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Cape Buffalo – Africa’s Most Dangerous Bovine

Young Cape buffalo bulls

Cape buffalo or the African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is one of the largest bovines in Africa and is part of the Syncerus genus and a member of the Bovidae family.

The African buffalo is a very powerful and dangerous animal that lives today in the savannas of East, West, Central and South Africa.

Brief history of the Cape Buffalo

By studying the mitochondrial D-loop sequences in the Cape buffalo’s DNA, experts have concluded that there are two distinct lineages, one corresponding to a group encompassing Central and Western African populations and another group encompassing the Southern and Eastern African populations.

It seems that the two distinct lineages diverged between 145,000 to 449,000 years ago, and the population expanded in both lineages and colonized territories in Eastern and Southern Africa, using migration routes.

The populations in West and Central Africa have produced a slightly smaller subspecies of Cape buffalo due to the fact that they live in the forest not in the savannah.

Scientists concluded that the African buffalo populations expanded and diverged in the middle to late Pleistocene from an ancestral population that originated in the current Central African Republic.

Cape Buffalo Taxonomy

There are several subspecies of African buffalo recognized today.

1. Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer), also known as the southern savanna buffalo, is the largest African buffalo among all subspecies (males weighing up to 910 kg (2,010 lb).

This huge African buffalo can be found in East and Southern Africa and is known for its ferocity and its dark, almost black color.

2. Forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus), also known as the dwarf buffalo, is considered today the smallest subspecies of African buffalo.

Their size is similar to a zebra, and their weight is also much smaller, only about 600 lbs (270 kg).
They have a red color with small dark patches on the back and shoulders, and their ears look like two brushes.

This tiny African buffalo can be found in the forests of West and Central Africa, and because is way different than its larger cousins, some researchers have already said that they might be a separate species.

3. Nile buffalo (Syncerus caffer aequinoctialis), can be found also in Central Africa, but is larger than the Forest buffalo mostly because it lives in the savannah not in the forest.

Looks similar to a Cape buffalo, but is a little smaller and has a lighter color.

4. Sudanese buffalo (Syncerus caffer brachyceros), lives in West Africa and is considered an intermediate between the Cape buffalo and the Forest buffalo.

It is relatively small in size, adult males weighing only around 880 lbs (400 kg). and they have a dark grey color.

5. Virunga buffalo (Syncerus caffer mathewsi), known as the mountain buffalo, lives in the mountain area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.

It is a beautiful dark grey colored African buffalo that is not universally recognized.

Cape Buffalo Characteristics

The African buffalo is a very robust animal, it reaches a height at the shoulder between 3.3 and 5.6 ft (1 to 1.7 meters) and a body length between 5.6 and 11.2 ft (1.7 to 3.4 meters).

Its weight varies after the environment where it lives, so the buffaloes living in the forest will weigh only between 600 and 1,000 lbs (250 to 450 kg), while the buffaloes living in the savannah will weigh between 1,100 and 2,200 lbs (500 to 1,000 kg).

The Cape buffalo carries its head low, so its top is located this way below the line of its back.

The front hooves are wider than the black hooves, which shows that the animal is built this way because the front part of the body is heavier and more massive than its back side.

African buffaloes living in the savannah are larger and more aggressive, so they get a dark brown to black coat with the age, while the females being less aggressive have a reddish coat.

Older bulls can be recognized after the whitish circles that can be seen on their face and around their eyes.

African buffaloes living in the forest are smaller and they have a reddish brown coat.

They have more hairs around the ears and their horns are curved back and slightly up.

Calves have also a reddish coat that gets brown reddish, dark brown or black with the age.

Adult Cape buffaloes (living in the Eastern and Southern areas of Africa) being the largest and the most aggressive African buffaloes have a specific characteristic of the horns.

The bases of the horns are located very close one to another, which creates a strong shield on the head of the buffalo called “boss”.

From the base, the horns diverge downwards and after a smooth curve, they go upwards and outwards.

In some cases, after the smooth curve, the horns may diverge inwards and backwards or only backwards.

The horns are fully developed when the animal reaches the age of five or six years old, but the “bosses” do not become hard until de age of eight or nine years old.

Cows have smaller horns and no “bosses”.

Forest buffaloes have smaller horns and the base of their horns is almost never fused.

Being less aggressive, forest buffaloes have smaller horns and the base of their horns is almost never fused.

Cape Buffalo Behavior and Social Organization

African buffaloes and especially Cape buffaloes were named as “widowmaker” or the “Black Death” due to the fact that are very aggressive towards people and predators.

They are considered very dangerous animals because estimates say that they kill on average about 200 people yearly, but the main reason could be related to the fact that if they get wounded and not killed during a hunt, they will try to strike and even kill the hunter.

Even if it is considered a very dangerous animal by people, the African buffalo is a very social animal that lives in large herds that are led by high-ranking males and females.

The core of the herd consists of related females, and their offspring, and the main herd will always be surrounded by subherds of subordinate males, high-ranking females and males, and by old and invalid members of the herd.

Younger males will keep their distance from the dominating bulls, but during the dry season, males will usually split from the herd to form bachelor groups.

There are two types of bachelor groups, one that consists of males aging between four and seven years, and a different group that consists of males aging 12 years and even older.

When the wet season returns, young males can rejoin the herd to mate with the females and they will remain with the females and the herd throughout the season to protect the calves.

Older bulls may cease to rejoin the herd to avoid competing with younger and more aggressive bulls.

Young and adult bulls like to spar in play, and rarely violent, but brief fights can occur.

The members of the herd will stick together and will keep the calves in the middle of the herd when chased by predators in order to block the predators from picking off a member of the herd.

If a member of the herd is captured, its distress call will make the herd to come and try to rescue it, and if a calf is captured, its distress call will not only attract the attention of its mom, but also of the entire herd.

Cape Buffalo Reproduction

During the wet season, the young and adult males will rejoin the herd to mate with the females.

A cow that enters into heat is closely guarded by a dominant male, but because the cow attracts many males around her, the task of guarding her is difficult and will be accomplished only by the most dominant male.

A cow gives birth at her first calf at the age of 5 and a half years, and the gestation period takes 11 and a half months.

The newborn calf will be kept hidden in the vegetation in the first weeks of its life and will be occasionally nursed by its mother before joining the herd.

When they join the herd, they will be kept along with the other calves in the center of the herd to keep them away from predators.

Male calves will leave their mothers at the age of two years to join the bachelor groups.

Cape Buffalo Conservation

Today, the African buffalo is listed as “least concern” by the IUCN with a population of about 900,000 animals.

The African buffalo lives today in many national parks, natural reserves and hunting areas located in Southern and Eastern Africa.

Being a part of the big-five game family (this is a term used to describe the five most dangerous animals to hunt) the Cape buffalo is a coveted trophy by many hunters.

They are ready to pay $10,000 just a hunt a big male with “boss” and huge horns.

In some areas of African they are hunted for meat, but their number remains somehow steady and only a few subspecies are decreasing, such as the Virunga buffalo (Syncerus caffer mathewsi), which needs to be protected.

African buffalo range

African buffalo range and distribution.

Article written by:

Darius Savin is a lifelong animal lover and protector and the chief editor of Checkmember. He writes and edits articles and is also the creator of the distribution maps for all the creatures featured here.