African buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

Also known as: cape buffalo, forest buffalo, savanna buffalo
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCetartiodactyla
FamilyBovidae
GenusSyncerus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 2.1 - 3.4 m (2)
Height: 1 - 1.7 m (2)
Weight300 - 900 kg (2)

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

The strong and imposing African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is Africa’s only wild cattle species (3), and one of the ‘Big Five’ mammals that were once popular with trophy hunters (4). 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 (3).

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 (2). 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’ (2). Soft hairs fringe the large, drooping ears (2), and the long tail has a tassel of hairs at the end (5). The male African buffalo tends to be larger than the female, with longer, thicker horns (2) (6).

There are currently four recognised subspecies of African buffalo, which vary greatly in size and appearance (1). The forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) is the smallest of the subspecies, and has a reddish to dark red-brown coat (3), and smaller, swept-back horns (7). Distinctive tassels hang from the tips of the forest buffalo’s ears (3). 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) (1). Of these, the southern savanna buffalo, or cape buffalo, is the largest (8).

The African buffalo occurs in sub-Saharan Africa. Historically, this species roamed across all but the driest parts of the region (7), but today few populations exist outside the confines of national parks and large conservation areas (9). 

The African buffalo inhabits a range of habitats, including open woodland savanna with abundant grass and drinking water (3), areas of montane grassland and forest, and also lowland rainforest (1). It occurs at elevations up to 4,000 metres above sea level (1)

The African buffalo is a gregarious animal, the savanna subspecies forming large, imposing herds consisting of over 1,000 individuals (3). 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 (7). Males not belonging to a herd are solitary, or form bachelor herds (7). 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 (10).

Bonds between females in an African buffalo herd are strong (7), 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 (9).  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 (7).  

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 (3). The African buffalo grazes extensively on fresh grass, turning only to herbs, shrubs and trees when there is a deficiency of grass (9). 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 (9).

Mating occurs primarily between March and May in the African buffalo, and the gestation period lasts for around 11 months (7), with calves born from January to April (9). The bond between the mother and calf is very strong (7), and within just a few hours, the newborn calf is capable of keeping up with its herd (3). The African buffalo is known to live for up to 26 years (7). 

While the African buffalo still occurs in considerable numbers, populations have been greatly reduced by hunting, habitat loss and disease (3) (10). In several southern parts of its range, the African buffalo has never recovered from the devastating rinderpest epidemic that struck in the 1890s (10), 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 (11). 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 (4), 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 (10). Luckily, the African buffalo is well represented in numerous national parks and protected areas (7), such as Serengeti National Park and Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania (12) (13).

As one of the ‘Big Five’, African buffalo are sought after by tourists on wildlife safaris, and by game hunters (9), giving people great economic incentive to conserve this impressive mammal.

For further information on the African buffalo: 

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Nowak, R.M. (1999) Walker’s Mammals of the World. Volume II. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  3. Stuart, C. and Stuart, T. (1997) Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  4. African Wildlife Foundation (January, 2012)
    http://www.awf.org/content/wildlife/detail/buffalo
  5. Ultimate Ungulate - Syncerus caffer (January, 2012)
    http://www.ultimateungulate.com/Artiodactyla/Syncerus_caffer.html
  6. Estes, R.D. (1991) The Behaviour Guide to African Mammals. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
  7. Kingdon, J. (1997) The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press, San Diego.
  8. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations - Modelling the Distribution of Buffalo Populations in Africa (January, 2012)
    http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/commissions/docs/Workshop/Workshop_buffalo_meeting_2011/2011_SummaryBuffaloMeeting.pdf
  9. Mills, G. and Hes, L. (1997) The Complete Book of Southern African Mammals. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  10. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. OxfordUniversity Press, Oxford.
  11. Rodwell, T.C., Kriek, N.P., Bengis, R.G., Whyte, I.J., Viljoen, P.C., Vos, V. and Boyce, W.M. (2001) Prevalence of bovine tuberculosis in African buffalo at Kruger National Park. Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 37(2): 258-264.
  12. UNEP-WCMC: Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (January, 2012)
    http://www.unep-wcmc.org/medialibrary/2011/06/28/79d4f18b/Serengeti.pdf
  13. UNEP-WCMC: Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania (January, 2012)
    http://www.unep-wcmc.org/medialibrary/2011/06/28/f4e8dcf6/Kilimanjaro.pdf