Context Some large herbivores introduced to Australia have achieved population densities so high as to cause considerable ecological damage. Intriguingly, others have been relatively less successful and have correspondingly perturbed their new environments less. An excellent example is two similar-sized bovine species that established feral populations in the Northern Territory of Australia in the mid-19th century. Asian swamp buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) rapidly colonised the tropical savannas, causing ecological degradation, especially on freshwater swamps. In contrast, banteng (Bos javanicus) are restricted to their point of introduction and have caused relatively negligible ecological damage. Understanding the reasons of this differential success is of theoretical and applied interest and contributes to managing large herbivore populations for ex situ conservation and feral-animal control. Aims To compare the population structure of buffalo and banteng on the basis of shot samples, so as to construct life tables for four contemporary (low-density) buffalo populations, and collated data from previous work from three historical (high-density) buffalo populations and one banteng population (the only extant ex situ population in existence). Further, to provide a validation of age estimation with and without informed priors in a Bayesian model comparing horn length and ages estimated from tooth cementum annuli. Finally, to interpret our results in the context of relative invasion potential of the two bovid species. Key Results For both species, survival of juveniles was the most important demographic component influencing deterministic population growth. However, buffalo have the demographic capacity to recover swiftly after control because of high survival and fertility rates across a range of population densities. Fertility of buffalo was historically greater than that of banteng, and buffalo fertility increased as their populations were reduced. Conclusions These findings highlight how subtle differences in demographic rates and feeding ecology can influence the success (high population growth and range expansion) of large herbivores, knowledge which is increasingly important for managing invasive species effectively. Implications We show that that individual life-history traits and demographic performance, especially fertility, play an important role in determining the spread of invasive bovids in a novel environment.