The African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is a sub-Saharan African bovine, of which there are five species. These animals are large and widely regarded as one of the most dangerous animals on the African continent. It has a very unpredictable temperament and has never been domesticated; in fact, it is not an ancestor of domestic cattle and is only distantly related to other larger bovines.
These animals belong to the genus Syncerus and the family Bovidae. They are found mostly in savannas, swamps and floodplains. They are grazing ruminants, eating grass and sedges as well as cud or bolus. The African buffalo has very few predators and are capable of defending themselves against large animals such as African lions. Despite this, lions do regularly eat buffalos.
The nominate subspecies, the Cape buffalo, is a member of the big five and is therefore sought after for trophy hunting. Hunting, along with loss of habitat, is one of the main reasons the population of the African buffalo is declining. It is currently listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List.
African Buffalo Subspecies
There are five subspecies of African buffalo. They vary mostly in size and location.
Syncerus caffer caffer (Cape Buffalo)
The Cape buffalo is found in South Africa and East Africa. They are the nominate species and the largest species, with adult males weighing up to 870 kg (1,920 lb). They are also the darkest in color, almost black.
Syncerus caffer nanus (Forest Buffalo, Dwarf Buffalo or Congo Buffalo)
The forest buffalo is found in forest areas of Central and West Africa. It is the smallest of the subspecies, weighing around 270 kg (600 lb), with a height of 120 cm at the withers. This makes this subspecies around the same size as a zebra and around two to three times lighter than the nominate species.
These buffalo are red in color, with darker patches on the head and shoulders, and in the ears, forming a brush. They appear so different to the nominate species that some believe they are two separate species.
Syncerus caffer brachyceros (Sudan Buffalo)
The Sudan buffalo is found in West Africa and is an intermediate between the first two subspecies. They are quite small, with adult buffalo averaging a weight up to 400 kg (880 lb).
Syncerus caffer aequinoctialis (Nile Buffalo)
The Nile buffalo is found in Central Africa and is similar to the Cape buffalo. However, it is smaller than the Cape buffalo and is lighter in color. Sometimes, this subspecies is thought to be the same as the Sudan buffalo.
Syncerus caffer mathewsi (Mountain Buffalo or Virunga Buffalo)
The mountain buffalo is found in the mountainous areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. It is not universally recognized by all authorities.
African Buffalo Characteristics
The African buffalo is a very large species that can weigh between 425 to 870 kg (937 to 1,918 lb), depending on the subspecies, with males normally larger than females. Their 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). The tail can range from 70 to 110 cm (28 to 43 in) long.
These animals have a long but stocky body, and short, thick legs. They usually have black or dark brown coats, and older bulls will have whitish circles around their eyes and on their face. Females tend to have more-reddish coats. The front of their body is more powerful than the back, with their hooves wider at the front to help support their weight.
The African buffalo is best known for its horns. The horns have fused bases, forming a continuous bone shield across the top of the head referred to as a “boss”. The horns curve upwards and outwards, and, in some large animals, the distance between the ends of the horns can reach upwards of one meter. These horns reach their full size when they are five or six year old, but do not become hard until they are eight or nine years old.
African Buffalo Lifespan
African buffalos can live for up to 22 years in the wild and up to 29 years in captivity. Males are more likely to have a shorter lifespan than females or sub-adults, and they are preyed on by lions at a higher average rate than females.
African Buffalo Diet
Grass makes up the majority of the African buffalo diet — and they eat a lot of it. They also eat cud or bolus to ensure they are getting all the nutrients from their food. These buffalo generally prefer grasses with a higher leaf to stem ratio.
They use their tongue and wide incisor row to eat grass more quickly than most other African herbivores. Once they have depleted an area of grass, they won’t stay and will move on quickly.
African Buffalo Behavior
African buffalo are a social animal, although their herd size can vary greatly. Herds are usually made up of family members, including related females and their offspring. These herds are surrounded by subherds of subordinate males, high-ranking males and females, and old or invalid animals.
Males have a linear dominance hierarchy based on age and size. Young males keep their distance from the dominant bull, although dominant bulls may tolerate subordinate bulls in the same herd. This is because the larger the herd is, the safer the buffalos are.
Males split from the herd and form bachelor groups in the dry season. There are 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 and then stay with them throughout the season to protect the calves.
When it comes to herd movement, the females exhibit a sort of “voting behavior” in which they sit in the direction they think they should move. Many of the behaviors of the African buffalo can vary on certain factors such as time of the year and predation threats. For example, they tend to feed for an average of 1.5 hours in July, but in April, this can be up to 4.5 hours.
African buffalo attempt to locate a potential threat, usually visually, by scrutinizing their environment. To do this, they remain stationary and adjust the position of their head depending on distance and angle of the potential threat. When herds are chased by predators, they stick together and ensure calves are gathered in the middle of the group.
These animals have very good eyesight and can spot threats from over 1 kilometer away. As well as silent and visual cues, buffalos also use vocalizations to communicate with each other. Male bulls will engage in play, dominance interactions, or actual fights, although these are rare.
African buffalo are very dangerous to humans. They are most dangerous and most likely to attack when hurt, which is why hunters are often attacked and killed by these animals. In fact, they are in the top five of the most dangerous animals to hunt. Because they are so strong, have such large horns and are so fast, you won’t have much luck trying to get away unscathed from one if it is chasing you. Buffalos kill an estimated 200 people each year.
African Buffalo Reproduction
Mating takes place throughout the year as female buffalo are polyestrus, with a cycle lasting 21 to 22 days. However, there is a spike in mating towards the end of the wet season, which can be called there buffalos mating season.
As the mating season nears, males from bachelor groups will rejoin a herd to find a mate. Once he has found one, he will follow the female around until she is receptive to mating. Sometimes, the female is approached by a more dominant male, which results in the original male returning to grazing. Once copulation has taken place, other males may copulate with the same female. These animals are not monogamous, nor does a bond last between them.
The gestation period for the African buffalos is around 11.5 months. Newborns usually weigh between 24 and 60 kg. Females remain with their newborns as they gain strength after birth while the rest of the herd moves on to forage. Females feed, defend, guide, stroke and play with their calves, while males have nothing to do with tasing the young. Occasionally, orphaned calves will be taken in by older females, who may adopt multiple orphan calves at one time.
Calves are typically weaned by 9 or 10 months, and begin eating solid foods by their second month. They become independent between one and two years of age. Female African buffalos usually give birth to their first calf at five years of age. They usually breed again after 18 to 19 months. Males are sexually mature by 4 to 6 years.
African Buffalo Location and Habitat
African buffalos are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Their exact location depends on their subspecies: the Cape buffalo is found in Southern and East Africa, the forest buffalo is found in forest areas of Central and West Africa, the Sudan buffalo is found in West Africa and the Nile buffalo is found in Central Africa. Some of these buffalos have overlapping range, and it is for this reason that it is not uncommon to see hybrids of two subspecies.
These animals are reside in dense lowland forests, lowland rainforests, montane forests and grasslands, Acacia grasslands, miombo woodlands, coastal savannas, plains and semi-arid bushland. In fact, they can and will reside anywhere with permanent water and grass.
They like to live less than 1 km to a water source and can be found at altitudes exceeding 4000 m. Often, the areas in which they live depends on the amount of rainfall that area receives. They also prefer a habitat with dense cover, such as reeds and thickets, but can also be found in open woodland.
African Buffalo Conservation Status
All of the subspecies of African buffalo are considered together by the IUCN and are listed as Near Threatened. In the 1800’s African buffalo populations were exposed to rinderpest, a disease of domestic cattle, which caused a significant decline in the species. Fortunately, the species have since recovered, but they are still at risk from other factors. The current population of African buffalo is around 400,000 individuals.
The main threats to African buffalo are habitat loss and poaching. As one of the big five, these animals are often targeted by poachers and trophy hunters. Some hunters pay over $10,000 for the opportunity to hunt one. Habitat loss is caused by climate change, which can subsequently change the ecosystem in the area.
African Buffalo Predators
Aside from humans, African buffalo have very few natural predators. Their biggest predators are African lions, although they can and will defend themselves from lions. They may also be eaten by large crocodiles.
It can take more than one lion, and sometimes an entire pride, to bring down a buffalo. African buffalo can outrun lions by about 10 km per hour so, to be successful, lions must ambush them from a close distance.
Other animals, such as cheetahs, leopards, and spotted hyenas, along with lions and crocodiles, are a threat to newborn and young buffalo. African wild dogs can also be a threat to young and, on occasion, full grown cows too.
African Buffalo Ecological Importance
African buffalos are important to their ecosystem largely due to the way in which they graze. They are cyclical grazers, meaning they return to the same areas to graze again once the vegetation has grown enough. This is important for animals that move either with the buffalo herd or follow after the herd, such as zebras and wildebeest, as it opens up new patches of vegetation for them to feed.
African Buffalo FAQs
Where do African buffalos live?
African buffalos are native to sub-Saharan Africa. Their exact location depends on their subspecies.
What do African buffalos eat?
African buffalos are herbivores and eat mainly grass. They prefer plants with a higher leaf to stem ratio. These animals spent a lot of their time grazing, and move on quickly to new areas once they have depleted the area.
How many subspecies of African buffalo are there?
There are four confirmed subspecies of African buffalo — Cape Buffalo, Forest Buffalo, Sudan Buffalo and Nile Buffalo — and one that is not recognized by all authorities, the Mountain Buffalo.
How big are African buffalo?
African buffalo are very large. Depending on the subspecies, they can weigh up to 870 kg (1,918 lb), with a shoulder height up to 1.7 m (5.6 ft).
Can African buffalo hurt humans?
African buffalo are one of the most dangerous of all African wildlife and can and will hurt humans. Buffalo attacks are common in nature, with an estimated 200 people dying per year by attack from African buffalo. They are said to have killed more big game hunters than any other animals in the African wildlife, and rank in the top five of the most dangerous animals to hunt. This is because they are most aggressive when they are wounded, or if a calf from the herd has been attacked by predators.
What are the other members of the Big Five?
African buffalos are a member of the big five, which makes them a popular sight by tourists on safaris, and also popular by trophy hunters.
How fast can African buffalo run?
These animals are very fast. They can outrun a lion, and are known to be able to run at speeds of up to 35 mph (56.3 kph) to escape predators.
Learn about other animals from Africa