Buffalo v. Bison

Buffalo is a relative term. Learn all about the difference between buffalo and bison and, of course, about their leather. 


Fresh off the truck! New bison at SLC 

Buffalo in America

In the US, when we hear the word “buffalo”, we tend to think of American bison. American bison, or buffalo as they’re often called, are widely believed to be extinct. The status of these iconic animals is actually near threatened. Over-hunting and habitat loss due to farming and ranching in North America has caused an extreme drop in their population over centuries. The numbers have slowly risen over the years and the endangered status has since been changed. Bison are still very much alive and we do get leather from them, albeit much less than water buffalo and with more regulation. 

Buffalo in the Rest of the World

If you say buffalo anywhere else in the world, more minds would likely envision actual buffalo. Buffalo roam in Asia, Africa and Europe. With two main species hailing from Africa and Asia, kinda like elephants! 

Asian buffalos (Bubalus) are most commonly known as water buffalos, while African buffalos (Syncerus caffer) are called cape buffalos. While there is some variety in the Bubalus genus, in the leather world, we tend to focus on domesticated Asian water buffalos (Bubalus bubalis). Why? Well, because water buffalo are domesticated, much like cows – our most common source for leather.  


 Oddly enough, even though these animals are all called the same thing, there is an immense amount of variety in their shared tribe, Bovini. Beyond that, they really don’t have much in common! Check out the chart below to see side-by-side differences between buffalo (water and cape) and American bison. A chart of what they have in common wouldn’t be worth looking at. 


Chart from diffen.com

Let’s talk about Leather 

In the leather world, oddly enough, when you search for buffalo leather, you’ll see a lot of information on bison, even though bison leather is not as readily available as buffalo leather. 

Below, we’ll give you some information on both kinds of leather, but here’s a tip: if a listing you’re viewing doesn’t mention North America or bison, it’s probably a listing for water buffalo

Buffalo Leather

Bison leather isn’t impossible to find, but when you see listings for buffalo, more often than not, you’d be getting Asian water buffalo. Not only are they more easily accessible, but they are much more densely populated and yield just about as much product as bison. In some cases, Asian water buffalo even outweigh American bison.

Buffalo leather is known for its durability and relative flexibility. It is also lauded for its tear and abrasion resistance. Buffalo is sometimes chosen over cow leather because of that strength, especially for jockeys. Buffalo has stretch similar to cow leather (sometimes a bit stretchier) and is well-suited for projects you would generally use cow leather for. 


Buffalo Guitar Straps from SLC

Some people believe that buffalo leather isn’t any good, but that is heavily dependent upon the tanning – just like with cow leather. Since water buffalo is a little easier to come by, you may have a higher chance of running into low quality buffalo than bison, but that’s what we’re here for! We certainly aren’t in the business of buying things that won’t sell, and if you can’t use it, it surely won’t sell. 


Tooling on water buffalo is possible, but not recommended. Cow hide reigns supreme in this regard. 

Bison Leather 

Bison leather is revered for its soft, tough and stretchy nature. Many bison leathers are brain tanned, while others are chrome tanned. All are soft and perfect for adding a rustic feel to projects. The leather is pretty soft and floppy, so it’s not a great candidate for projects that require structure. For example: a purse that needs to stand up without hardware – it just won’t do it. 


This is chrome tanned bison. Note that it is still supple and stretchy! 

Bison are wild animals, so they tend to have more natural character to their hides than buffalo do. Bison leather is easily identified by its naturally wrinkly texture that tends to show up deeper (or coarser) than buffalo wrinkles. 

This leather is very soft and will likely be stretched when measured, so don’t be surprised if you receive a side that looks a little small. You can get rid of some of the stretchiness by spreading your bison leather over plywood and spraying a solution of water and denatured alcohol (50/50) onto your leather. 

There is also shrunken bison, which has all of the characteristics of standard bison leather with none of the stretch! 

Well, that just about does it. Be sure to share your questions and your projects with us!