Wildlife Spotlight: The Cape Buffalo

By Sarah Gold October 12, 2023

“Out on safari, I had seen a herd of buffalo, one hundred and twenty-nine of them, come out of the morning mist under a copper sky, one by one, as if the dark and massive, iron-like animals with the mighty horizontally swung horns were not approaching, but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished.”  ~Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa

It may not be the largest or most iconic of the Big Five (for those, look to the African elephant and lion), but the Cape buffalo has a well-earned reputation as the most fearsome. The mighty creatures, mainly peaceful herbivores who live in savannah floodplains bordering rivers and lakes, can be frighteningly unpredictable and aggressive when threatened—which is why they remain the planet’s only undomesticated bovines, and why for decades big-game hunters have referred to them as “The Black Death.”

While you won’t face any danger from Cape buffalo on a Micato safari, it’s always a good idea to learn about the particular behaviours and characteristics that make them so formidable—and awe-inspiring. Here are a few things to keep in mind when encountering these magnificent beasts.

2 cape buffalo photographer gene tyler

Placid—Until They’re Not

At first glance, Cape buffalo seem to closely resemble their cousins, the Asian water buffalo. Both species are typically found in herds, grazing peaceably on grasses or wallowing in mud (the better to stay cool and deter parasites); both are also powerfully built, with bulls weighing up to 2,000 pounds and standing five to six feet at the shoulder. The main difference in their physical appearance, however, is a telling one: In mature males, the Cape buffaloes’ swooping, upward-curved horns are joined in the middle by a hard shield that covers their entire skulls. This formation, called a boss, looks like an armoured battle helmet—and it is.

Cape buffalo bulls, who live in bachelor groups or on their own, use their bosses and horns both to play-fight and display dominance with one another—but also to ferociously attack enemies. Bulls are known to charge at even the most intimidating predators, including entire prides of lions and human hunters, at speeds of up to 37 miles an hour. They are considered the most dangerous when wounded or cornered.

Community-Minded and Collaborative

Despite their notoriety, Cape buffalo mainly enjoy a relaxed and sociable existence. Females and their calves tend to employ the passive protective strategy of finding safety in numbers; their herds often encompass many hundreds of buffalo (although during the late rainy season, when food is abundant, they may gather in the thousands). Cows collectively keep an eye out for the herd’s young, and use warning bellows to alert each other of approaching danger. A calf bleating in fright will quickly mobilise a phalanx of protective surrogate “mamas.”

Female Cape buffalo have been observed by wildlife biologists “voting” to choose where to graze next. During a period of rest, the cows in a herd’s subgroup will suddenly stand up, then lumber around before settling back down again. They do this again and again, until the majority of the cows have settled facing in the same direction. Only at that point, once consensus has been reached, will the group set off in the agreed-upon direction.

cape buffalo with red bill oxpecker
Symbiotic Partners—Maybe

Cape buffalo are often spotted with small clusters of birds on their heads and backs: yellow-billed oxpeckers. It was long believed that the buffalo and oxpeckers maintained a mutually beneficial partnership; the birds were thought to provide a sort of cleaning service by pecking away ticks and mites, while simultaneously getting themselves a meal. But since the oxpeckers can damage the buffaloes’ hides as they feed, scientists have recently come to consider the birds pests rather than pest control. There’s one undeniable benefit they do offer the larger animals, however: If a predator comes near, they send up screeches of alarm.

Interested in learning more about the Cape buffalo—and seeing them yourself? Micato’s expert planners can help make sure you cross all the African wildlife species off your safari wish list.  Contact them today.

Up Next: Safari: A World Apart