Buffalo Or Bison?

So what's the difference between a buffalo and a bison anyway?

You say buffalo, I say bison...

Dispatch by Simon Vaughan

From Asia and Africa to Europe and North America, there are a number of types of buffalo in the world. Among them is the water buffalo; the famed beast of burden of Asia, most often seen toiling away in rice paddies. There's the notoriously aggressive Cape buffalo of Africa, one of the Big Five game animals. And finally, there’s the muscular, shaggy-headed buffalo of the North American plains. Although the first two would never be accused of having been separated at birth, there are sufficient similarities between them so their shared name doesn't raise too many eyebrows. Their North American namesake, on the other hand, could only at the very best ever be described as a brother from another mother!

Buffalo Bison 2Africa's Cape buffalo

It has been suggested that it was early French fur-trappers who named the North American creatures boeuf, meaning ox or steer, and from that they became popularly known as buffalo. Science, on the other hand, always referred to them as bison, from the Greek for ox-like animal. Science has stuck with bison while many people still often follow the example of the trappers and call them buffalo, but whichever you prefer, they are very impressive animals. 

Buffalo Bison 3Asia's water buffalo

Wood bison are in fact the largest land animals in North America, with males weighing as much as a tonne and measuring two metres at the shoulder. At one point, it is estimated that there were over 168,000 wood bison in Canada ranging throughout northern Alberta, northwestern Saskatchewan, the Yukon and Northwest Territories. By 1893, their numbers were thought to have dropped to less than 300 in part due to over-hunting. After a series of measures were introduced, including a prohibition on hunting and the hiring of bison rangers to help protect those that remained, by 1922 the species was thought to have recovered to 1,500. It was in that year that Wood Buffalo National Park was created in an effort to save the endangered species.

Today, it is estimated that there are 10,000 wood bison in Canada—approximately 5,600 of which are found in Wood Buffalo National Park—and the species continues to be classified as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Although an impressive improvement from a century ago, the wood bison's lot is still not an entirely happy one. Between 1925 and 1928, more than 6,000 plains bison were shipped to Wood Buffalo National Park in an effort to help protect that struggling species. Unfortunately, the wood bison's smaller cousin brought with it tuberculosis and brucellosis which took their toll on the wood bison and, along with anthrax, still continue to create problems even today. As if that wasn't bad enough, there have been a number of instances of mass drownings of wood bison when herds have broken through thin ice or been swept away by spring floods, killing as many as 3,000 at a time. 

Buffalo Bison 4North American's majestic wood buffalo

Parks Canada works tirelessly to help protect both the wood bison and its habitat. While efforts are made nationally to re-establish a minimum of four separate wood bison populations within their original range to help prevent the species once again being devastated by disease, within the park itself staff constantly monitor populations, engage in exhaustive research and provide robust public education programs.

And of course, there's no better way to ensure that the public become committed to a cause than by allowing them to actually see the creature in the wild. And there's nowhere better in the world to do that with this species than in Wood Buffalo National Park. Beware however, the bison is not renowned for being docile and during the rutting season—July to mid-September—they can be especially aggressive and visitors to the park, especially those on foot, are advised to give both buffalo and bison a very wide berth!    

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