Ever since the buffalo was introduced to Australia nearly 200 years ago, its relationship with the land has been a complicated one.
Small herds were imported from Asia by the British in the early 19th century, as a food source.
However, when colonists abandoned their northern settlement on Cobourg Peninsula in 1849, those herds were released into the wild.
The colony was the third failed attempt at colonisation of the Northern Territory’s Top End, where the British had hoped to gain control of Dutch trading routes.
Disease, malnutrition and cyclones made it too challenging.
While the harsh conditions were too much for colonists, the rugged savannas and wetlands of Arnhem Land – with similar climates of Timor and Indonesia – proved perfect for the buffalo.
An estimated feral population of nearly 200,000 can be now be found across the entire northern-most half of the Northern Territory.
New beginnings in an ancient land
For photographer David Hancock, his connection with the wild buffalo of Northern Australia began in the 1970s, during the cattle industry’s push towards a live export trade.
He was documenting a national program to eliminate both tuberculosis and brucellosis from livestock, where culling of buffalo was used to stop the spread of disease on to domesticated cattle.
It led him on a 30-year journey documenting the species in the Top End, which has been published in a book named Nganabbarru, the Bininj-Kunwok word for buffalo.
“I was pretty tired of working down South, it was all pretty dull really,” Mr Hancock said.
“It was really good to come up and get out bush – I had some friends who had musterers as friends, and they had helicopter pilots as friends.
“As it turned out, they were keen to have a photographer out there on those musters, because there was so much happening that they couldn’t photograph.”
The decades-long photography project has taken him to some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the country.
“It’s just confirmed my love and appreciation of the Top End flood plains,” he said.
“The one area that I really have a lot of concern about is the Arafura Swamp — this is one of the biggest paperbark swamps in Australia.
“It’s just the most amazing place, and buffalo have intruded into there. They’re still in probably one of the most pristine environments in Australia and it’d be a shame to see it [be damaged].”
Significance reflected in rock art
Following their release from abandoned British colonies, swamp buffalo became a formidable foe for the various First Nations groups across the top end.
The significance of first contact with the large beasts is reflected in rock art paintings of Djabidjbakalloi, where life-size images of buffalo appear alongside images of boats, horses and guns, sites which Mr Hancock was able to photograph thanks to Warddeken IPA rangers.
“You’ve got to remember that Aboriginal people are the ones most impacted by buffalo, he said.
“When they got here in the early to mid 1800s, there hadn’t been a large animal in Northern Australia since megafauna, which was 50,000 years before.
“And these were people who didn’t have guns, and they just had to deal with these big animals.
“In many ways, the buffalo has become part of their traditions and mythology. Particularly in that rock country of Western Arnhem Land you see a lot of drawings of Buffalo.
“Those animals must have made a huge impression on people right from the beginning.”
A compelling animal
As buffalo herds spread further throughout Arnhem Land, Aboriginal people were at the forefront of turning environmental disaster into economic opportunity.
Tom Dawkins, the chief executive of the NT Buffalo Industry Council, said the buffalo hide industry that began in the 1880s was the result of different Aboriginal groups seizing the chance to generate income from animals that were not owned by pastoralists.
“David makes the point that buffalo were seen as no one’s property,” he said.
“Whereas sheep or cattle were always seen as being owned by someone, you wanted to be very careful going after livestock like that, but buffalo were seen as sort of more accessible in that respect.
“That was a huge part of the history, and what drew a lot of Aboriginal people to work with them. And there’s some extraordinary stories about the careers that were carved out.”
Similar circumstances prevail today, where buffalo producers see skyrocketing beef prices and increasing numbers of feral buffalo as an enormous opportunity to supply a growing Asian market for cheap protein and mitigate their environmental impact.
“I think in every regard it is a very compelling proposition, because we do have those market imperatives, export revenue for the Territory, food security for our neighbours,” he said.
“But we’re also talking about doing that in a way that provides employment, economic activity and dividends for traditional owners.
“In a way that represents sustainable land management and offsetting environmental damage from overstocking. It is a very compelling industry.”
Dawkins said that culling feral populations should be used as an absolute last resort, given the growing profitability of the live export market.
“We’re very concerned about the dangers of wild dogs and feral pigs with shoot-to-waste programs — they exacerbate those problems,” he said.
“The challenge for our industry is to continue to work with government, traditional owners, the Northern Land Council and all stakeholders to ensure that that shoot-to-waste is only ever the last resort, and that we have created every chance to find an economic solution there, before we resort to that sort of measure, which seems terribly outdated and unacceptable.”
Much like Mr Dawkins and other farmers who work closely with buffalo, photographer David Hancock holds the creatures in high regard, despite their impact on what he describes as one of the most magnificent landscapes in the world.
“In a domesticated situation as proven in Asia, buffalo live with families,” he said.
Between British colonists, Aboriginal hunters, photographers and farmers, the complex mythology of these destructive yet gentle beasts lives on in the Territory.
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