Cape Buffalos (Syncerus caffer)

The African buffalo is a very robust species. Its shoulder height can range from 1.0 to 1.7 m (3.3 to 5.6 ft) and its head-and-body length can range from 1.7 to 3.4 m (5.6 to 11.2 ft). The tail can range from 70 to 110 cm (28 to 43 in) long. Compared with other large bovids, it has a long but stocky body (the body length can exceed the wild water buffalo, which is heavier and taller) and short but thickset legs, resulting in a relatively short standing height. Savannah-type buffaloes weigh 500 to 1,000 kg (1,100 to 2,200 lb), with males normally larger than females, reaching the upper weight range. In comparison, forest-type buffaloes, at 250 to 450 kg (600 to 1,000 lb), are only half that size. Its head is carried low; its top is located below the backline. The front hooves of the buffalo are wider than the rear, which is associated with the need to support the weight of the front part of the body, which is heavier and more powerful than the back.

Savannah-type buffaloes have black or dark brown coats with age. Old bulls often have whitish circles around their eyes and on their face. Females tend to have more-reddish coats. Forest-type buffaloes are 30-40% smaller, reddish brown in colour, with much more hair growth around the ears and with horns that curve back and slightly up. Calves of both types have red coats.

A characteristic feature of the horns of adult male African buffalo (southern and eastern populations) is that the bases come very close together, forming a shield referred to as a “boss”. From the base, the horns diverge downwards, then smoothly curve upwards and outwards and in some cases inwards and or backwards. In large bulls, the distance between the ends of the horns can reach upwards of one metre (the record being 64.5 inches 164 cm). The horns form fully when the animal reaches the age of 5 or 6 years old, but the bosses do not become “hard” until it reaches the age of 8 to 9 years old. In cows, the horns are, on average, 10–20% smaller, and they do not have a boss. Forest-type buffalo horns are smaller than those of the savanna-type buffaloes from Southern and East Africa, usually measuring less than 40 centimetres (16 in), and are almost never fused.


Fun Facts

  1. The horns of the cape buffalo are an excellent indication of age and gender. The females and young males do not have the hard shielding that protects the base of the skull in large adult males.
  2. Cape buffalos are extremely social and live in large, mixed herds of up to 2000 members! Both sexes have a separate hierarchy, with males dominant over females. Members of the same subgroup will stay in direct contact with each other and will often sleep with their heads resting on one another.
  3. The African buffalo, which is often confused with the Asian water buffalo, shares many of the same characteristics but is considered a separate species.
  4. Cape buffalo are always within a day’s walk of a water source. This is especially true in the dry season when they are eating dried grasses.
  5. Cape buffalo have the reputation of being dangerous when they are cornered or injured. There are many tales told by big game hunters earlier this century of injured buffalo turning back and goring or killing the shooter.

Ecology and Conservation

By living in large herds and eating tall coarse grasses, Cape buffalo play a vital role in the ecology of the grasslands. Many of the smaller grazers are unable to digest the tall grasses, and the tall grasses may prevent them from getting to the shorter, more palatable grasses in the absence of buffalo. 

Competition for food sources by non-native species such as goats and cattle have challenged the native African grazers. However, the introduction of foreign diseases from non-native species remains the biggest threat. Currently the national parks of Uganda are taking great steps to protect their native wildlife against Bovine Tuberculosis. While this does not have a serious effect on domestic cattle it can decimate the herds of cape buffalo and their prey species such as lion and hyena.

Social behavior

Herd size is highly variable. The core of the herds is made up of related females, and their offspring, in an almost linear dominance hierarchy. The basic herds are surrounded by subherds of subordinate males, high-ranking males and females, and old or invalid animals. The young males keep their distance from the dominant bull, which is recognizable by the thickness of his horns. During the dry season, males split from the herd and form bachelor groups. Two types of bachelor herds occur: ones made of males aged four to seven years and those of males 12 years or older. During the wet season, the younger bulls rejoin a herd to mate with the females. They stay with them throughout the season to protect the calves. Some older bulls cease to rejoin the herd, as they can no longer compete with the younger, more aggressive males. Males have a linear dominance hierarchy based on age and size. Since a buffalo is safer when a herd is larger, dominant bulls may rely on subordinate bulls and sometimes tolerate their copulation.Bulls in position to spar

Adult bulls spar in play, dominance interactions, or actual fights. A bull approaches another, lowing, with his horns down, and waits for the other bull to do the same thing. When sparring, the bulls twist their horns from side to side. If the sparring is for play, the bull may rub his opponent’s face and body during the sparring session. Actual fights are violent but rare and brief. Calves may also spar in play, but adult females rarely spar at all.

African buffaloes are notable for their apparent altruism. Females appear to exhibit some sort of “voting behavior”. During resting time, the females stand up, shuffle around, and sit back down again. They sit in the direction they think they should move. After an hour of more shuffling, the females travel in the direction they decide. This decision is communal and not based on hierarchy or dominance. When chased by predators, a herd sticks close together and makes it hard for the predators to pick off one member. Calves are gathered in the middle. A buffalo herd responds to the distress call of a captured member and tries to rescue it. A calf’s distress call gets the attention of not only the mother, but also the herd. Buffaloes engage in mobbing behavior when fighting off predators. They have been recorded killing a lion and chasing lions up trees and keeping them there for two hours, after the lions have killed a member of their group. Lion cubs can get trampled and killed

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