A big, hairy tale of survival.

The original WB.

Water buffalo aren’t the only species struggling to make a comeback in the beautiful rolling hills of Aschileu, Transylvania. The 1,841 poor farmers who live in these five verdant villages and were shoved off their lands under Communist rule are also fighting to regain a foothold in the local economy. Now thanks to Heifer’s first water buffalo project in Romania, the two may well help each other over the hump.

At 78, Anna remembers feeding the Germans, then the Russians, then the Communists, then losing her land and all her animals. But now she’s got a new water buffalo to call her own…

Water buffalo have been raised in this area since they were first introduced by the Turks during the Ottoman invasion in the 15th century. Called the “poor man’s cow,” a water buffalo thrives on even poor fodder, rarely gets sick, makes a terrific draft animal, and will produce 5-10 liters/day of very rich, healthy milk that can be made into delicious cheese, sour cream and yogurt. (And Romanians are nuts about dairy.)

However, after the fall of Communism in 1989, farmers were encouraged to raise cows and the numbers of water buffalo dropped perilously by 80%, threatening the breed’s survival. To promote biodiversity, income generation and better nutrition; offer an alternative to strict EU standards that limit the sale of cow’s milk; and encourage peace & understanding between neighbors in the Hungarian Mera village and Romanian Aschileu village, Heifer started the Revitalization of Water Buffalo project last year, giving 36 water buffalo and trainings to needy Romanian families (who will Pass on the Gift to another 36 Hungarian families in Mera).

About half of Ion & Felicia’s children/grandchildren.

One of the first recipients of a water buffalo was Ion, Felicia and their nine children. Ion is one of 10 orphans whose mother died and were then abandoned by their father and left to raise each other in the village. Today, those 10 brothers are mostly illiterate and work as laboring farmers and shepherds, but each has managed to build a home, establish loving families, and amass a brood of livestock. Their self-sufficiency and dignity were palpable, despite how thin and wan Felicia looked ( and raising 9 children and 3 grandchildren, who wouldn’t be?)

Ion & Felicia

As we climbed into the hills in a horse-drawn cart to visit the goats, cows and water buffalo herds that Ion tends on communal pastures, the views became more and more stunning and I felt more and more like I was in some modern version of The Sound of Music.

Lordana, Ion’s daughter, kept turning around to grin at me, her fingers tucked into her father’s thickly-tooled shepherd’s belt as we lurched across stream beds, and I kept thinking “What a hard life. What a beautiful life.”

With village milk collection centers and cooling tanks in place, and an ever-increasing demand for high-butterfat, high-protein, low- cholesterol buffalo milk, hopefully life here will become a lot less hard and a lot more healthy.

The lovely Miss Lordana.

And the hills will be alive with the (very loud) sound of water buffalo… once more.

Categories: Animals, Farming, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Romania, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

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21 thoughts on “A big, hairy tale of survival.

  1. Martha Radatz

    Water buffalo in Romania?! Who would’ve thought! I love when I learn something new. Thanks.

  2. Look at those incredible shoulder muscles ! What a versatile critter. Who knew ? Not me — until you told me Betty.

    • You would never suspect how totally gorgeous their milk is, when the outside package is a little … hairy & scary?? But I have a darling photo of Lordana just hugging one of those beasts which is pretty amazing since in the wild, they are considered some of the most dangerous animals around. Thanks for the comment, Sybil!!

  3. teresa

    Wow, I’ve only seen pics of water buffale facing down lyons in Africa, didn’t know they could be milked.
    what a wonderful program!!! Great to see people and water buffalo helping each other. How do they keep the milk from spoiling?


    • Heifer has helped to build cooling tanks in the village collection centers, so that really helps. I wanted to include a photo of it, but got distracted by all the sweet people and landscape pics! When WB are raised domestically they are a lot gentler … but still SO big and powerful, right??

  4. Beautiful story, beautifully told.

  5. Buffalo milk and cheese? Did you test it?

    • Yes, I did test it — but what’s really amazing is the sour cream and yogurt. It is REALLY creamy and sweet — even though I can’t eat much because I’m lactose intolerant, I know a good dairy product when I taste it … and this is outstanding!!

  6. Anonymous

    Lovely as usual.

  7. How do the families pass on the gift? Do they give a young water buffalo, and help with the training?

    I bet Anna has some stories to tell. Great post, Betty.

    • The families pass on the gift of a female water buffalo at the same age as they received it … so if they got a female that’s pregnant, they have to pass along a pregnant female, which will take a couple years since they can’t get pregnant til they’re about 2 years old. Heifer is also sponsoring an Artificial Insemination program for water buffalo, to keep the breed really robust and healthy. AND the beneficiaries also must pass along the trainings they’ve received, seeds to plant fodder for the animals, help in the construction of sheds & shelters for the animals … as well as training in using the manure for compost (a huge plus with an animal this size). Anna was amazing .. what a face, right? She had had a few strokes so it was difficult for her to talk (her daughter and family are helping raise the water buffalo, of course) but she wanted to tell her story. She had lived through SO much!

  8. Deb Morrow Palmer

    Love your posts Betty. Romania is a beautiful country. Again how wonderful to see Heifer International working with the people and the environment to choose the best animals for the area!! I have heard water buffalo milk is healthy but less cholesterol!! Yahoo for those of us with high cholesterol. I also am curious what does the milk and cheese taste like!!

  9. Deb — Like I told Jackson, I can absolutely verify how good the buffalo milk yogurt is — heavenly!! And yes, it’s really good for these farmers to return to their traditions of raising water buffalo, especially since cow’s milk is stringently monitored and regulated now by the EU so they are having difficulty meeting those standards, while water buffalo milk and dairy products can still be sold locally and regionally. Bonus!!

  10. Do-re-mi-fa-so…buf-fa-lo! 😉 Who knew water buffalo could be so interesting? Miss Lordana looks like she took a real shine to you.

  11. Lordana was the SWEETEST girl!! She just sat there for hours on our horse-drawn adventure and smiled at me, even though we couldn’t understand a single word in common. When I put my sunglasses on her, she looked like Jackie O and I’ve got a great photo of that — why can’t we post photos on comments?? I always want to!!

  12. Alexandra

    There are so many beautiful places to visit in Romania!! Here are some extremely beautiful photos:

    Oh,and you should have seen the Peleş Castle or the Transfagarăşan Road- breathtaking landscapes!

  13. What a great resource, Alexandra — but it’s so beautiful, it kills me that I’m not in the country anymore!! Check it out, y’all …. lovely!!!

    • Alexandra

      Come back and I can recommend you hundreds of interesting places to visit 🙂

  14. Who knew that Romania could be so beautiful?!! What a wonderful ambassador you are for Heifer International. The work they do is inspirational and never ceases to amaze me.

  15. I know exactly what you mean, Anita — and I’m so pleased that you’re a big fan of Heifer! I think we both need to get Alexandra to be our guide and go back to Romania, but I need to diet first!!

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