Klaserie River Sands

Braving the buffalo

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.

Both female and male buffalo have horns. Males have a much bigger ‘boss’, used in fights for dominance whereby two candidates run and plough into each other at the force of a car hitting a brick wall at 50km/h.

Both female and male buffalo have horns. Males have a much bigger ‘boss’, used in fights for dominance whereby two candidates run and plough into each other at the force of a car hitting a brick wall at 50km/h.

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!

In the bush, it is said that a buffalo looks at you like you owe them money. Quite an apt expression when you find yourself looking them in the eye.

In the bush, it is said that a buffalo looks at you like you owe them money. Quite an apt expression when you find yourself looking them in the eye.

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.

Cape buffalo live in herds of up to 500 individuals. The hierarchy within the herd is such that the stronger, dominant animals walk up front and in the centre so that they are protected from threats and can enjoy better grazing.

Cape buffalo live in herds of up to 500 individuals. The hierarchy within the herd is such that the stronger, dominant animals walk up front and in the centre so that they are protected from threats and can enjoy better grazing.

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.

Cape buffaloes are unpredictable, and when they have made the decision to charge, they pick up speed quickly and collide, horns-first, with the unfortunate enemy.

Cape buffaloes are unpredictable, and when they have made the decision to charge, they pick up speed quickly and collide, horns-first, with the unfortunate enemy.

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.

Cows carry their calves for almost a year before hiding the newborns in the vegetation for the first few critical weeks. Unlike other bovines, buffalo young feed from behind their mothers, nuzzling between the hind legs.

Cows carry their calves for almost a year before hiding the newborns in the vegetation for the first few critical weeks. Unlike other bovines, buffalo young feed from behind their mothers, nuzzling between the hind legs.

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.

Dugga boys are usually the biggest and oldest bulls, bearing battle scars and incredible ‘bosses’. The ‘boss’ is so solid, it is even impenetrable to rifle fire.

Dugga boys are usually the biggest and oldest bulls, bearing battle scars and incredible ‘bosses’. The ‘boss’ is so solid, it is even impenetrable to rifle fire.

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.

Fearless and loyal, buffaloes are known to come to the ‘rescue’ of a fellow herd member should one be taken down by a lion or a crocodile. Sometimes the predator will back off to safety and the victim will walk away, lucky.

Fearless and loyal, buffaloes are known to come to the ‘rescue’ of a fellow herd member should one be taken down by a lion or a crocodile. Sometimes the predator will back off to safety and the victim will walk away, lucky.

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.

For more information visit the Sun Safaris website.



Chloe Cooper

Hi, I’m Chloe. I’ve recently learnt that life is full of surprises and that one should learn to embrace that, as there’s little else to do when confronted with the element of surprise. This became obvious to me during the months I spent in the Kruger National Park, where my FGASA group would set out on game drive with bated breath, camera at the ready and snap-happy fingers poised. What we were to see could never be predicted. After obtaining my degree in organisational psychology at the University of Cape Town, I headed off, rather surprisingly, into the bush to learn game-rangering. Even more surprisingly, I became a qualified field guide (despite the lack of any sort of vertebrate present during my practical). I'll cut out the long, weepy story of how I came to leave the magnificent veld, and fast-forward to the part where I can happily announce that I’m living the dream – so very nearly. My job at Sun Safaris requires that I read and watch and look and listen to everything that is safari. I relish in the responsibility to write about this fascinating world, and to blog for Africa Geographic is the cherry on top. The ‘so very nearly’ part? Well that’s in anticipation of a surprise offer to visit the glorious African countries I love to read and write about!

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