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Wild At Heart

African Buffalo: Cows With Attitude

Updated: Feb 6, 2018

Michael Hutchins on July 7, 2016

The African buffalo (formerly known as the Cape buffalo) is one of the most formidable animals you will meet on your African safari. These huge herbivores not only look tough, they are tough, often banding together to repel large predators, such as lions.  Syncerus caffer is the only native African bovid, a group which includes wild and domestic cattle.

The grizzled faces of African buffalo are amazing and unique.

African buffalo are massive, muscular animals with short legs.  Mature males can weigh over 1,900 pounds and reach up to 60-66 inches in height; females can weigh over 1,200 pounds and are about 10% shorter than males.  Their heads are broad with wide mouths and bare, moist nostrils and drooping, fringed ears.  The size and shape of their thick, massive horns varies depending on sex and age.  Male horns can have a width of around 40 inches, with the length along the curve varying from 48-50 inches; the horns of adult females are some 10-20% smaller.  Adult coat color varies from black to dark brown without markings.  Young calves start out black or dark brown and then change to yellow brown, and then to reddish or chocolate brown after several months.

A large herd of African buffalo in open grassland habitat in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

African buffalo are highly social and non-territorial, massing and moving in large, mixed herds that inhabit traditional home ranges.  Herd and home range size varies with the productivity of their range, but can consist of hundreds, or even thousands of individuals.   Clans of a dozen or more related cows and their offspring form subgroups within these larger aggregations.  The largest gatherings only occur during the rainy season on large patches of rich pasture.

When resting, members of the same clan (family clusters) will stand or lie in close proximity, often with their backs touching.  Within these clans, separate dominance hierarchies develop among adult males and females, and each clan has its own “pathfinder” that leads the way to water and pasture.  Males are dominant to females.  Adolescent males leave their clans at around three years of age and associate in subgroups, but stay clear of the breeding bulls. Older males that are past their prime may leave mixed breeding herds and assemble in bachelor herds.

A subgroup (clan) of female African buffalo accompanied by males.

Females are in estrus (breeding condition) for only 2-3 days.  When in breeding condition, a female typically attracts a large number of males.   It is then when dominance comes into play, with the most dominant bull generally gaining preferred access to the female for breeding. Fights are common at this time, and males clash in head-to-head collisions, with the subordinate male typically running away following these tests of strength.

Gestation lasts around 11 months and birth intervals of two years are normal.  Newborn calves are at great risk from predation and can gain their feet within 10 minutes post-partum; however, they remain vulnerable for several weeks until they can keep up with their mothers and the herd. The cow-calf bond is very strong and it is exclusive. Females recognize their infants by smell and will not nurse other calves. Females stop lactating when the calf is around 10 months old.  After the next calf is born, the female may become hostile towards her yearling offspring, but the yearling may continue to follow the mother for another year or more.  A female’s attachment to her clan is also quite strong. Adults will respond to all distress calls and both adult females and bulls will come to the aid of herd members that are attacked by predators, such as lions, which will attempt to take adults, or spotted hyenas, which prey on the young.  Lions risk being mobbed by herd members and can be gored or trampled in the process. Buffalo have been known to live as long as 26 years.

A large herd of buffalo moving together in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

African buffalo prefer grassy savannah, water courses, and swampy basins and are found in all but the driest parts of sub-Saharan Africa. They are often active at night, foraging, but can also be seen moving and feeding during the day.  We have had them roam through our tented camp at night in central Serengeti, their chewing and grunting sounds heard just outside the tent walls, even leaning up against the tent at times.

As ruminants (with four chambered stomachs), these herbivores must eat large quantities of vegetation, because the energy content of their cellulose rich diet is relatively low.  These animals are grazers and prefer tall, mature grasses, too course for other ruminants to process.  They use their sharp incisors to cut the grass and then chew it with their massive cheek teeth before swallowing.  They must drink at least once daily, so water is an important habitat requirement.

A Red-billed oxpecker can be seen on the right side of this female’s face feeding on parasites on the mammal’s skin, a mutually beneficial relationship.

Buffalo associate with many other species for one reason or another. Oxpeckers can often be seen picking parasites off the skin of buffalo and egrets are often observed foraging in close proximity to buffalo as their movements disturb insects, which are a primary food for the birds.

An egret foraging next to a male African buffalo, a common sight in East Africa. Only the bird is likely benefiting from this relationship.

African buffalo are just one of the many amazing animals one can see on an African safari. Let World Safaris show you the wonders of the African savannah.

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