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African buffalo facts for kids

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African buffalo
Temporal range: 0.7–0Ma
Middle Pleistocene-Holocene
African buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) male with cattle egret.jpg
S. c. caffer, Chobe National Park, Botswana
Syncerus caffer nanus 001.JPG
Forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) at the Réserve Africaine de Sigean, Sigean, France
Conservation status
Scientific classification

S. c. caffer
S. c. nanus
S. c. brachyceros
S. c. aequinoctialis
S. c. mathewsi

Syncerus range map.png
Range of the commonly accepted forms of the African buffalo

The African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), is a bovine (cloven hoofed animal). It is also known as the Cape buffalo. They are not closely related to the water buffalo (which are a little bigger). Because of its aggressive behavior, it has not been domesticated like the domestic Asian water buffalo.

The adult buffalo's horns are its characteristic feature; they have fused bases, forming a continuous bone shield referred to as a "boss". The African buffalo is related to the American bison, which are typically also referred to as simply "buffalo."

The African buffalo's power and size make it easy to defend itself. They have been known to kill hyenas, lions, and other wild predators, and sometimes even humans.

The African buffalo is part of the African big five. The phrase "big five" was introduced by hunters. The big five are the hardest animals to hunt, and the African buffalo is considered the most dangerous.


African buffalo Syncerus caffer retouched

The African buffalo is a very robust species. Its shoulder height can range from 1.0 to 1.7 m (3.3 to 5.6 ft) and its head-and-body length can range from 1.7 to 3.4 m (5.6 to 11.2 ft). Compared with other large bovids, it has a long but stocky body and short but thickset legs, resulting in a relatively short standing height. The tail can range from 70 to 110 cm (28 to 43 in) long.

Savannah-type buffaloes weigh 500 to 1,000 kg (1,100 to 2,200 lb), with males normally larger than females, reaching the upper weight range. In comparison, forest-type buffaloes, at 250 to 450 kg (600 to 1,000 lb), are only half that size.

The front hooves of the buffalo are wider than the rear, which is associated with the need to support the weight of the front part of the body, which is heavier and more powerful than the back.

Savannah-type buffaloes have black or dark brown coats with age. Old bulls have whitish circles around their eyes. Females tend to have more-reddish coats. Forest-type buffaloes are reddish brown in colour with horns that curve back and slightly up. Calves of both types have red coats.

Syncerus caffer african buffalo skull MNHN
Skull of an African buffalo

A characteristic feature of the horns of adult male African buffalo is fusion of their bases, forming a continuous bone shield referred to as a "boss". From the base, the horns diverge downwards, then smoothly curve upwards and outwards. In large bulls, the distance between the ends of the horns can reach upwards of one metre.

The horns form fully when the animal reaches the age of five or six years. In cows, the horns are, on average, 10–20% smaller, and the boss is less prominent. Forest buffalo horns are smaller than those of the Savannah buffalo, usually measuring less than 40 centimetres (16 in), and are almost never fused.


African Forest Buffalo
African forest buffalo at the San Diego Zoo
Syncerus caffer nanus - 02
African forest buffalo
  • Cape buffalo (or southern savanna buffalo) is the typical subspecies, and the largest one, with large males weighing up to 910 kg (2,010 lb). It is peculiar to South and East Africa. Buffaloes of this subspecies living in the south of the continent, notably tall in size and ferocity, are the so-called Cape buffalo. Color of this subspecies is the darkest, almost black.
  • Forest buffalo is the smallest subspecies; the height at the withers is less than 120 cm and average weight is about 270 kg (600 lb). Their color is red, with darker patches on the head and shoulders in the ears forming a brush. The dwarf buffalo is common in forest areas of Central and West Africa. This subspecies is so different from the standard model, some researchers consider it still a separate species. Hybrids between the typical subspecies and dwarf are not uncommon.
  • Sudanese buffalo is, in morphological terms, intermediate between those two subspecies. It occurs in West Africa. Its dimensions are relatively small, especially compared to other buffalo found in Cameroon, which weigh half as much as the South African subspecies (bulls weighing 600 kg (1,300 lb) are considered to be very large).
  • Nile buffalo is confined to the savannas of Central Africa. It is similar to the Cape buffalo, but somewhat smaller, and its color is lighter. This subspecies is sometimes included in the Sudanese buffalo.
  • Mountain buffalo (or Virunga buffalo) is not universally recognized. It lives in mountainous areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda.


African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) male with Oxpecker
African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) male with Oxpecker

The African buffalo is one of the most successful grazers in Africa. It lives in swamps and floodplains, as well as mopane grasslands and forests of the major mountains of Africa. This buffalo prefers habitat with dense cover, such as reeds and thickets, but can also be found in open woodland. While not particularly demanding with regard to habitat, they require water daily, so depend on perennial sources of water.

Like the plains zebra, the buffalo can live on tall, coarse grasses. Herds of buffalo mow down grasses and make way for more selective grazers. When feeding, the buffalo makes use of its tongue and wide incisor row to eat grass more quickly than most other African herbivores. Buffaloes do not stay on trampled or depleted areas for long.

African buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) juvenile head
Juvenile African buffalo

Other than humans, African Cape buffaloes have few predators and are capable of defending themselves against (and killing) lions. Lions do kill and eat buffalo regularly, and in some regions, the buffaloes are the lions' primary prey. It typically takes several lions to bring down a single adult buffalo, usually the entire pride joins the hunt; however, several incidents have been reported in which lone adult male lions have been able to successfully bring down adult animals.

Sculpture of a battle between a buffalo and a lion
Sculpture of a battle between a buffalo and a lion

The average-sized crocodile typically attacks only old solitary animals and young calves, though they can kill healthy adults. Also, the Nile crocodile is the only animal that typically takes down adult buffalo alone, as pride attack is the preferred method of lions when taking down such large prey. The cheetah, leopard, and spotted hyena are a threat only to newborn calves, though spotted hyenas have been recorded killing full-grown bulls on rare occasions.

Social behavior

Afrikanische Büffel (Syncerus caffer) 1
Buffalo herd

Herd size is highly variable. The core of the herds is made up of related females, and their offspring, in an almost linear dominance hierarchy. The basic herds are surrounded by sub-herds of subordinate males, high-ranking males and females, and old or invalid animals. The young males keep their distance from the dominant bull, which is recognizable by the thickness of his horns.

During the dry season, males split from the herd and form bachelor groups. Two types of bachelor herds occur: ones made of males aged four to seven years and those of males 12 years or older. During the wet season, the younger bulls rejoin a herd to mate with the females. They stay with them throughout the season to protect the calves. Some older bulls cease to rejoin the herd, as they can no longer compete with the younger, more aggressive males. Males have a linear dominance hierarchy based on age and size. Each buffalo is safer when a herd is larger.

Syncerus-caffer-Masaai-Mara-Kenya crop
Cape buffaloes in Masai Mara, Kenya

Adult bulls spar in play, dominance interactions, or actual fights. A bull approaches another, lowing, with his horns down, and waits 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 bull may rub his opponent's face and body 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.

African buffaloes are notable for their apparent altruism. Females appear to exhibit some sort of "voting behavior". During resting time, the females stand up, shuffle around, and sit back down again. They sit in the direction they think they should move. After an hour of more shuffling, the females travel in the direction they decide. This decision is communal and not based on hierarchy or dominance.

African Cape Buffalo (5232693190)
Herd of African Cape Buffalo

When chased by predators, a herd sticks close together and makes it hard for the predators to pick off one member. Calves are gathered in the middle. A buffalo herd responds to the distress call of a captured member and tries to rescue it. A calf's distress call gets the attention of not only the mother, but also the herd.

African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) (16600040101)
African Buffalo cooling down

Buffaloes engage in mobbing behavior when fighting off predators. They have been recorded killing a lion and chasing lions up trees and keeping them there for hours, after the lions have killed a member of their group. Lion cubs can get trampled and killed. In one videotaped instance, known as the Battle at Kruger, a calf survived an attack by both lions and a crocodile after intervention of the herd.


African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) bull (33064006406)
African Buffalo bull

African buffaloes make various vocalizations. Many calls are lower-pitched versions of those emitted by domestic cattle. They emit low-pitched, two- to four-second calls intermittently at three- to six-second intervals to signal the herd to move. To signal to the herd to change direction, leaders emit "gritty", "creaking gate" sounds. When moving to drinking places, some individuals make long "maaa" calls up to 20 times a minute.

African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) old male ... (32618094608)
African Buffalo old male

When being aggressive, they make explosive grunts that may last long or turn into a rumbling growl. Cows produce croaking calls when looking for their calves. Calves make a similar call of a higher pitch when in distress. When threatened by predators, they make drawn-out "waaaa" calls.

Dominant individuals make calls to announce their presence and location. A version of the same call, but more intense, is emitted as a warning to an encroaching inferior. When grazing, they make various sounds, such as brief bellows, grunts, honks, and croaks.


African Buffaloes (Syncerus caffer) cow and calf ... (32260503044)
African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) cow and calf

Buffaloes mate and give birth only during the rainy seasons. Birth peak takes place early in the season, while mating peaks later. A bull closely guards a cow that is his mate, while keeping other bulls at bay. This is difficult, as cows are quite evasive and attract many males to the scene.

Cows first calve at five years of age, after a gestation period of 11.5 months. Newborn calves remain hidden in vegetation for the first few weeks while being nursed occasionally by the mother before joining the main herd. Older calves are held in the centre of the herd for safety.

African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) calf 2 weeks
African buffalo calf at 2 weeks

The maternal bond between mother and calf lasts longer than in most bovines. However, when a new calf is born, the bonding ends and the mother keeps her previous offspring at bay with horn jabs. Nevertheless, the yearling follows its mother for another year or so. Males leave their mothers when they are two years old and join the bachelor groups.

Relationship with humans


Pendjari büffel
Sudanese buffaloes at Pendjari National Park

The current status of African Cape buffalo is dependent on the animal's value to both trophy hunters and tourists, paving the way for conservation efforts through anti poaching patrols, village crop damage payouts, and payback programs to local areas.

The buffalo is listed as least concern by the IUCN "as the species remains widespread, with a global population estimated at nearly 900,000 animals, of which more than three-quarters are in protected areas. While some populations (subspecies) are decreasing, others will remain unchanged in the long term if large, healthy populations continue to persist in a substantial number of national parks, equivalent reserves and hunting zones in southern and eastern Africa."

In the most recent and available census data at continental scale, the total estimated numbers of the three African buffalo savanna subspecies (S. c. caffer, S. c. brachyceros, S. c. aequinoctialis) are at 513,000 individuals.

Ernest Hemingway poses with water buffalo, Africa, 1953
Ernest Hemingway poses with a Cape buffalo he shot in 1953

In the past, numbers of African buffaloes suffered their most severe collapse during the great rinderpest epidemic of the 1890s, which, coupled with pleuro-pneumonia, caused mortalities as high as 95% among livestock and wild animals.

Being a member of the big-five game family, a term originally used to describe the five most dangerous animals to hunt, the Cape buffalo is a sought-after trophy, with some hunters paying over $10,000 for the opportunity to hunt one. The larger bulls are targeted for their trophy value, although in some areas, buffaloes are still hunted for meat.


Lions hunting Africa
Lions hunting buffalo Africa

Other than one of the big five, it is known as "the Black Death" or "widowmaker", and is widely regarded as a very dangerous animal, as it gores and kills over 200 people every year.

Buffaloes are sometimes reported to kill more people in Africa than any other animal, although the same claim is also made of hippos and crocodiles.

Buffaloes are notorious among big-game hunters as very dangerous animals, with wounded animals reported to ambush and attack pursuers.

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