Cape Buffalo—Facts and My Personal Encounter

Updated on November 30, 2016
elnavann profile image

Elna is a former transport safety researcher and now manages CSI projects. Her articles focus on South African topics.

Taking a siesta close to my fence
Taking a siesta close to my fence | Source

My own encounter

One of the Big 5 in South Africa, I have encountered herds in some of the many game parks in South Africa. I remember once when I was held up by a huge herd in the road, worrying that I would not make it to the camp in the Kruger National Park before the gate closed. There were many stories of buffaloes attacking cars, so I played it safe.

Only recently did I have a closer encounter, which opened my eyes to how special these beasts are: there is an energy exuding from the sheer size, the way they always look straight at you, those horns. I own a very small plot, enclosed inside a private game farm in the North West bushveld, where I used to roam about as I pleased. The owners of the farm decided to add a small group of 5 buffalo bulls to the mix of antelope. Although they were still young and apparently not aggressive, I dare anyone to walk around these animals and without keeping their distance.

Sometimes they come right up to my house for their siesta under a thorn tree. Their beautiful horns make half circles in the yellow grass. From time to time they try to put their heads down to the side, as if they forgot about their crowns of glory, apparently also a burden?

With a wire fence between us, I ventured closer to them. Playing guitar and reading out loud. Apparently, they liked that. Sometimes when I encountered them on a walk they just gave me long, intense stares, then relaxed and went on grazing.

But I wasn't taking any chances and planned walks in the opposite direction from where they were previously seen.

Grazing 6 meters away from my gate
Grazing 6 meters away from my gate | Source

One of the big 5


Range of subspecies of African Buffalo


Cape Buffalo Facts

There are many websites giving the basic facts of buffalo vital statistics.

The African buffalo or Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is a large African bovine. Its ancestry remains unclear. There are 5 subspecies (from Wikipedia) of which these 3 are most commonly known:

  • Syncerus caffer caffer, the Cape buffalo, the largest one, found in South and East Africa.
  • S. c. nanus (African forest buffalo) is the smallest subspecies, common in forest areas of Central and West Africa,
  • S. c. brachyceros is in West Africa and S. c. aequinoctialis is in the savannas of Central Africa.

Buffaloes need to drink water often and graze close to water sources. They also graze at night and sometimes fall prey to lions, but are capable of defending themselves and the herd often comes to the rescue of individuals. It usually takes a few lions to bring down a buffalo.

The Cape buffalo is susceptible to diseases, which includes bovine tuberculosis, corridor disease, and foot and mouth disease.

The core of the herd is made up of related females and there are clear lines of dominance. The core herd is surrounded by subherds of subordinate males, high-ranking males and females, and old or invalid animals. During the dry season, males form bachelor groups.These groups are either made up of young bulls or older bulls (older than 12). During mating season, the younger bulls join a herd to mate with the females and then to protect the calves. Older bulls do not always rejoin the herd. Males have a linear dominance hierarchy based on age and size.

Adult bulls spar in play, dominance interactions, or actual fights. Actual fights are violent but rare and brief. Calves may also spar in play, but adult females rarely spar at all.

Some articles refer to a pathfinder, who walks in front (usually a dominant female) but there is also an indication that the females "vote" by sitting or lying in the direction they think the herd should move next. This decision seems to be communal rather than based on dominance. Walking in front does mean that you get the choice of grazing, and that is related to dominance.

Additional Facts

• Its shoulder height can range from 1.0 to 1.7 m and its head-and-body length can range from 1.7 to 3.4 m The tail can range from 70 to 110 cm (28 to 43 in) long
• Buffaloes weigh 500 to 900 kg
How many people killed per year
Estimated 200
• The horns of the adult male African buffalo forrms a continuous bone shield referred to as a "boss". From the base, the horns diverge downwards, then smoothly curve upwards and outwards. In large bulls, the distance between the ends of the horns can reach upwards of one metre. Cows have a less pronounced boss and have slightly smaller horns
• Cows first calve at five years of age, after a gestation period of 11.5 months. • Newborn calves remain hidden in vegetation for the first few weeks • Older calves are held in the centre of the herd for safety. • The maternal bond between mother and calf lasts longer than in most bovids. • Young calves, unusually for bovids, suckle from behind their mothers, pushing their heads between the mothers' legs
• In the most recent and available census data the total estimated numbers of the three African buffalo savanna subspecies (S. c. caffer, S. c. brachyceros, S. c. aequinoctialis) are at 513,000 individuals. They are not on the endangered species list, even though there are concerns with bovine tuberculosis in the Kruger National Park

The croaking sounds made by the Cape Buffalo



  • Domestic cattle like sounds: low-pitched, two- to four-second calls intermittently at three- to six-second intervals to signal the herd to move.
  • Gritty, creaking sounds to signal the herd to change direction
  • When moving to drinking places, some individuals make long "maaa" calls up to 20 times a minute.
  • When being aggressive, they make explosive grunts that may last long or turn into a rumbling growl.
  • Cows produce croaking calls when looking for their calves.
  • When grazing, they make various sounds, such as brief bellows, grunts, honks, and croaks.

The famous Ernest Hemingway

The famous Ernest Hemingway posing with a buffalo he shot (1953)
The famous Ernest Hemingway posing with a buffalo he shot (1953) | Source

Battle at Kruger: Herd of buffalo, pride of lions, a crocodile, and a calf in danger

Cape Buffalo stories

There are many stories about Buffaloes - mostly close encounters and escapes, buffaloes charging hunters, hunters killed and injured.

I must confess: I hate trophy hunting and of course canned hunting that often goes hand in hand with that. When I look at these videos posted by the safari organisers and the proud American hunters, I feel disgusted: a group of 5 or 6 men (mostly) in their gear in a Jeep, the Big Hunter in tow with his bow and arrow, coming in close to their target, then shooting the buffalo (or more than one) and shaking hands, pats on the backs, and then the inevitable photo shoot, with the bow and arrow, and the head of the animal choreographed in front of the brave hunter.

A well-known hunter recently got killed by a buffalo in Zimbabwe. Owain Lewis, 67, had been tracking the animal for three days to finish it off after it was shot and injured by a visiting American hunter he was escorting.

There are also stories of buffaloes taking on a lion pride, coming to the rescue of a calf in a tug of war between a crocodile and lions, a buffalo being bullied by a rhinoceros. (See video above)

Proud hunters:  killing the magnificent Cape Buffalo is apparently a sought after experience.
Proud hunters: killing the magnificent Cape Buffalo is apparently a sought after experience.

© 2016 elnavann


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