Known as: Cape Buffalo, Forest Buffalo, Savanna Buffalo
Latin: Censerus Caffer
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Genus: Syncerus (1)
Size: Head-body length: 2.1 – 3.4 m (2)
Height: 1 – 1.7 m (2)
Weight: 300 – 900 kg (2)


The African buffalo is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).


In the past, major variations in body appearance and skin colour led to the classification of 44 sub-species, although at present, only four are recognized

  1. the dwarf or red forest buffalo Syncerus caffer nanus, restricted to the swampy jungle and rain forests of West Africa stretching from Gambia to the Congo and to northern Angola
  2. the north-eastern or Nile savannah buffalo S.c. aequinoctialis, from central East Africa, Chad, Sudan to Somalia and south to Tanzania
  3. the north-western savannah buffalo S.c. brachyceros, from Senegal, through the Sahel to Chad
  4. the southern or Cape buffalo S.c. caffer, occupying an area from southern Tanzania down to the Cape, including Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Angola.

The strong and imposing African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is Africa’s only wild cattle species, and one of the ‘Big Five’ mammals that were once popular with trophy hunters. With its bulky build and thick horns, the African buffalo is considered to be a dangerous animal, and its propensity to attack and even kill humans when wounded by an arrow or bullet only acts to reinforce this reputation.

The African buffalo has a broad chest, large limbs and a large head. The sparse covering of hair over the body typically ranges from brownish to black in colour. The imposing horns spread outward and downward from the head, and in some males the horns are joined by a large shield covering the head, known as a ‘boss’. Soft hairs fringe the large, drooping ears, and the long tail has a tassel of hairs at the end. The male African buffalo tends to be larger than the female, with longer, thicker horns.

There are currently four recognised subspecies of African buffalo, which vary greatly in size and appearance. The forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) is the smallest of the subspecies, and has a reddish to dark red-brown coat, and smaller, swept-back horns. Distinctive tassels hang from the tips of the forest buffalo’s ears. There are three forms of the savanna buffalo; the West African savanna buffalo (S. c. brachyceros), the central African savanna buffalo (S. c. aequinoctialis) and the southern Savanna buffalo (S. c. caffer). Of these, the southern savanna buffalo, or cape buffalo, is the largest.

Comparison To Man



The African buffalo occurs in sub-Saharan Africa. Historically, this species roamed across all but the driest parts of the region, but today few populations exist outside the confines of national parks and large conservation areas.


The African buffalo inhabits a range of habitats, including open woodland savanna with abundant grass and drinking water, areas of montane grassland and forest, and also lowland rainforest.

The most important parameters are abundant tall, sweet-grass species, ample surface water, mud baths and sufficient shrub and trees for refuge. These are mostly associated with riverine valleys, marshlands, sub-tropical savannah woodlands and ecotones of broadleaf montane forests. Vast open, grassy plains lacking woody shelter are usually avoided as are sour-veld, short-grass or heavily over-grazed areas. Internal thermo-regulation is a significant problem for mega-herbivores. Mud baths are thus important to buffalo as a mud cover on the skin regulates body temperature and repels ecto-parasites and flies. This enables the animal to tolerate air temperatures of up to 40 degrees C. However, buffalo can also tolerate low temperatures for short periods and are even found on the snowline of Mount Kilimanjaro at altitudes of 4 000 m.


The African buffalo is a gregarious animal, the savanna subspecies forming large, imposing herds consisting of over 1,000 individuals. The forest buffalo, due to its more restricted habitat, forms small groups of up to 12 animals, consisting of related females and their offspring and one or more males. Males not belonging to a herd are solitary, or form bachelor herds. Living in a herd has its advantages as information can be shared between herd members regarding the best places to feed, and it also offers increased protection against predators.

Bonds between females in an African buffalo herd are strong, and if one is attacked by a predator such as a lion, the rest of the herd will respond to its bellowing distress calls and rush to its defence. A herd of buffalo are easily capable of driving away a whole pride of lions to protect a herd member. Living in large herds is not as important for the forest buffalo as it lives in a habitat that does not suit carnivores, such as lions, and it can easily retreat into cover if required.

In order to escape the heat, the African buffalo spends most of its day lying in the shade. It can often be found drinking water in the early morning and late afternoon, and most feeding takes place during the cooler night. The African buffalo grazes extensively on fresh grass, turning only to herbs, shrubs and trees when there is a deficiency of grass. The dietary habits of the African buffalo are responsible for opening up areas of long grassland for other species with more selective feeding habits, and thus it plays an important ecological role in the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.

Mating occurs primarily between March and May in the African buffalo, and the gestation period lasts for around 11 months, with calves born from January to April. The bond between the mother and calf is very strong, and within just a few hours, the newborn calf is capable of keeping up with its herd. The African buffalo is known to live for up to 26 years.

Buffalo are always found close to surface water and drink 30-40 litres of fresh water once or twice a day and take frequent mud baths. They are active during both day and night for up to 18-20 hours of a 24 hour cycle. Up to 70% of their grazing takes place at night. It is a ruminant and a partly selective roughage grazer, feeding predominantly on medium high to tall (25-130 cm), sweet, palatable grass species. Sweet grasses with a high protein content are selected. In the absence of moist, green leaf growth during the dry winter season, buffalo will consume old dry stems and seed heads of the same grass species regardless of their height. During droughts, they search for grazing and move up to 17 km from their water source each day. In the absence of suitable feed the buffalo can adapt to unlikely resources, such as sedges and water plants, or will migrate long distances. Although diet composition changes regularly with season, it usually consists of 90-95% grass, 5-8% browse and 1-2% forbs.

Social structure

It is a social animal with groups varying from 4-30 individuals in bull herds, to mass herds that can exceed 3 000. Herd sizes are influenced by habitat and food availability. In dense thicket and forest vegetation buffalo split into small family groups of 6-15 individuals but in open savannah woodland family groups converge into mass herds. The individual family groups remain intact when absorbed into a mass herd. During dry seasons mass herds keep to drainage lines and rivers but during moist seasons the herds split into temporary, smaller herds of 50-200 animals that spread onto larger plains. Family groups are relatively stable with fixed bonding between mothers and their offspring until an age of three years, and they have demarcated home ranges, although large herds may follow a seasonal cyclic movement of mini-migrations. Buffalo do not display any territorial behaviour.

Four social structures occur:

  • Family groups: 6-15 individuals comprising of an adult breeding bull, several adult cows, sub-adult heifers and calves of different ages
  • Bachelor groups: 4-30 young bulls of 3-7 years, that migrate between family groups within the larger herd
  • Adult bull herds: 4-12 mature bulls of >7 years that are not associated with a family group and keep to their own home range
  • Outcast post-mature bulls: 1-6 individuals that keep to themselves in a small area and do not associate with other buffalo

A definite order of dominance hierarchy exists in family groups. Within bachelor and bull herds a linear hierarchy exists according to age and body mass, with the oldest, heaviest animal being the dominant leader. During the rut the leading breeding bull forces the sub-adult bulls out of the family group to join bachelor herds. At an age of 7-8 years the bulls attempt to establish their own family groups or to replace a dominant bull from an existing family group. Defeated bulls stay within the bull herds until 15 years when they lose their hierarchal position and join cohesive, frustrated post-mature groups that are extremely dangerous and are known as “killer machines” or “dagga boys”. Bulls and related bull herds account for 6-7% of the buffalo population.

Buffalo a circuitous route of 50-105 km per day at a walking speed of 5.4 km/hr. When frightened or during a charge they rapidly reach a speed of 57 km/hr. Post-mature bulls do not follow the breeding herds but stay in thicket bush in riverine habitats.


The”red line”-fence erected in terms of veterinary legislation in 1964 divided the southern Cape buffalo population into two geographic sub-populations by prohibiting the translocation of both animals and their untreated products across the line. Its function was to control the spread of corridor disease, Nagana fever, foot-and-mouth disease and tuberculosis to cattle herds. Other diseases are anthrax, redwater, brucellosis, rabies, mange and rinderpest. Buffalo are not susceptible to hartwater. By law, any movement of buffalo must be accompanied by a State veterinarian and blood samples must be taken from each animal that is moved.


While the African buffalo still occurs in considerable numbers, populations have been greatly reduced by hunting, habitat loss and disease. In several southern parts of its range, the African buffalo has never recovered from the devastating rinderpest epidemic that struck in the 1890s, and the potential for another rinderpest outbreak continues today.

Another disease, bovine tuberculosis, is also known to affect African buffalo; a recent outbreak has impacted populations in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Outside of national parks buffalos come into contact with humans, and in some areas will break fences, raid crops and potentially spread bovine diseases to livestock, and may be persecuted as a result.


The survival of most of the world’s wild cattle species is believed to rely on their existence in properly protected reserves. Luckily, the African buffalo is well represented in numerous national parks and protected areas, such as Serengeti National Park and Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania.

As one of the ‘Big Five’, African buffalo are sought after by tourists on wildlife safaris, and by game hunters, giving people great economic incentive to conserve this impressive mammal.

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