The British got onto a good thing when they loaded Asian water buffalo aboard tallships in Timor in the 1800s and sailed the trade winds south to Australia. They were on a mission to beat the Dutch at setting up the first military outposts across the Top End, and came with decks full of livestock, including buffalo, to be used as food and beasts of burden. With their importation, the new settlers unwittingly launched an iconic northern frontier culture and paved the way for a multi-pronged industry based initially on a wild bush resource and with elements now spread to every state and across the Tasman.
Between 1825 and 1838, Australia’s first water buffalo, or ‘swampies’, arrived at Fort Dundas on Melville Island and at two mainland outposts on Cobourg Peninsula – Fort Wellington and the notoriously lonely Victoria settlement.
The seafaring Brits got one thing right. Their bovine cargo from the equatorial monsoon belt thrived in the Top End’s oppressive wet-season weather. The settlers didn’t fare so well, battling incredible hardships at Victoria. They sweltered in airless stone cottages and quickly succumbed to rampant malaria, heat stroke and depression. Victoria settlement was abandoned 11 years after it began.
The buffalo, on the other hand, scattered into paradise. They bred like flies and spread like wildfire. By the 1980s, an estimated 350,000 of them were trampling their destructive way through the vulnerable coastal floodplains of Arnhem Land and the Katherine region.
Buffalo hunting dominated Top End bush life and folklore from 1885 till 1980 when the trade-imposed national Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign (BTEC) began, heralding an era of dramatic change for the buffalo industry. Its stringent protocols wiped out most of the free-ranging Territory herd, put disease-free animals behind wire, and demanded the rapid and costly installation of watering systems, fencing and other infrastructure.
The huge culling program, contentious and heartbreaking for many but welcomed as long overdue by others, cut wild buffalo numbers to a fraction of their peak 1980s level. BTEC ended when disease freedom was declared in the Northern Territory in 1997. The only buffalo left untouched were the tens of thousands of disease-free animals roaming across Arnhem Land.
Despite wholesale hunting and enforced culling, the water buffalo remains a globally recognised icon of the Territory and the catalyst for a national rural industry with products in demand worldwide.