Buffalos: the last of the Mohicans of a traditional landscape in Central Romania

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By Tibor Hartel

For the first look traditional societies may give the impression of permanence and stability at the level of institution and nature resource governance over centuries. Well, this is not the case, at least for the Transylvanian Saxons. As a local Saxon friend, Kuno Martini told, ‘one thing seems to be permanent in the Saxon society over centuries: the change’.

Within the many changes adopted by Transylvanian Saxons over centuries, the buffalo appeared in the Saxon landscapes of Transylvania as a result of the innovation and improvement of economy. The first records about this animal appear in the 18 century. Their number increased so much and so fast since then, that Dorner Béla noticed in 1910 that ’buffalos represent a real competition with cows’ (i.e. the ’favorite’ Saxon domestic animal). A statistic for the overall domestic animals officially recorded for the middle of the 19 century shows that till this period the buffalos were quite ’well’ established in these landscapes and the Saxon ’domestic animal culture’. At this time, in 227 Saxon villages ~47,339 cows, ~29,364 buffalos, ~40,644 horses, ~80,161 pigs, ~115,806 sheep and ~11,923 goats were recorded. This suggest a huge increase of buffalo in these landscapes. Saxons prefered them because of their milk and strong working ability.

Buffalos exploded in the Saxon landscapes. Their disappearance was at least so explosive as its arrival. Today we can find only a handful of buffalo in the Saxon villages. Many villages actually lack buffalo (the end of the story of the buffalo and Saxons, as well as their current ’status’ is very similar by the way). The sharp drop of the buffalo happened after the 1989 revolution – at least this is what local people report. ’Oooo well, buffalo were even more common in these pastures than the cow before 1989’ (a sheperd told near a commune called Bradeni). ’We had 200 buffalo in Jacobeni in the past. They had a separate pasture there. Now there are only two buffalos in Jacobeni (a woman reported in Jacobeni). ’The last buffalos disappeared five or six years ago’ (a sheperd told from Apold). ’I remember it was so nice to see how buffalos come in the village during late afternoon. They are black, big and we were children. We look to them from the door and were scared. But it was so beautiful. This was in the times when there were Saxons in Saschiz’ (a woman in Archita remembered her childhood in Saschiz).

All in all, buffalo is virtually absent from the Saxon landscapes of today. And not because of Buffalo Bill (who, by the way visited the Saxon area – Sighisoara – but for other purposes than killing buffalos). I don’t fully know the reasons. They are possibly related to the cultural shift, the economy, the payment systems  applied recently etc.

Buffalos captured my attention first, not as important cultural elements but as important drivers and determinants of biodiversity in the Saxon landscapes: buffalos love water, including ponds, I love amphibians, and amphibians love the ponds. Therefore I start to love the buffalos. And I am happy with these feelings:). 

Buffalos are black and attract a lot of warm in sunny days. Probably as a result of termo-regulation, they choose wetlands and use them as a kind of ’cooling system’. In this way they create a number of nice ponds in the landscape which are efficiently used by endangered amphibians such is the Yellow Bellied Toad and the endemic subspecies of the Smooth Newt. Their blood was probably a good nutrient source for the medicinal leech (which reproduces only if have access to mammal blood and have currently protected status in some European countries).

Below some pictures may show more than tens of words.

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(part of pictures were made by Cathy Klein)

Imagine how many ponds were here in the ‘gold age’ of buffalos. Possibly the yellow bellied toad populations exploded when they come, who knows?

The buffalos now virtually disappeared and cows are on the same path. If not else, yellow bellied toads will miss them as current people seem to miss the Saxons. Saxons were cultural drivers and buffalos were pond biodiversity drivers:).

I feel lucky to meet the buffalos – last of the Mohicans of the Saxon landscapes of Transylvania. These shy, intelligent and gentle animals have protected status in some cultural landscapes of Europe as a recognition of their historic legacy and they huge contribution for biodiversity maintenance.

It would be good to find ways (e.g. through clever compensation systems) to maintain a handful of buffalos in each Saxon village. It is still possible to restore the wetlands which start to be massively overvegetated since the buffalos dissapeared. Overvegetated temporary ponds dry faster and are not good habitats for the – endangered – yellow bellied toad. I am not sure if this would be true in 10 years from now.

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