Cape buffalo characteristics
Given its unpredictable temper, the African buffalo is particularly difficult to tame and has never been domesticated like its relative, the Asian water buffalo. Moreover, these animals are considered extremely dangerous and as such make highly sought-after hunting trophies, which earned its spot on Africa’s Big Five.
The African buffalo is a thick-set animal, its head sitting lower than its backline. The heaviness of its front means the buffalo’s front hooves are wider in order to support this weight. Savanna-dwelling buffalos are larger than their forest counterparts and also differ somewhat in appearance, with forest buffalos more reddish brown and with more hair around the ears. The buffalo’s wide row of incisor teeth and deft tongue make them able to eat grass quicker than most other African herbivores.
Perhaps the most unmistakable feature of the buffalo is its majestic set of horns. Called a “boss”, the bases of a male buffalo’s horns come together to form a shield. At five or six, the horns might be fully formed, however, it is only after a couple more years that the boss becomes completely hard and perfect for sparring. The male with the thickest horns is recognisable as the dominant bull.
Range & habitat
The four subspecies of African buffalo inhabit contrasting environments all over the continent. The Cape buffalo, Syncerus caffer caffer is most common in Southern and East Africa. In the forests of Central and West Africa dwells the forest buffalo, S. c. nanus. The Cape buffalo shares its territory in East Africa with S. c. aequinoctialis, while in the west roams S. c. brachyceros.
No matter where it roams, however, the buffalo is a particularly successful feeder, easily grazing its way through swamps, floodplains and mopane grasslands, and by so doing clearing the way for other grazers to follow. Notwithstanding its wide territory, the buffalo is only found where there is water, as these large herbivores require perennial water sources to quench their thirst daily.
A herbivore, the buffalo grazes on wild lawns of tall grass, which they regurgitate and chew on again later, an action known as “chewing the cud”. This process helps them fully digest the grass they consume.
Behaviour & lifestyle
Spending as much as 18 hours a day active, much of this is spent either grazing or chewing the cud. The herd will stay close together while they graze, even forming a larger group made up of the core herd surrounded by subordinate males and older animals. When attacked by a predator, this formation means that individual animals are not easy to pick off and separate. Calves will also be kept in the centre, and often the herd will head back to “save” a targeted buffalo, fighting off predators. In fact, buffalo are known for their tenacity and ability to defend themselves against predators as efficient as lions.
Males move in and out of herds, splitting during the dry season to form bachelor groups and rejoining it in the wet season to mate with the females. If they are successful, they will stay with the herd in order to protect their calves.
In order to establish dominance and hierarchy, bulls will frequently spar with each other, lowering their heads and twisting their horns from side to side, a behaviour frequently witnessed on the African savanna. Sometimes, however, the action is simply playful.
As dominance is much the result of age and size, older males may eventually leave the herd when they are unable to compete with younger individuals.
Fun Cape buffalo facts
- A famous example of buffalo ferociousness is a videotaped incidence in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, where a herd of buffalo successfully saved a calf from attack by lions and a crocodile.
- Buffalos are often seen with their characteristic bird friends, oxpeckers and cattle egrets, who scoop up insects flushed from the grass as the buffalos move through them. Oxpeckers also eat biting insects like ticks off a buffalo’s skin in a somewhat symbiotic relationship.
Meet the Cape buffalo
Undoubtedly the most memorable moment on an African safari would be to see a herd of buffalo fighting off predators. What’s your buffalo-sighting experience? Let us know in the comments below!
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