The Cape (or African) buffalo is the only member of Africa’s Big Five that is not listed as threatened, vulnerable or endangered on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List.
Since the 1890s, when 95% of the population in Africa was wiped out by the rinderpest disease epidemic, buffalo numbers have grown, with the global population standing at roughly 900 000 of these large, wild bovines. Huge and fierce, they are one of most feared animals in Africa.
The Cape buffalo is an enormous bulk of muscle and speed, posing a lethal threat to anyone encountering one or more of these 500–900 kg horned animals on foot. While it may not possess the luxurious spotted fur of the leopard, the handsome mane of a lion, the smooth ivory tusks of an elephant or the horns that are more valuable than gold – qualities that make four of the Big Five so devastatingly sought after, the buffalo deserves a mention as one of the most feared animals in Africa. It’s a fierce relative to its mild cousin, the cow!
Buffaloes live in large herds numbering up to 500 individuals, although some groups have been known to reach around 2 000. Their united social structure and unpredictable behaviour make them ferocious opponents even to lions, their biggest threat in the wild.
Their second biggest predator is humans, with trophy hunters attracted to the animals’ huge horns. Inaccurate hunters are known to have been trampled by a wounded and angered Cape buffalo, and even innocent human wanderers in rural Africa have been charged and killed by surprised buffaloes. These big bovines are among the few animals that will not respond to a threat with a ‘mock charge’ or warning behaviour, preferring to run at their perceived enemy at full speed, about 50 km per hour, presenting a rock-solid head of horns that collides fatally with the target.
On a recent visit to the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve in the Greater Kruger Park,we came across a 200-strong herd of buffaloes that had selected the area as a grazing ground. Young calves and the weaker members were surrounded by the rest of the group, demonstrating the protective nature of the species. This instinct to safeguard the herd is beautifully demonstrated in a widely watched video called the Battle at Kruger. In response to their fellows’ distress calls, the rest of the herd will attempt to rescue their fallen comrade, fearlessly facing threatening lions and crocodiles. Often, the lions will back off to avoid the enormous ‘boss’ (horned head of a male buffalo), which is used as a dangerous and often fatal defence.
Reported to have been responsible for the most human deaths by animals in Africa, with roughly 200 victims a year, the Cape buffalo has been nicknamed the ‘Black Death’ and ‘Widow Maker’. It seems that too many unfortunate people have interrupted these temperamental animals unexpectedly. Probably the most risky buffalo to encounter would be one, or some, of the ‘dugga boys’. ‘Dugga’, meaning mud, is a name given to the older males that have passed their prime breeding age and now spend much of their time at mud wallows. There, they bathe happily, covering their skin in nature’s sunscreen and ridding their hides of pesky ticks. The dugga boys occur in small bachelor herds of five or six individuals, or lagging behind a large herd, unable to keep up, making them more vulnerable and therefore more aggressive. These older males carry the heaviest horns, biggest bosses and more bulk than the younger males. They are truly magnificent to observe.
Despite the buffalo’s ferocious attitude, the animal, like most others, is not looking for a fight with humans. It has simply mastered its defences. Ordinarily, a buffalo approached by a game vehicle may feel threatened and will position itself behind a tree in order to put a barrier between it and the threat. In nature, if possible, a buffalo will back into a vicious thorn bush called a buffalo thorn (for this very reason) and shield its vulnerable area with this nasty plant, while it dangerously horned heads defend their fronts. As my guide said, ‘Lions are lazy,’ and it unlikely they will persevere through a thorny minefield or face a buffalo head-on to score a meal.
Often overlooked as a cud-chewing, bleary-eyed grazer, the Cape buffalo holds a highly respected place in Africa’s Big Five, and, just like its colleagues, it too has a price on its head.
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