Jens Heig

Northwest of Edge: Managing Water Buffalo Populations in Australia’s Northern Territory

Jens Heig
Northwest of Edge: Managing Water Buffalo Populations in Australia’s Northern Territory
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Words and photos by Nick Joyce


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MODERN HUNTSMAN, VOLUME THREE: WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT

GET YOUR COPY HERE


Twice the size of Texas, and only home to roughly 200,000 residents, the Northern Territory of Australia is wild and untouched. There is no other state that encapsulates Australia’s character better, with its vast and unforgiving wilderness teeming with wildlife, unspoiled coastlines, crystal-clear waters, and white sandy beaches.

Commonly referred to as the “top end” due to its geographical location here in Australia, the Northern Territory (NT) really has only two seasons: wet and dry. The wet season, full of monsoonal rains and cyclones, runs from November through to April. The dry season, May through October, brings a cooler, drier period known for its wildfires and smoky skies. With an abundance of fish in the oceans and an overpopulation of game on the land, many of which are non-native species, the NT is an ideal place for hunting and fishing.

Bubalus bubalis, more commonly known as the water buffalo, has well and truly made the NT home. Introduced between 1825 and 1843, a total of 80 water buffalo were brought to remote settlements in the NT from Indonesia, intended to be reared for meat, used as transport, and aid agricultural production. Water buffalo are much more suited to the swampy wetlands and warm weather than beef cattle, and in the early 1900s when those settlements were abandoned, the water buffalo were left to breed and inhabit the swamps and freshwater springs of the area with little to no competition.

 
 
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By the 1980s, the buffalo population had exploded, reaching an estimated 350,000. With the risk of a brucellosis or tuberculosis outbreak that could have had lethal implications on the growing beef cattle industry, the Northern Territory government issued an aerial cull on water buffalo, killing over 200,000 animals between 1979 and 1997. Since then, the population has once again spiked, as the water buffalo continue to flourish in their environment. The current population is said to be around 200,000 animals.

But being a non-native species introduced to Australia, and with no predators to control their numbers, they are having a disastrous environmental impact on the native flora and fauna. Soil erosion and vegetation losses are two of the most visible impacts the buffalo are having on the ecosystem. They are huge animals, growing in excess of 2,200 lbs and eating up to 30 kg (66 lbs) of vegetation a day!

This can have a large impact on the other grazing mammals throughout the dry season, when food can be scarce. Reptiles, fish and wetland bird species have been shown to decline due to the muddied water from buffalo wallows and walkways. Further negative effects result from the loss of cover and food from overgrazing, and the die-off of trees due to horn rubbing and other rutting habits.

The Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land, where the large majority of buffalo are, have relied on these animals as a source of protein for generations, and value the sustenance they bring to their families. However, many traditional land owners are concerned about the expanding buffalo population, and how its growth can be effectively managed to best protect the health of the overall ecosystem.

 
 
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Aerial culling, mustering or ‘bull catching’, pet meating and hunting are four current methods being used to control the buffalo population. Aboriginal elders all agree that pet meating and hunting are the two most efficient and resourceful methods when taking cost, meatwaste reduction and time into consideration. Pet meating is where the buffalo is shot solely for its meat and butchered on the ground, and the skin, guts, bones and off-cuts are left to the wild. This surplus feeds meat-eating birds and other scavengers, revitalizing the soil and microorganisms as the nutrients break down and are cycled back into the earth. The choice meat is then transported back to a remote, generator-powered chiller before making its way into town for further butchering and processing. This is then sold as crocodile, dog or cat food. It makes for an effective, resourceful and environmentally friendly method of population control that still utilizes the meat. It could be suggested that our environmental responsibility is to harness sustainable resources such as this, harvesting at a level that prevents negative ecological impact while promoting long-term sustainability of the species. However, this is a more complicated discussion when it comes to managing non-native species.

Hunting is a very similar process but, without a doubt, gives the highest monetary return per animal to landowners. A mature male water buffalo fetches up to 100 times more as a hunted animal compared to the same animal being harvested for pet meat. Hunters coming to the NT in search of water buffalo inject hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars every year into the local economy with the hiring of outfitters and guides, and the purchasing of vehicles, lodging, and local goods. The hunting industry built around buffalo also creates employment in remote areas where jobs are incredibly hard to find, and helps support Aboriginal communities. Hunters are also aiding in rehabilitating a damaged ecosystem by reducing the numbers of this overpopulated introduced species, which would otherwise go mostly unchecked.


Working closely with traditional Aboriginal landowners, cattlemen and their families, we are doing our best to ensure the water buffalo population is managed and kept at a sustainable number so that we can effectively protect this amazing ecosystem, and continue to generate much-needed income for remote communities across the “top end.”


Without a doubt, water buffalo are as much a part of the Northern Territory these days as the crocodile, barramundi or kangaroo, and they deserve to stay. Just because they were introduced after white colonization of Australia doesn’t mean they need to be eradicated, or seen as nothing but an invasive pest. The water buffalo, just as it was in the mid-1800s, is still a valuable resource today. The locals in the remote areas of the NT not only count on it as a food source, but also on the income the hunting brings to a growing number of traditional land owners and cattlemen with stations or ranches. The residents have opened their doors to hunters to be able to pursue these amazing animals ethically and legally, and it is a sustainable practice that benefits all parties.

I cannot encourage hunters enough to travel to Australia and experience this truly wild and beautiful continent. Many Territorians rely on hard-earned hunters’ dollars to continue living out their lives in some of the most remote parts of the Western world, and I am fortunate enough to be operating a small but meaningful outfitting operation to help support wildlife conservation efforts here. Working closely with traditional Aboriginal landowners, cattlemen and their families, we are doing our best to ensure the water buffalo population is managed and kept at a sustainable number so that we can effectively protect this amazing ecosystem, and continue to generate much-needed income for remote communities across the “top end.”

I’m genuinely grateful for the strong relationships I have built over the years up here in the Territory. What started out as just holidays and short-lived adventures as a teenager, in between seasons of my professional football career, has organically grown into some of my best friendships and richest memories, and a meaningful purpose to help with wildlife management.

 
 
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As a young lad I would load up the Toyota with footballs, jerseys, cleats, shorts and socks, and of course my fishing rod, bow and arrows, and head out into the remote indigenous communities to catch up with mates, and play and coach football. Then I would head out into the bush to live off the land for weeks at a time with the local owners, learning about their history, their story and their bush skills. It was only after my football career had finished and I decided to take a year to move out into these parts to coach and help with some community-based programs that I was approached by the landowners about their hopes of me starting a buffalo-outfitting business. They wanted me to help manage the herd and bring in some revenue to the family and community. I was young, green and unqualified at the time, but with some help from a couple close friends in Darwin and my indigenous friends, we got it off the ground and now I absolutely love the benefits it brings to the people involved and the ecosystem, collectively. I have to pinch myself at times when I sit beside a campfire and watch a star-filled sky and crystal-clear Milky Way rotate above me, or stand on the top of a waterfall as the sun breaks the horizon ahead of a new day.

The wild parts of this world are truly remarkable and do something special for the soul. I hope to continue to help keep this place wild and balanced in the best way I know how, so that it can be shared and appreciated by those who have lived here for many generations, and for those who might only come for a moment.

To learn more about water buffalo hunting in Australia’s Northern Territory, visit www.buffhuntsaustralia.com


 
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Nick Joyce

A sixth-generation farmer, Nick Joyce was born in Southern Australia. Having wilder dreams to explore, hunt and fish, he now calls the uncivilized northern tropics of his country “home.” His stories and images reveal the remote and untouched parts of Australia.

@nickjoyce_
buffhuntsaustralia.com

 

This story was originally featured in Modern Huntsman, Volume Three: Wildlife Management