Momos, the popular bite-sized dumplings filled with spicy minced meat and accompanied by spicy sauces, originated in Nepal and Tibet. It is a beloved staple for Nepalis both at home and abroad, and serves as a favoured option for lunch, dinner and comfort food. The most sought-after momos in Nepal, are made with buffalo meat, leading to a high demand for this meat in urban areas of the country. However, this high demand could pose a threat to the endangered wild water buffaloes (Bubalus arnee) in the eastern plains of Nepal.

“We have seen that up to 70% of the meat sold in the market in Nepal comes from buffaloes,” said Bhojan Dhakal, researcher at the Nepal Agricultural Research Council. “People are willing to pay more for the buffalo meat if it comes from a crossbreed between wild water buffaloes and domestic water buffaloes [Bubalus bubalis],” he added. “Also, local communities believe that hybrid females produce more milk than other domesticated ones.”

In Nepal, the most sought-after momos, owing to their taste, are made with buffalo meat, leading to a high demand for this meat in the urban areas. Credit: areta ekarafi/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

That’s why people from as far as India, on the other side of the border, leave their domestic water buffaloes out in the open near the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve in eastern Nepal, the country’s last remaining habitat for wild buffaloes. “Just the other day we caught some people who were trying to sneak in their buffaloes into the wildlife reserve,” said Ramesh Kumar Yadav, chief warden of the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve. “It is illegal to cross domestic buffaloes with wild ones, as it threatens the wild population,” said Yadav.

“When we surveyed the domesticated buffaloes around the reserve, we found some of the buffaloes to have external features like wild buffaloes, such as stout muscles and white patches in different parts of the body,” said Dhakal. “That could have only been possible with crossbreeding,” he added.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global conservation authority, the wild water buffalo (locally known as “arna”), whose range once included Bangladesh, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, is now limited to Nepal, India, Bhutan, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. It says around 50% of the population may have declined in the last three decades to around 2,500-4,000 individuals, mainly due to hybridisation. Some even say pure wild water buffaloes may have already been extinct due to widespread interbreeding with domestic and feral buffaloes.

Dhakal said that as domesticated males are smaller than wild ones, there’s little chance they will mate with a wild female. However, the wild male is bigger and stronger than the domesticated one and can easily mate with the domesticated female. Therefore, there may be a low chance of genetic erosion of male wild buffaloes, he added.

Yadav agreed. However, that doesn’t mean crossbreeding should go on, he added. This kind of interaction between wild and domesticated animals could transfer disease, such as foot and mouth, from one population to the other, and we don’t want to be taking chances in endangered species, he said.

But local communities living on the banks of the Koshi River, which flows into India, said they have little choice. Although buffaloes are a major contributor to Nepal’s livestock industry, low fertility and productivity are major constraints, caused by factors such parasitic infection and low nutrition.

Endangered wild water buffaloes. Credit: Senaka Silva/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In addition to the buffaloes left by local communities in the hopes of crossbreeding with wild water buffaloes, feral buffaloes and cows that were left to roam the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve before the declaration of the protected area in 1976 also pose a challenge, authorities said. Their grazing inside the reserve not only increases the risk of disease transmission, but also leads to scarcity of grass for arna, said Yadav.

Reserve authorities have implemented different plans to control the population of feral buffaloes and cattle, but with limited success. Between 2001 and 2004, officials killed 167 feral buffaloes inside the reserve. But in the case of feral cows (Nepal’s national animal considered sacred by Hindus), authorities can’t do anything.

Nepal’s wild water buffalo conservation plan states that at least three large-shed houses need to be built inside the reserve so feral livestock can be auctioned. However, running such a facility requires a budget that is hard to come by.

In addition to these challenges, the conservation plan identifies the proliferation of invasive species such as Chromolaena odorata, Eupatorium adenophorum, Lantana camara and Mikania micrantha as threats to the grasses that arna eat. As local farmers enter the reserve area illegally for forest products, there’s a risk of fires in the grassland, which could replace the arna’s preferred species of grass with less preferred ones.

The changing course of the river, infamous for its flash floods, also has had a negative impact on grasslands, as water buffalo habitat has been shrinking every year. Natural succession of grasslands changing into forests is also a major issue.

Dhakal said that instead of taking harsh measures against people drawn to hybrid buffaloes for their meat, it would be better to provide artificial insemination facilities to the farmers so that they don’t need to leave their buffaloes in the protected areas. “We could capture one bull and use its semen to produce hybrid offspring that provide the meat and the milk,” he said. But that isn’t easy. “We don’t have the human and financial resources to do it,” he said.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.