|Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania|
S. c. caffer
It is not closely related to the slightly larger wild Asian water buffalo, and its ancestry remains unclear. The African buffalo is not the ancestor of domestic cattle, and is only distantly related to other larger bovines. Owing to its unpredictable nature, which makes it highly dangerous to humans, the African buffalo has never been domesticated unlike its Asian counterpart, the water buffalo.
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The African buffalo is a very robust species. Its shoulder height can range from 1 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 (the body length can exceed the wild water buffalo, which is rather heavier and taller) 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 900 kg (1,100 to 2,000 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. Its head is carried low; its top is located below the backline. 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.
The horns of African buffalo are very peculiar. A characteristic feature of them is the adult bull’s horns have fused bases, forming a continuous bone shield referred to as a “boss’, which can not always be penetrated even by a rifle bullet. From the base, the horns diverge, then bend down, and then smoothly curve upwards and outwards. The distance between the ends of the horns of large bulls is more than a metre. The young buffalo horn boss forms fully only upon reaching the age of five to six years. In cows, the horns are, on average, 10–20% smaller, and the boss is less prominent. Forest buffalo horns are much smaller and weaker than those of the savannah buffaloes and are almost never fused. They rarely reach a length of even 40 centimetres (16 in).
- Syncerus caffer caffer, the Cape 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.
- S. c. nanus (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, S. nanus. Hybrids between the typical subspecies and dwarf are not uncommon.
- S. c. brachyceros (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).
- S. c. aequinoctialis (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.
- S. c. mathewsi (mountain buffalo) is not universally recognized. It lives in mountainous areas of East Africa.
African forest buffalo at the San Diego Zoo
Sudanese buffaloes (Syncerus caffer brachyceros) at Pendjari National Park
Cape buffaloes (Syncerus caffer caffer) in Masai Mara, Kenya
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.
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; however, several incidents have been reported in which lone adult male lions have been able to successfully bring down adult animals. The Nile crocodile will typically attack only old solitary animals and young calves, though they can kill healthy adults. 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.
The Cape buffalo is susceptible to many diseases, including bovine tuberculosis, corridor disease, and foot and mouth disease. As with many diseases, these problems will remain dormant within a population as long as the health of the animals is good. These diseases do, however, restrict the legal movements of the animals and fencing infected areas from unaffected areas is enforced. Some wardens and game managers have managed to protect and breed “disease-free” herds which become very valuable because they can be transported. Most well-known are Lindsay Hunt’s efforts to source uninfected animals from the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Some disease-free buffaloes in South Africa have been sold to breeders for close to US$130,000.
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 subherds of subordinate males, high-ranking males and females and old or invalid animals. The young males keep their distance from the dominant bull, who is recognizable by the thickness of his horns. During the dry season, males will 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. Since a buffalo is safer when a herd is larger, dominant bulls may rely on subordinate bulls and sometimes tolerate their copulation.
Adult bulls will spar in play, dominance interactions or actual fights. A bull will approach another, lowing, with his horns down and wait 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 its 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 will stand up, shuffle around, and sit back down again. They will sit in the direction they think they should move. After an hour of more shuffling, the females will travel in the direction they decide. This decision is communal and not based on hierarchy or dominance. When chased by predators, a herd will stick close together and make it hard for the predators to pick off one member. Calves are gathered in the middle. A buffalo herd will respond to the distress call of a captured member and try to rescue it. A calf’s distress call will get the attention of not only the mother, but also the herd. Buffaloes will engage in mobbing behavior when fighting off predators. They have been recorded killing a lion and chasing lions up a tree and keeping them there for two 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 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 will emit “gritty”, “creaking gate” sounds. When moving to drinking places, some individuals make long maaa calls up to 20 times a minute. When being aggressive, they make explosive grunts that may last long or turn into rumbling growl. Cows produce croaking calls when looking for their calves. Calves will 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 more intense version of the same call is emitted as a warning to an encroaching inferior. When grazing, they will make various sounds, such as brief bellows, grunts, honks and croaks.
Buffaloes mate and give birth only during the rainy seasons. Birth peak takes place early in the season, while mating peaks later. A bull will closely guard a cow that comes into heat, while keeping other bulls at bay. This is difficult, as cows are quite evasive and attract many males to the scene. By the time a cow is in full estrus, only the most dominant bull in the herd/subherd is there.
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.  The maternal bond between mother and calf lasts longer than in most bovids. However, when a new calf is born, the bonding ends and the mother will keep her previous offspring at bay with horn jabs. Nevertheless, the yearling will follow its mother for another year or so. Males leave their mothers when they are two years old and join the bachelor groups. Young calves, unusually for bovids, suckle from behind their mothers, pushing their heads between the mothers' legs.
Relationship with humans
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 CAMPFIRE 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 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 ungulates.
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.
Known within Africa as one of the “big five”, “The Black Death” or “widowmaker”, the African buffalo 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.
African buffalo covered in mud (so it can rub the mud off with its ticks and keep cool) in Phinda, South Africa
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