Water buffalo (Bubula bubalis) are large (450–1,180kg) wallowing herbivores that were introduced to Australia around the mid-1800s, for work and for their meat and hides. First introduced to Melville Island and Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory, wild herds were seen from 1843. In the Northern Territory, buffalo hides and meat have long been an economic resource. Buffalo continue to be shot and harvested for environmental and commercial reasons respectively. Harvesting, which involves catching, trucking, yarding and slaughter or exporting, poses many welfare risks and stresses to feral buffalo.
The estimated population of water buffalo in northern Australia (WA, NT and Queensland) has fluctuated over the past century due to killing or harvesting for commercial, disease control (specifically the eradication of tuberculosis in the 1980s and 90s) and environmental management purposes. Most water buffalo live in the Northern Territory with approximately 100,000 in Arnhem Land . They primarily inhabit floodplains often creating ‘swim channels’ in waterways which destroy vegetation and erode soil. They are also implicated in spreading some invasive weeds and disturbing nesting areas of magpie geese and crocodiles .
Aerial shooting is mainly used to reduce numbers, although no evaluation is routinely done to assess the effectiveness of this strategy on minimising environmental impacts caused by water buffalo. Alternatively, buffalo are mustered using helicopters and specialist 4WD vehicles fitted with a hydraulic arm that catches the buffalo around the neck. This is dangerous work for humans and is highly stressful for buffalos. Risk of injury from collisions with vehicles is extremely high. There are no specific regulations or standards for how this should be done safely and humanely.
For the buffalo, there is a high risk of stress, injury and death during mustering/catching, yarding and loading, all completely unfamiliar for the animal which is unaccustomed to human interaction and handling. Yarding alone would severely compromise the welfare of these wild animals. Normal buffalo behaviour is, for most of the year, to run in tight-knit small family groups comprising 4-5 animals . They are segregated from bulls who live in bachelor herds. Mixing unfamiliar animals on trucks and in yards can cause significant stress. Additional stressors after catching include handling, loading onto trucks, transportation (especially over long distances) and unloading. Caught buffalo are either sent to slaughter or exported overseas.
These risks and stressors are significantly exacerbated when the buffalo are then exported overseas for slaughter. Several thousand buffalo are exported from Australia every year, mainly to countries in South East Asia including Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. Buffalo exported to these countries may suffer due to poor handling practices and being slaughtered without prior stunning.
The RSPCA believes that feral buffalo should be controlled using the least stressful and most humane methods available. Mustering feral buffalo for export and slaughter causes significant and unnecessary stress to the animals and is therefore opposed by the RSPCA.