Coming to grips with the buffalo problem

7 09 2009

Clive McMahon (left) & colleaguesA good friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Clive McMahon, is visiting Adelaide for the next few weeks from Darwin. We’re attacking a few overdue manuscripts and sampling a few of Adelaide’s better drops of value-added grape juice, so I asked him to do a guest post on about his work. So here it is, something perhaps even few Australians know much about, let alone overseas folks. If you can recall that very strange scene in the film Crocodile Dundee where the old croc hunter casts a gestured spell over a horned beast, then you’ll probably appreciate this post.

Yes, there are plenty of them in northern Australia

Invasive and feral species can be important drivers of biodiversity loss. Australia, like many other isolated islands has developed an ancient, unique and diverse ecosystem. This unique ecosystem has been under extreme pressure ever since humans arrived around 40000-60000 years ago. One of the more damaging and economically important introduced species in Australia is the Asian swamp buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). Ironically, swamp buffalo are listed as Endangered by the IUCN, and current estimates suggest that there are probably less than 4000 in their native habitats in Asia.

© B. Salu, Kakadu National Park

© B. Salau, Kakadu National Park

The first 16 buffalo were introduced to Australia in 1826 on Melville Island, and then to the mainland at Cobourg Peninsula a year later from Kupang (now West Timor, Indonesia). Another 18 buffalo were obtained from Kisar Island (northeast of modern Timor-Leste) and introduced to the Cobourg. In 1843, another 49 were introduced. When the first Cobourg settlement was abandoned in 1849, all the buffalo were released, and the population spread rapidly throughout the Northern Territory. Over the next 65 years, numbers and distribution increased to an estimated 350000 in the 1960s and 1970s and densities exceeded 25 km-2 in ‘prime’ habitat. However, the population was severely reduced during the 1980s and 1990s in parts of its range under the Brucellosis-Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign (BTEC). Although largely successful in eradicating buffalo from pastoral lands in the short term, there was no ongoing broad-scale management of numbers and the present-day population of free-ranging buffalo has recovered to former densities in some areas.

© C. Speed

© C. Speed

Buffalo were then and still are major problem in Australia due mainly to the environmental damage they cause, such as saltwater intrusion of wetlands and trampling of sensitive habitats, their potential threat to Australia’s livestock industry as hosts for disease, and the danger they pose to human safety. Given these ecological, economic and social impacts, there is an urgent need to manage buffalo numbers.

An important step to inform management of introduced and invasive species is to determine the history of introduction and quantify the rate of spread from introduction sites. Contemporary genetic techniques in conjunction with demographic and life history information are useful tools for understanding the dynamics, population structure, biology and colonisation dynamics of plants and animals, including invasive species such as buffalo.

We are currently in the final stages of providing the first detailed analysis of the buffalo population structure (demographic and genetic) to (1) establish the rate and most probable history of spread using detailed genetic information sampled from 8 sub-populations, (2) quantify the genetic distance and mixing rates between populations and (3) describe the age structure and therefore the demographic performance of this very successful invasive species.

Firstly to get an idea of genetic structure and relatedness, we collected a total of 430 small skin biopsies from buffalo across the Northern Territory, representing eight geographically distinct populations. To determine what has made the buffalo such a successful invader it is important to know the survival and breeding performance; we also constructed seven life tables based on culled samples at different densities and in different environments to work out what are the critical components of the population – i.e., where management intervention would be most successful.

As expected from a bottlenecked population, genetic variation is low compared to the that found in swamp buffalo from India and South East Asia. Despite this reduced genetic variation, the Australian population has thrived and spread outwards from introduction sites and into culled sites at high rates over the last 160 years (covering ~ 224 000 km2 in that time).

Although buffalo in Australia experienced two major periods of population reduction since their introduction, a small proportion (estimated at ~ 20 %) escaped the BTEC reduction in the eastern part of its north Australian range. BTEC did not operate with uniformity across the entire range of buffalo, concentrating its destocking efforts in a general area from the western coast of the Northern Territory to west of the Mann River in Arnhem Land, and south roughly to Kakadu National Park’s southern border. Coincidently and not surprisingly, it is in this area that we observe most migration activity.

The subpopulation structure detected here suggests that each population, while connected over generational time scales, generally remains in its immediate vicinity over the course of management-tractable periods. Therefore, management aimed at protecting Australia’s lucrative livestock industry trading under Australia’s disease-free status will benefit directly from this knowledge. For example, the localised introduction and subsequent rapid detection of disease could be efficiently managed from local culls because short-term movements of long-distance are less likely. Our results showcase how management of animals for disease control can be effectively informed via genetic studies and so avoid the need for expensive broad-scale intervention.

Our analyses of the age structure of buffalo reveals that buffalo have the capacity to recover swiftly after control because of high survival and fertility rates. Survival in the juvenile age classes was consistently the most important modifier of population growth. In populations where juvenile animals are harvested annually, fertility determined rebound potential. Thus, management aimed at long-term control of densities should focus primarily on the sustained culling of adult females and their offspring.

Given that numbers of buffalo are increasing and that buffalo are extremely well-adapted to the monsoonal tropics (unlike cattle, buffalo can maintain body condition and positive growth during times of food shortages), they are vulnerable to extended periods of harsh conditions. Climate change predictions herald increasing rainfall in the region, thereby potentially reducing the pressure on juvenile survival. As such, buffalo population growth could conceivably increase, making future management much more difficult. In essence, we need a large, evidence-based density reduction programme in place soon to prevent the worst ecological damage to Australia’s sensitive and unique ecosystems.

Check back here for announcements of upcoming publications arising from our work.

Clive McMahon & CJA Bradshaw

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4 responses

30 11 2016
In conversation with Current Conservation |

[…] practices and climate change. Overfishing has also been an issue, and we have some of the highest densities of feral animals in the world. We also have the world’s highest mammal extinction rate. People cannot point to […]


7 08 2010
US Travel update, ‘Argonne West Diaries’ upcoming « BraveNewClimate

[…] entering and spreading through the population of swamp buffalo in northern Australia (see previous post for all you need to know about swamp buffalo). We first set up an epidemiological model inOutbreak using some fairly well-quantified estimates […]


1 08 2010
Linking disease, demography and climate «

[…] entering and spreading through the population of swamp buffalo in northern Australia (see previous post for all you need to know about swamp buffalo). We first set up an epidemiological model in Outbreak using some fairly well-quantified estimates […]


12 01 2010
Computer-assisted killing for conservation «

[…] So you can imagine that we do try to find the best ways to reduce the damage these species cause; unfortunately, we tend to waste a lot of money because density reduction culling programmes aren’t usually done with much forethought, organisation or associated research. A case in point – swamp buffalo were killed in vast numbers in northern Australia in the 1980s and 1990s, but now they…. […]


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