The Cape Buffalo is large, heavily built and formidable, and is a well-respected member of Africa's 'Big 5'. Although buffalo are not normally aggressive, if wounded they become one of the world's most dangerous animals. Buffalo live in large herds, which even today can number thousands: one of the most impressive and frightening sights of Africa is the mighty stampede of a herd of buffalo thundering across the savanna plains.
Buffalo have a great range of morphological variation, varying from small, reddish small-horned individuals living in forests to the more widely known large, dark, heavily-built savanna buffalo with large, heavy horns. The low-slung horns, particularly those of the males, are massive and develop heavy central bosses, which are covered by hair until the male is 2 - 3 years old. Buffalo are very heavily built, thick-set animals, with large legs to support their heavy bodies. In spite of their bulk, they are capable of speeds of up to 55 km/hr over short distances.
When wounded, buffalo become very aggressive, and, with their curved horns held high, they charge, lowering their horns at the last moment to fling their tormentor into the air. Watchers of the wild are often amazed at the intelligence and cunning of buffalo. An alarmed herd, threatened by a pack of Lions, has been seen to go into a defensive semi-circular formation, males on the perimeter facing outwards, protecting the females and calves within.
Buffalo are troubled by skin parasites such as ticks, and red-billed oxpeckers are a common sight on buffalo: as many as 12 may be seen perched on a buffalo at any one time, pecking out ticks, which form their stable food. The oxpeckers also warn the buffalo of approaching danger.
Like many other large mammals, they were once much more widely distributed than they are today. In the southern part of their range, the southern part of South Africa, they used to occur right along the Cape south coast to the west: today they are not found in the Cape province at all, except for in the Addo Elephant National Park. They do occur in specific parts of many African countries.
Their primary habitat requirements are a plentiful supply of grass, shade and water. Buffalo are primarily grazers, and like to drink twice a day: they often wade into the water up to their bellies when drinking. They therefore occur in the better-watered northern and eastern parts of the southern African subregion, and avoid arid areas. They do not frequent wide open grasslands that are far from the shade they require for resting up in during the heat of the day, although they do move seasonally and may cross large, open expanses. They often graze in the vacinity of water, resting in the vacinity of reedbeds. The bulls often wallow in mud, which not only helps keep them cool, but is good for their skin and helps control biting insects.
Buffalo are gregarious, occurring in herds of up to several thousand individuals. These herds are relatively stable associations, with the smaller herds forming into larger ones temporarily. Buffalo herds move seasonally in search of adequate grazing and water. There may be family cohesion of females within the herd: family ties in the males do not last beyond three years of age. Old and young bulls may leave the herd and form small bachelor herds, but the two age classes are usually found apart. There is an established hierarchy, both within bachelor herds and large herds, and old bulls often get harassed, which can result in them becoming solitary. The linear hierarchy is maintained primarily by threat behaviour rather than by serious fighting (see communication), although if this doesn't prove a deterrant then fighting will occur. Fighting consists of the opponents charging each other and growling, then lowering their heads to take the impact on their horns. Due to their small size, bachelor herds can exploit small food niches such as occur along lake shores, whereas large herds need to have very large home ranges. Herds tend to move to water in the early morning and late afternoon.
Buffalo are inquisitive, and will often approach vehicles to examine them. If a herd is disturbed the individual buffalo will often stampede in unexpected directions. They are considered one of the most dangerous of the African species to hunt, and wounded buffalo have been known to double back and ambush their attackers.
Feeding & Diet
Buffalo have the most efficient digestive system for digesting fibrous food of any of the ruminants. While they will feed on fresh, new grass such as occurs in freshly burnt areas, they also readily eat old grass, and can adequately cope with digesting it. Their habit of eating old grass and trampling it helps to open up these areas to other species by enabling new growth on them. During the rainy season, when food is abundant, they become selective feeders, and prefer red grass, buffalo grass, small buffalo grass, and finger grasses. Buffalo are sensitive to heat, and move into the shade during the heat of the day. Much of their feeding takes place at night, and they spend a large proportion of their time ruminating, especially during the dry season when the grass has a higher fibre content.
Their mouth parts are adapted for feeding on long grass, as they pull the grass into their mouths using their tongues, and bite stalks off by moving their lower incisors against the dental pad in their lower jaw.
Much of the communication is in the form of body language: the hierarchy beween males is maintained by threatening displays with the head held high, nose pointing to the ground, or by both of these: the body is held laterally to emphasize its size.
While most male buffalo reach sexual maturity between 3.5 and 5.5 years old, they are not usually allowed to breed until they are 8 - 10 years old. Females, however, can have their first calf when they are 4 - 5 years old. Most buffalo calves are born in the summer months, and usually either during the late afternoon or just before dawn, when the herd is resting. A single calf is born, and new-born calves can follow the herd a few hours after birth: if the herd moves during this time the mother and calf may be left behind temporarily. Calves are sometimes hidden in thick undergrowth while the mother grazes nearby. The bond between mother and calf is fairly strong, and they communicate via croaking calls from the mother and bleating by the calf. Calves continue to suckle until they are about 15 months old, and can remain with their mother until the age of 2. Calf mortality is fairly high, as they are targeted by predators.
During the wet cycles buffalo numbers build up, only to decline during dry spells, as they cannot adapt very well to dry conditions, and they find it hard to find enough food when the grass is short. Buffalo can have a profound effect on the grass cover in reserves, and it has been necessary to cull large numbers of them in the Kruger National Park when their numbers have built up considerably.
The rindepest epidemic that swept through Africa in the 18th century almost exterminated the buffalo, but the species has remarkable powers of recovery, and they have repopulated many areas. Disease and climatic factors which affect their habitat are the most serious factors affecting buffalo populations, as predation has only a very minor effect. Foot and mouth disease has had a major impact on buffalo, particularly in Zimbabwe, and at the present time bovine TB is a major problem in the southern regions of the Kruger National Park, and will have a major impact on the buffalo population there.