunt wild buffaloes in the Bastar forests and often sketched what he saw, such as this herd in a sal forest. Sketch: A.I.R Glasfurd, (Leaves from an Indian Jungle, 1903)  Central Indian wild buffaloes are one of the rarest, largest, and hardest to spot wild bovines of the world. Unlike their Assamese brethren that are believed to have suffered some genetic dilution, these buffaloes of the sal forests of Central India are believed to be world’s last genetically pure population of wild buffaloes. Cover Photo: Arindam Bhattacharya

The British officer Captain Glasfurd authored three books on his hunting experiences in Central India at the turn of the 20th century. He used to hunt wild buffaloes in the Bastar forests and often sketched what he saw, such as this herd in a sal forest. Sketch: A.I.R Glasfurd, (Leaves from an Indian Jungle, 1903)
Central Indian wild buffaloes are one of the rarest, largest, and hardest to spot wild bovines of the world. Unlike their Assamese brethren that are believed to have suffered some genetic dilution, these buffaloes of the sal forests of Central India are believed to be world’s last genetically pure population of wild buffaloes. Cover Photo: Arindam Bhattacharya

Current range
Given the fact that today their entire population survives in forests which also happen to be the Maoist heartlands of India, few outsiders can claim to have seen these shy beasts. They are broken up into a few small herds that move across the Indravati tiger reserve and Kolamarka Wildlife Sanctuary in Gadhchiroli. A relict, semi-wild population, completely cut off from the main Bastar cluster, lives in a small area within the Udanti Wildlife Sanctuary in Chhattisgarh. They were once part of an ambitious, now failed, project of reviving the population through in-situ breeding, and consist of a single captive female of disputed genetic origin, and a handful of heavily human imprinted males.

What’s in a Gene?
But what makes the Central Indian wild buffaloes so special? Aren’t there so many of these wild progenitors of the domestic buffalo in the grasslands of Assam, especially in parks like Kaziranga? The answer to this lies in the genetic purity of the species. The wild buffaloes of northeast India are believed to have suffered from some degree of genetic swamping, i.e. interbreeding between domestic buffaloes and their wild cousins, thus diluting the wild gene pool. The Central Indian populations were saved from this affliction, primarily because the female domestic buffaloes of mainland India are much smaller in size compared to those of northeast India. Thus, while female buffaloes of northeast India might on rare occasions be able to carry a calf sired by a wild bull to term, the mainland female buffaloes are incapable of doing so due to the sheer size of such a foetus. To add to that, the degree of interaction between wild and domestic buffaloes in Central India was much less than in the floodplain forests of Assam. Moreover, noted conservationist and then Director of Wildlife Preservation of India, Dr MK Ranjitsinh recounted that in the 1970s, a number of cattle pens situated inside the Kaziranga National Park, with a significant number of domestic buffaloes, were relocated out of the park boundaries. However, in the process, quite a few decrepit buffalo individuals were left behind. While most such buffaloes were picked off by tigers, a few, in all likelihood, did end up interbreeding with the wild buffaloes of Kaziranga. All these factors resulted in the Central Indian population retaining their genetic purity compared to their northeastern brethren.

Central Indian buffalo bull horns, sketched by Captain J Forsyth in 1871 (left). In his seminal work The Highlands of Central India (1871) he describes encounters with large herds – sometimes numbering as many as fifty to sixty heads – of wild buffaloes in the sal forests of Raipur. However, in the following decades, hunting (right) and habitat destruction wiped them from all their former haunts in peninsular India except two isolated relict populations in Central India. Sketch (left): Captain J Forsyth (The Highlands of Central India, 1871), Photo (right): John Duncan Inverarity for Journal of BNHS, 1895.

Central Indian buffalo bull horns, sketched by Captain J Forsyth in 1871 (left). In his seminal work The Highlands of Central India (1871) he describes encounters with large herds – sometimes numbering as many as fifty to sixty heads – of wild buffaloes in the sal forests of Raipur. However, in the following decades, hunting (right) and habitat destruction wiped them from all their former haunts in peninsular India except two isolated relict populations in Central India. Sketch (left): Captain J Forsyth (The Highlands of Central India, 1871), Photo (right): John Duncan Inverarity for Journal of BNHS, 1895.

Panna Dispatch
The history of the fortunes of Peninsular India’s wild Buffaloes is as fascinating as it is sad. This anecdote, however, relates to the not-so-distant past.

Set in the ancient Vindhyan mountain range, the dry deciduous forest of Madhya Pradesh’s Panna Tiger Reserve is synonymous with tigers, first with their extinction, and then with their recovery through an incredibly successful repopulation effort. Other animals of the arid central Indian landscapes cohabit this wilderness with the lord of the jungle. The dainty chinkara is a common sight, and until recently, Panna was Central India’s caracal stronghold until this species quietly rode off into the sunset of extinction.

However, one animal that Panna is never associated with is the wild buffalo. That is exactly what SM Hasan, then Deputy Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), thought when he first heard rumours about the presence of a van bhainsa in the area, while surveying the Gangau Sanctuary in 1979. Large parts of this sanctuary were notified as Panna National Park in 1981. Since no living person in and around Panna had ever heard of wild buffaloes there, he initially dismissed this story as one of the many cock and bull stories he had heard in the forests over his long career. The chatter, however, persisted. Finally, curiosity got the better of the forester’s training as a sceptic rationalist. “The rumours were so strong that I could not resist myself to see the animal, though for this I had to take up a very tedious journey of 130 km in the Vindhyan hill ranges”, wrote Hasan.

“I arrived at Raipura range headquarters at about 1400 hours on 15th of February, 1979. On enquiry the range officer told me that the animal is present near village Rupjhir.” Earlier in the day, at Panna, Hasan had been told that this mysterious van bhainsa he was trying to positively identify had been wounded by a bullet from a country rifle, shattering the bovine’s leg and leaving him limping badly.

The Exposé
“We arrived at Rupjhir village at about 1530 hours. The guard showed me the animal in a distant wheat crop field. Only its horns were visible. I walked down to the animal, which was lying flat and almost dead. It took no time for me to identify it and to my great surprise it was a real wild buffalo bull (Bubalus bubalis Linn)”. The stupefied officer noted down what was in front of him — “The animal has massive typical wild buffalo shaped horns with triangular cross-section. Large ears with ruffs, white stockings, white lower chin and two white spots at the beginning of eye brows. The animal is huge in built and is weighing about 1,000 kg. The tip to tip distance of the horns is 87 cm and spread 194 cm.”

How did Hasan sahib take these measurements? With the bull injured by the earlier bullet wound, enraged villagers had finally found the opportunity to exact revenge on it. Until then, it had been committing severe depredation on “the tender wheat crop” and “no amount of people could drive…away”. By the time Hasan arrived, the injured bull had been beaten to an inch of his life by villagers who had lost their standing crop. “The animal was beaten…with the help of ballam, lathi, and pelting stones. The left front foot was broken from above the knee joint and pus was coming out…Whole of its body was ruffled and bleeding, left eye was partially damaged and the animal had a little higher temperature….When I first touched the animal it moved its head, but could not get up…..The condition of the animal was pitiable,” he wrote.

 The lone, misplaced wild water buffalo, found near Panna in 1979, that set off decades of sundry speculation among biologists and conservationists about where it had come from. Photo: SM Hasan, first published 1979 in Cheetal, Journal of the Wildlife Preservation Society of India.

The lone, misplaced wild water buffalo, found near Panna in 1979, that set off decades of sundry speculation among biologists and conservationists about where it had come from. Photo: SM Hasan, first published 1979 in Cheetal, Journal of the Wildlife Preservation Society of India.

Rest and Revival
However, the good officer didn’t give up on his ward. For three days he and his team of field staff and a local veterinarian treated the injured beast. When the bull got better and started moving about on his own, they felt it was healthy enough to withstand being moved. When it began charging people, the team decided that it was the opportune moment to capture the animal! With great difficulty and effort, it was finally somewhat subdued. “It took 30 stout villagers in front to pull and a few from behind to make the animal walk in a desired direction…ultimately we succeeded in tying the buffalo by a mango tree,” wrote an exhausted Hasan. The following day, the buffalo was tranquilised and the bullet fragments — stuck in his leg for nearly five months by then — were removed. After giving him a few weeks to let his wounds heal, the bull was finally captured on 21st March 1979, loaded onto a truck and sent to the Jabalpur Veterinary College Hospital where it survived a few months before succumbing to infection. In the meantime, the Director of the Zoological Survey of India, as well as experts of BNHS and UNEP Office for Asia and Pacific also confirmed the animal to be a wild buffalo.

Mystery Bull
Experts were stupefied. How did this wild buffalo reach Panna? Dr MK Ranjitsinh discussed this confounding incident in a series of letters exchanged with Late Dr Colin Groves, a noted British-Australian biologist. “…the first impression is, indeed, that it must be a wild relict specimen. But no wild buffalo has ever been recorded in the recent past in that entire region and the nearest wild buffalo recorded, and that too over 100 years ago, was in the sal forests of Shahdol district almost 200 miles away. The forests of Panna are dry, deciduous forests and have been extensively hunted over the past without any buffalo ever having been recorded in any account,” wrote Dr Ranjitisinh in a letter dated December 19th 1980.

Three Theories
Eventually, three theories emerged regarding the mystery of the Panna buffalo. In the first of these, put forth by Dr Ranjitsinh, he called it a case of “throwback” — i.e. a buffalo born in a domestic environment whose dormant progenitor wild genes had somehow got expressed as the dominant gene, causing it to turn into an individual that was morphologically identical to its wild progenitor, a ”throwback” to his wild ancestor.

The second theory is found in a letter, dated 3rd November 1981, from Dr Ranjitsinh to Dr Groves. “I have been to Panna where we have just inaugurated a National Park, and was told that a buffalo which was a progeny of a domestic buffalo obtained from Mandla, became feral. A hundred years ago wild buffaloes were found on the borders of Mandla. It is possible that the progenitor of the Mandla buffalo may have come from Bastar or eastern Raipur where wild buffalo are found even today. I am reasonably certain that the buffalo which became feral at Panna was our specimen,” opined Dr Ranjitsinh.

The third theory, a slight variation of the above theory was quoted by SM Hasan in his original report, yet again attributed to Dr Ranjitsinh – “A she buffalo which has mated with a wild bull in either of these two places [Bastar or eastern Raipur] was brought over to Panna and the offspring became too large to handle and became feral.” However, if this was indeed the case it would have been an incredible rarity as mainland she buffaloes, should one be impregnated by a wild bull, almost always die either during the progression of pregnancy as the foetus grows in size or at the time of calf-birth due to the stark difference in size of wild and domestic cousins. In fact, a perusal of old shikar literature shows that this was, among other factors, the primary cause of animosity between villagers and wild buffaloes in many wild buffalo bearing regions in the 19th and early 20th century. The lone, roving, wild buffalo bull would almost always kill a villager’s prized female buffalo(es) if he was able to lead her into the forest and mate. Additionally, male domestic buffaloes were routinely killed by wild bulls eager to take over the harem of domestic female buffaloes from their much weaker and smaller domestic bull counterparts.

Lone Wanderer
More than forty years later, I put forth another possibility to Dr Ranjitisinh — could this bull just have somehow, someway, wandered and walked all the way from the wild buffalo forests of Raipur or Bastar and found its way to Panna? This theory of mine drew inspiration from an incident that happened in the not so distant past in Dongrapalli-Budgeri village in Orissa’s Koraput District. In the summer of 2011, a hot-headed wild buffalo bull turned up and ran riot in and around the village before being subdued and then subsequently dying on his way to Nandankanan Zoo. Wild buffaloes had reportedly been extinct in Koraput for decades, and the nearest known herds from Indravati were a good 250 km away as the crow flies. Panna was nearly 600 km from any known Central Indian wild buffalo habitat. “That is too far,” says Dr Ranjitisnh. “I don’t think there is any possibility a bull walked that distance to reach Panna of all the places,” he concludes.

The Bull from Nowhere
Where then did the Panna buffalo actually come from? Perhaps, we will never know. Perhaps, as Dr Groves put it in one of his letters to Dr Ranjitsinh, it will always “remain a mystery; quite extraordinary”. But what holds true today, as much as it did 41 years ago when SM Hasan wrote that note on his first encounter with the Panna buffalo, is this slightly paraphrased version of his concluding lines:
Who knows if the vast stretches of forest spread across tens of thousands of square kilometres of Maoist controlled forests, straddling Gadhchiroli, old Bastar, south Orissa, north Telangana, and the Vizag Hill Agency areas of Andhra Pradesh, still hold some remnant population of this rare species.

Raza Kazmi
Raza Kazmi

is a conservationist, writer and wildlife historian. He works as a Consultant at the Ashoka Archives of Contemporary India, Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana.

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