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The social behaviour of the African buffalo

13 June 2016


Breeding herds

The African savanna buffalo is a gregarious animal that forms breeding herds consisting of several thousand animals in which there is a well-defined social order. Breeding herds numbering up to 3000 animals are known from the Savuti region of Botswana. In addition, younger and older bulls that no longer breed form bachelor herds. Young bulls in bachelor herds will challenge and replace breeding bulls in the breeding herds from time to time. A breeding herd is a relatively stable unit, but large herds form and divide continually because herd size may be the product of the availability and quality of the food resources. However, it is not clear whether being a member of a large herd benefits an individual buffalo rather than the population as an entity.

In certain regions, such as the Serengeti Plains in East Africa, the buffalo herds migrate seasonally to areas with permanent water resources during the dry season and leave for other areas again with the onset of the wet season. Large herds break up into smaller units when resting, but they rejoin to form a single, large herd when they become active again.




Although there does not seem to be clearly defined subgroups within the larger population, there are distinct groups of calves that may associate with each other when they become adults. However, in the bulls this association stops when they reach puberty at an age of around three years. There does not seem to be a distinct social hierarchy among the cows. Nevertheless, there may be a substructure in a herd that governs its spatial distribution because some animals are usually found at the back of a herd, are in poorer physical condition than the rest of the herd, are more likely to become separated from the herd, and are consequently more prone to predation by lions.

There is a linear hierarchy among the adult bulls of a breeding herd which is maintained by threat behaviour rather than physical conflict. A bull that shows threat behaviour holds his head high or points his nose to the ground, but at times these postures may be combined. In doing so, a bull will turn sideways to a rival to display the size of his body so as to intimidate his opponent. At times, bulls that show conflict behaviour paw at the earth and throw earth into the air, while making hooking movements with their horns. If an opponent then does not show submission by holding his head low with his horns laid back, or does not put his nose under the neck or belly of his adversary when they are close together, physical fights may follow. During such a fight, the bulls charge at each other and lower their heads just before impact so that the shock is taken on the thick boss of the horns. The winner of such a conflict is the bull with the greatest power behind his charge. The loser will then break off the conflict by turning and being chased away by the victor. Although some cows also show such agonistic behaviour, they do so to a lesser extent.

In a large ecosystem, such as the Serengeti Plains, large breeding herds tend to split into smaller herds during the dry season at the time when the bachelor herds move away from the breeding herds. In excessively large breeding herds the dominance among the bulls is less well defined than in the smaller herds, and dominance among the cows may be completely absent.




Both the breeding and bachelor herds have clearly defined ranges that overlap little with those of adjacent herds. The size and location of these ranges vary seasonally in adaptation to the temporary abundance and occurrence of food and water. Buffaloes tend to remain in the vicinity of water during the dry season, but they move away extensively from permanent water during the wet season when they will use temporary water resources. Buffalo herds also have smaller ranges in wetter regions than in more arid ones, and depending on the region the ranges can vary from as little as 60 km2 in parts of Zimbabwe to as large as 1455 km2 in the South African Lowveld. In this Lowveld, however, the buffaloes use some 120 km2 of their overall range during the whole year, but they move around constantly and cover some 5 to 8 km per day. However, when their range is close to water they are more sedentary and do not move around much.

Old and young bulls may leave the breeding herds to form small, independent bachelor herds. Bulls in the bachelor herds have the disadvantages that they do not contribute to reproduction and are exposed to an increased risk of predation where lions occur. However, the main advantage is that the bachelor herds are relatively small and that these herds can exploit small pockets of habitat with good food resources for longer periods than large breeding herds. The behaviour of the bulls seem to vary regionally. In some parts the bulls will switch from being in a breeding and bachelor herd every few weeks, or even days, and in other regions they remain in specific herds. This variation is caused by the loss of physical condition when in a breeding herd, and a gain in physical condition when in a bachelor herd.

On the Serengeti Plains, all the bulls mostly remain in bachelor herds and only join the breeding herds for reproduction. Solitary, old bulls that have been evicted from a breeding herd are particularly vulnerable to predation where lions occur. These old, solitary bulls have a low fertility rate and tend to remain in small ranges, some as small as 0.5 km2, where they only move some 1 to 2 km per day. Bulls that stay in bachelor herds experience less harassment than those that attempt to return to a breeding herd. Nevertheless, the bachelor herds also have a social hierarchy and aggressive behaviour remains prevalent in them.




A buffalo breeding herd drinks water twice per day: early in the morning and early in the evening. The bulls wallow in mud baths during the hotter time of the day, but the cows, young animals and calves only do so rarely. However, as a method of cooling down, mud-wallowing is less effective than the use of shade when individual subgroups stand or lie down under trees or in dense reed beds. The main periods of activity during the day are when grazing early in the morning and late in the afternoon, although the buffalo will graze more at night than during the day, especially during the warmer months. Feeding during the day stops when the temperature under the skin approaches 40°C.

When grasses become dry, more woody and fibrous during the dry season, buffaloes spend more time in ruminating than during the wet season. This does not happen in regions where the nutritional content of the grasses remains high throughout the year, or where buffaloes receive nutritious supplementary food.

A buffalo is an inquisitive animal and individuals will break away from a herd to examine strange objects, such as a tourist vehicle, with the nose outstretched to test the air. If they are then disturbed they race back to the herd which can cause the herd to stampede into unexpected directions. When being hunted, a wounded buffalo is dangerous because it is known to circle back to stalk and ambush trackers and hunters at times. A charging buffalo keeps its head stretched out and is a difficult target because its thick boss and wide horns over the shoulders can deflect even a powerful bullet, forcing a hunter and trackers into a suitable tree. Moreover they are persistent during an attack and do not give up easily, keeping hunters and trackers in trees for many hours while waiting below.

Buffalo and foodBuffalo licking its noseBuffalo in the mud



Prone to illness

Rainfall has a great influence on buffalo population structure as the buffalo is prone to extreme die-offs during severe droughts when buffaloes will even switch from grazing to browsing plants such as the mopani tree. They are especially prone to rinderpest which decimated many buffalo populations in Africa in the late 19th century, but they have recovered well from isolated pockets of habitat where they survived. The main decimating diseases are foot-and-mouth disease, corridor disease (buffalo disease), brucellosis (contagious abortion) and bovine tuberculosis. Especially bovine the latter will skew the age structure of a buffalo herd, decrease physical condition and cause death and low productivity. Some herds that have been developed from disease-free buffaloes also show a reduced genetic diversity.



Du Toit, J G 2005. The African savanna buffalo. In J du P Bothma & N Van Rooyen (Eds), Intensive wildlife production in southern Africa. Pretoria: Van Schaik, pages 78 - 107.

Sinclair, A R E 1977. The African buffalo. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Skinner, J D & C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pages 621 - 625.

article by Prof J du P Bothma


See more buffalo articles:

A photo gallery of buffaloes
The African savanna buffalo, scientifically described by Prof J du P Bothma
Intensive production of African savanna buffaloes


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