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.