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Atlantic Rising: Water buffalo making no friends on Amazon floodplain

Lynn Morris

30th June, 2010

Water buffalo may not be the most pressing threat to the Amazon as a whole but on the river’s floodplain they are doing serious damage

The floodplain makes up less than five percent of the area of the Amazon and does not grab headlines like the forest. But it is a unique ecosystem home to incredible biodiversity, which is now being threatened.

For six months or so of every year the floodplain is covered by water (sometimes up to nine metres) and land mammals like three toed sloths retire to the tree tops while dolphins and seed eating fish swim between the trunks. Small channels become lakes and wooded areas become forest islands.

Local farmers who live in wooden houses on stilts growing vegetables on the fertile plain spend the wet season keeping water buffalo out of their gardens.

The number of buffalo in the area is increasing year on year and grew by 13 percent a year between 1975 and 2000 compared to a four percent yearly increase in cattle over the same period.

Buffalo were introduced to the Amazon around 200 years ago. There are varying explanations of how they came, some say a boat headed for Guyana was shipwrecked and the buffalo swam to the island of Marajó and others say they were brought by Catholic missionaries. Whatever the method of their arrival, they are now causing significant damage.

'They eat everything that is green including the giant water lilies and because they are very heavy they compress the soil which changes the drainage pattern,' said Amazonian ecologist Gil Serique.

An alternative to cattle

The water buffalo, which are used for milk and meat, also create problems for fish because they eat floating islands of weeds in which fish feed and breed.

Serique said the buffalo cause problems by trampling vegetation, which then takes longer to recover. The rearing of buffalo is also connected to deforestation because when the water gets too deep the owners move their herds to areas beyond the floodplain, which have to be cleared for the purpose.

Buffalo are more productive than cattle, able to graze more effectively and for longer during the flooded period and are less susceptible to water borne diseases, which make them an attractive choice for ranchers. This means the environmental problems caused by buffalo herds and conflicts between arable farmers and buffalo are likely to continue.

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