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Can You Make Friends With a Cape Buffalo?

Updated on March 25, 2017
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Elna is a former transport safety researcher and now manages CSI projects. Her articles focus on South African topics.

Luke has gained the trust of two Cape buffalo.
Luke has gained the trust of two Cape buffalo.

Dangerous Liaisons

Most stories about buffaloes are about hunting—the close escapes, deaths, or injuries of hunters. Quite a few focus on members of our unwitting species getting charged at by buffalo trying to protect their calves, or each other, against predators.

There are, however, some positive stories about humans interacting with Cape buffalo. These extraordinary individuals went out of their way to gain the trust of these majestic beasts and were rewarded beyond expectation.

I would never stop the relationship he has with them because to see it from a distance it's something extremely special.

— Marion Michaelides (Luke's Mother)

Luke Michaelides—Buffalo Whisperer

As I was searching for positive buffalo stories on the Internet, I discovered a story about Luke Michaelides from 2008. Luke is a 13-year-old boy from Limpopo, South Africa, who managed to befriend two buffalo.

A female buffalo, who hurt her leg during an altercation with a male, was kept at Luke's family farm to heal. They called her "Hop-a-long." Eleven months later, her calf, "Skip-a-long," was born. They two looked so lonely that Luke decided to keep them company. He spent his free time kissing, washing, and playing with this mother-daughter duo.

According to Luke, this unique relationship took time as it is built upon a much-needed foundation of trust and communication. Each day, he approached a little closer, gave them food, and stood at a distance so that they would get used to him. He made sure he always spoke calmly to them. One day, he decided to try touching them. Once he cleared that hurdle, he spent time with them every day, taking them food and water, scrubbing them with a brush, lying down with them, and even taking his books with him so he could study nearby. He even spent a night with them to see how they would behave and to build trust.

At 13, he has started to write down all he has learned about them in his special book—describing what they are doing, their emotions, and how he feels about them.

Cape buffalo have exceptional memories. I have often been approached by buffalo that I have not seen for many years, which are tactile and demand affection.

— Lindsay Hunt

Lindsay Hunt: From Black Death to Black Gold

Lindsay Hunt developed a passion for hunting at an early age. By his twenties, the South African was already a professional, taking clients out to hunt buffalo. One day, after another successful hunt, he saw something that changed him. He watched a massive buffalo die, and for the first time, he realized the magnificence of this animal—and how wasteful it was to hunt them. This experience started him on a different journey.

Lindsay became a conservationist. He was influential in a project to produce Cape buffalo stock, who were free of bovine tuberculosis and foot-and-mouth disease.

These disease-free buffalo are valuable stock and fetch high prices in the South African game farm market—so much so that they are called "Black Gold."

Lindsay Hunt says we should stop thinking of the Cape buffalo as aggressive.
Lindsay Hunt says we should stop thinking of the Cape buffalo as aggressive.

A Bit About Bovine Diseases

Buffalo bovine tuberculosis (TB) was discovered in 1990 and is an airborne bacterial disease. An infected buffalo can live quite long but will eventually become emaciated and fall prey to predators. This disease crosses the species barrier and affects not only buffalo herds, but also predators, scavengers, and other herbivores, including baboons, kudu, bongo, oryx, eland, sable antelope, and waterbuck. Bovine tuberculosis is thought to have arrived with European settlers and their livestock. It was first reported in South African domestic cattle in 1880 and spread to wildlife in the Eastern Cape in 1928.

Although buffalo are not on the endangered species list, their gene pool is not large. The most varied gene pool is in Kruger National Park where the occurrence of bovine TB is high

Buffalo are also susceptible to foot-and-mouth-disease and corridor disease, of which they are also interspecies carriers.

Corridor disease is "an acute, usually fatal disease of cattle resembling East Coast fever and is caused by infection with buffalo-derived Theileria parva strains transmitted by ticks from African buffaloes (Syncerus caffer)."

Breeding Disease-Free Buffalo

The South African National Parks Board thought that the only practical solution to this epidemic was to breed disease-free buffalo. Lindsay Hunt decided to put his weight into this project and got his first breeding stock from the gene pool at Kruger Park.

Lindsay Hunt experimented with various processes to understand the breeding of buffalo, the needs of calves, and the way the disease spreads. He also had to deal with foot-and-mouth disease on his quest to produce "disease-free" buffalo.

Hunt's research, along with that of others (e.g., Kruger Park-led research by Dr. Lin-Mari de Klerk-Lorist), shows that stress plays a role in the outbreak of some diseases. An animal's initial tests may be disease free, but a subsequent test would be positive for a disease after stress or trauma. Lindsay Hunt has invested time into building personal relationships with the buffalo on his breeding farm to minimise the need for darting and other traumatic methods of controlling the animals.

This project has resulted in the establishment of disease-free herds in all nine provinces of South Africa, away from the TB-ravaged areas of Kruger National Park.

If they wanted to, Hop and Skip could rip me apart, but I don't think they will do it because I trust them.

— Luke Michaelides

Is It Possible to Make Friends With a Cape Buffalo?

According to Lindsay Hunt, buffalo have been misunderstood by hunters and authors. They are intelligent, tactile, affectionate, and social animals with an extraordinary sense of sight, hearing, and smell. They also possess exceptional powers of recognition and memory. When wounded, threatened or ill-treated, they retaliate.

How to make friends with a Cape buffalo

  1. Remember that the Cape buffalo see humans as predators and will naturally distrust us.
  2. Remember, as both Luke and Lindsay did, that a buffalo can kill you at any time.
  3. You must have extreme patience, dedication, and passion for what you are doing
  4. You must build trust. It is the key to any successful relationship, especially one with a buffalo on the receiving end.
  5. Spend time close to the buffalo. Just be around. Luke slept with them, while Lindsay slept on the other side of the fence, right next to the buffalo (Big Cow) whose trust he wanted to earn. This is the most important step and can take time. Lindsay even joined them in a mud wallow. Luke took his books to study close to them.
  6. Talk to them in a friendly, reassuring way. It isn't what you say but how you say it.
  7. Care for them. Give them food and scratch, brush, and wash them. According to Lindsay, they love it when you scratch their tails since they can't do that themselves.
  8. Understand and emulate their body language. They love pressure, so you lean your body against them (they do that with each other, e.g., when they lie down they will rest their heads on another's rump).
  9. NEVER touch the horns, says Lindsay.
  10. Lower yourself to their level, to show that you are not a threat
  11. Be energetic while you work.
  12. Very important: Buffalo do not all have the same temperament! You can make friends with some individuals, but not with others.
  13. Buffalo remember people. They may not transfer their trust from one human to another.

So can you befriend a Cape buffalo? The answer is a tentative YES, but as with all wild animals, this is not a "pet" that you have "tamed." You have entered into a relationship of mutual trust, which is no guarantee that your friend will not turn against you.

The relationship really isn't all that different from human friendships.

Bibliography

Hunt, Lindsay. "Top 10 Surprising Cape Buffalo Facts Buffalo Warrior." Animal Planet. Animal Planet, 17 Nov. 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2017. <http://www.animalplanet.com/tv-shows/wild-kingdom/about-animals/buffalo-facts/>.

Lawrence, J.A., Perry, B.D. and Williamson, S. 2004. Corridor disease. In: Coetzer, J.A.W. and Tustin, R.C. (eds), Infectious diseases of livestock, volume 1. Oxford University Press, Cape Town: 468-471

"Saving Buffalo from Bovine Tuberculosis." Kruger National Park. Kruger National Park, n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2017. <http://www.krugerpark.co.za/krugerpark-times-2-21-buffalo-tb-21399.html>.

"The Buffalo Whisperer: Luke, 13, Tames One of Africa's Most Feared Killers." Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 04 Sept. 2010. Web. 25 Mar. 2017. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1308937/The-buffalo-whisperer-Luke-13-tames-Africas-feared-killers.html>.

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    • elnavann profile image
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      elnavann 14 months ago from South Africa

      @RonElFran. Yes that is true, and as I was writing this hub, a game ranger from the Kruger Park on routine patrol was again injured by a buffalo. Not an animal to take lightly.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 14 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      In all the nature shows I've seen on TV, I've never seen any kind of amicable human interactions with cape buffaloes. What a special experience! But I must say, seeing those horns in the picture of Lindsay Hunt, I'm not sure it's an experience I'd want to have.