One of Africa’s magnificent Big 5 - a term initially given to the five animals that were the most dangerous to hunt - the tough and tenacious African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) has as many redeeming qualities as it does reasons to be weary of it.
They use their formidable horns to fend off predators like lions (Panthera leo) but have also been known to band together when it comes to protecting and defending the young or vulnerable in the herd, meaning they have impressive offensive as well as defensive skills.
And these are just some of the reasons that they are one of the most sought-after sightings by wildlife enthusiasts on a Kruger Park safari.
An incredibly funny (not to mention accurate!) term that you’ll often hear with guides on a safari is that buffalo tend to look at you like you owe them money. This is due to the steely, serious gaze that they give anyone or anything that passes by them.
Their intimidating stature also plays a part in this - on average, a male buffalo can actually grow to weigh between 650 and 900kg while females weigh between 550 and 700kg.
In terms of height, buffalo can grow to a height of between 1 and 2m tall, measuring from their hooves to their shoulders, and their horns can grow to over a metre long and are often used by males to assert their dominance in herd… but more about that later…
One of the ways to distinguish the difference between bulls (males) and cows (females) - other than the obvious difference in size - is actually by looking at their horns. With a male buffalo, when its massive horns curl and converge in the middle of its head, it forms what is known as a ‘boss’, which is thicker and much more visible, whereas a female’s horn would be smaller and narrower.
Adding to their intimidating status is the fact that buffalo are quick-tempered and seemingly don’t give off many (or sometimes any) warning signals before they charge at you. It’s also been said that buffalos don’t forgive easily with stories circulating of them coming back to attack and gore hunters that had tried to hunt them in the past.
You definitely don’t want to get on a buffalo’s bad side!
When it comes to some of their more impressive qualities though, you just have to admire a buffalo’s ability to band together with the rest of the herd when it comes to fearlessly protecting their own against predators.
Buffalo don’t generally run at the sight of a predator but rather form a defensive circle around the most vulnerable members of the herd, facing outwards, so that they can use their horns to potentially deter or wound any aggressors.
There’s an epic video on YouTube, taken in 2007, of a herd of buffalo coming together to free a young buffalo from the grip of a pride of lions. It’s fascinating stuff and is just one example of the way in which a buffalo would defend itself and its herd. You can watch the video, titled, ‘Battle at Kruger,’.
A buffalo’s horn, which is a solid bone-like structure curving upwards (almost like a moustache!), is probably its most useful weapon, not just for defending itself against predators but also for asserting its dominance in the herd.
Buffalo have an interesting social structure, whereby the strongest males and females govern the herd. The age of a buffalo as well as its strength and size also often play a role in determining dominance and both young and subordinate males and females would travel together in a herd.
There are, of course, bachelor herds and you may also see a buffalo travelling on his own from time to time. Kruger safari guides often refer to them as ‘Dugga boys’. These are buffalo that are much older and have been segregated from their herd.
When you’re on a game drive in the Kruger National Park, it’s always fun to try and see if you can distinguish the males from females as well as the type of herd that you’ve just come across at a sighting.
When it comes to the herd (which can range in size from anywhere between 10 and 100) and making decisions, buffalo have an interesting way of determining which direction they should go in.
It’s been said that, after resting, members of the herd will stand up and face the direction in which they wish to go and the lead buffalo will lead the herd in the direction that the majority is facing.
The gestation period for buffalo is around 11 months. Births also tend to occur during the rainy season as there is more vegetation and water available to sustain the calves and usually only one calf is born at a time.
For at least the first year of their lives, calves are completely dependant on their mothers and would stay with the herd until they are several years old. This is also when male buffalo, specifically, may leave to join a bachelor herd.
Buffalo are herbivores so their diet consists mainly of grass and sometimes seed pods and other vegetation, like shrubs and trees, but only when there is no grass available.
They also need a consistent supply of water and can often be found near water sources.
Due to a buffalo’s sheer size as well as its ability to defend itself and band together with the herd, it can be quite tough for a predator to take one down. Having said this, some of the more common predators of the buffalo include lions, leopards (Panthera pardus), occasionally, crocodiles and humans.
Buffalo don’t have the best eyesight but their sense of smell is very impressive, and they’re great swimmers as well.
Should you spot one or a herd of them, you’re also sure to see birds, known as oxpeckers, sitting on them. They have a symbiotic relationship with these birds, whereby, the birds eat insects or ticks that are on the buffalo and, sometimes, even warn them if there’s danger approaching. That way, the oxpecker stays full and the buffalo stays clean and safe - it’s a win-win!
As mentioned previously, buffalo can be very aggressive and unpredictable, so it’s always best to maintain a safe distance.
Be alert at all times as they have been known to charge vehicles without warning. Having said this, coming across a herd of buffalo can be a special sighting, especially when it’s a mixed herd, of both males and females, or if you happen to come across them wallowing in the mud - something they do often to keep themselves cool in the Kruger heat.
Due to the sheer number of buffalo, you’re likely to see them all throughout the Kruger National Park but, more often than not, close to a dam or river, as they need water daily and won’t stray too far from water sources.
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