On this evening’s game drive we had a great sighting of one of our bigger buffalo herds. This particular group is more than 400 strong and it is always fascinating to watch the continuous interaction between herd members. They were slowly making their way towards a watering hole, munching on grass along the way. Once the buffalo arrived at the watering hole some drank whilst others had a mud bath. There were many scuffles as always between group members, with many of the males establishing or re-establishing their position within the group dominance hierarchy. The hide on a bull buffalo’s neck is as thick as 2 inches in places, which protects it during battles with other bulls for dominance. One can never disrespect these animals – in past years, the African buffalo has reportedly killed more big game hunters than any other animal in Africa. They are considered by many to be the most dangerous of the Big 5 as they gore and kill over 200 people every year. An African buffalo has four times the strength of an ox, and a determined buffalo can even tip over a motorcar!
It is always interesting to look at and compare the horns of buffalo. There is not any specific shape for a buffalo’s horns. They can spread outwards, downwards, or upwards. Some horns are extremely long and wide, whilst others have relatively small horns. The differences between the horns are therefore a great way of identifying individuals. The horns are used as weapons in battle. The two horns of the males are joined at the tip by a boss and they work as a shield covering the head during fighting. Adult bulls will spar in play, dominance interactions or actual fights. A bull will approach another lowering his horns and waiting for the other bull to do the same thing. When sparring the bulls twist their horns from side to side. If the sparring is for play the bulls may rub each other’s faces and bodies during the sparring session. Actual fights are violent but rare and brief. Calves may also spar in play but adult females rarely spar at all. The young males keep their distance from the dominant bull, who is easily recognizable by the thickness of his horns.
When chased by predators a herd will stick close together and make it hard for the predators to pick off one member. Calves are gathered in the middle. Buffalo show loyalty to one another and will often try to rescue a member that has been caught. A calf’s distress call will get the attention of not only the mother but also the herd. Buffalo will engage in mobbing behavior when fighting off predators. They have been recorded treeing lions for two hours, after the lions have killed a member of their group. Lion cubs can get trampled and killed. And even though they say that elephants never forget it is the buffalos you need to watch out for – studies show that buffalos remember their attackers and will not hesitate to retaliate – even at a much later date!!
Story by Sarah-Estelle Sangster, Kapama River Lodge Ranger