Parts of Africa, Asia, and Southeast Asian islands; eastern Europe; and North America


Islands, prairies and steppes, rain forests, wetlands, savannas, temperate forests and taiga

Horns aplenty

Wild cattle are larger members of a scientific grouping that also includes antelope, goats, and sheep. They include Asian water buffalo, African or Cape buffalo, bantengs, gaur, yaks, bison, and all domestic cattle. Both male and female wild cattle species have horns, but the bull’s (male) horns are much larger and thicker than the cow’s (female). Cape buffalo have two horns joined so that they cover the whole top of the head. In most species, the bull is also much larger than the cow.

Bison or buffalo?

Huge herds of American bison once roamed the open plains of North America. But early settlers of the West referred to them as buffalo, and somehow that name stuck. These days either term is correct when referring to Bos bison. But remember: there is no species named the American buffalo.

Mountain anoas or dwarf water buffalo are the smallest wild cattle alive today. These endangered animals live in dense forests on a few Indonesian islands.
There are about 1.3 billion domestic cattle in the world, making them the most numerous of all large mammals except humans.
The most common ancestor of domestic cattle was the auroch, a species that died out in the 1600s.
The word bison comes from the Latin word "bison," meaning wild ox.
American bison can leap over barbed wire fences, surprising agility for animal its size.
In 1973, the San Diego Zoo released 14 bison at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Southern California. That herd still roams free today.

The first wild cattle species we had in the early days of our zoo included American bison, yaks, zebu, and water buffalo. Our first African buffalo arrived in 1946, and their first calf, Virdie, was born four years later. We received a pair of water buffalo in 1955 from Paramount Studios. The animals were used for the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s movie, The Ten Commandments, and were donated by Mr. DeMille after the filming was completed.

Today, the San Diego Zoo is home to lowland anoas in Panda Canyon. A forest buffalo named Helen lives with swamp monkeys and otters in an exhibit along the Hippo Trail. You can find this charismatic buffalo striding around her exhibit checking on what everyone else is doing or relaxing in the back.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has herds of gaur, bantengs, and Cape buffalo living in large field exhibits. You can see the breeding herd of Cape buffalo from the Africa Tram Safari. To see the gaur, bantengs, and our bachelor buffalo herd, take a Caravan Safari or Cart Safari. We also have ankole cattle, a domesticated breed of cattle native to Africa famous for their huge horns.

With the buffalo and gaur, the field keepers stay close to their truck if they have to get out. But the bantengs’ nature makes it easier to service their area, as keepers can get out of their truck and walk from place to place. Yet the bantengs are notorious for lying in the road and not getting out of the way of the keeper trucks and Caravan Safari trucks. According to our bantengs, everyone can just go around!

The Safari Park has done well in breeding Indian gaur—almost 200 have been born. But our breeding program for this animal has now stopped, since there aren’t many zoos wanting them. Gaur need the same amount of space as rhinos, but most zoos only have room for one or the other—and rhinos are more popular with visitors.

Wild cattle species are becoming rare. Just 100 years ago, there were 40 to 60 million American bison Bos bison in North America. But over-hunting wiped them out. By 1903, fewer than 2,000 survived in zoos and private collections and in isolated wild populations.

In 1898, an explorer noted there were more yaks Bos mutus on a hillside than there was hill! But hunting for meat and horns, and loss of habitat due to agriculture, have reduced the numbers of these and other wild cattle species.

Another problem: domestic cattle are sharing the same grazing space. They are also breeding with the wild species, thus reducing the numbers of pure-bred cattle. Diseases from domestic livestock have taken their toll on gaur Bos gaurus populations. Bantengs Bos javanicus have been domesticated in Asia and even introduced into Australia. Known as Bali cattle, the domestic variety is smaller and reproduces faster than the wild species. Over 90 percent of American bison in North America are undergoing domestication.

The tamaraw or Mindoro dwarf buffalo Bubalus mindorensis of the Philippines is at critical risk. There are less than 250 individuals remaining. They were hunted for sport until the 1980s and are now protected by law.

The kouprey or gray ox Bos sauveli of Southeast Asia may be extinct. There have been no sightings in the wild since the 1960s, and there are none in zoos.

Maintaining genetic diversity through careful breeding at zoos like the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is part of wild cattle conservation efforts.

You can help us bring wild cattle species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.