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The African savanna buffalo

17 June 2015


www.leopard.tvThe origin of the African buffaloes is unknown but they are not related to cattle or the Indian water buffalo. What does seem certain is that all the African buffaloes developed from an ancestral population in what is now the Central African Republic. However, fossils indicate that a giant buffalo Pelorovis antiquus with a horn spread of some 3 m once was widely spread in the grasslands and savannas south of the Sahara Desert 300 million years ago. It died out along the southern Cape coast some 12 000 years ago and in East Africa 4000 years ago. The living African buffaloes all diverged from a savanna buffalo in East Africa. Fossils of Syncerus only date to some 250 000 years ago. The forest buffalo diverged from the savanna buffalo Syncerus caffer and the latter spread south into southern Africa.

There are two distinct groups of living buffalo in Africa: those in West and Central Africa. The subspecies consist of the Sudan buffalo Syncerus caffer brachyceros of West Africa, the forest buffalo Syncerus caffer nanus of the rain forests of West and Central Africa, the Nile buffalo Syncerus caffer aequinoctialis, the mountain buffalo Syncerus caffer matthewsi of Rwanda and the savanna buffalo Syncerus caffer caffer of East and southern Africa which are genetically similar, although some ecotypes are adapted to specific habitats. Various fragmented populations occur and they have become popular on some wildlife ranches.

www.leopard.tvThe African buffalo Syncerus caffer was first described scientifically as a type of cattle Bos caffer by Sparrman in 1779 based on a specimen that was collected along the Sunday River near Uitenhage in the eastern Cape. When later studies revealed that it was not related to cattle, Hodgson created the genus Syncerus for it in 1847. This name is derived from ancient Greek words sun for together and keras for horn because the horn bases are close together. The name caffer refers to the Arab word käfir for someone who is not a Muslim and is based on the Arab term kafara which means not to believe. The buffaloes of eastern and southern Africa are ecotypes that adapted to specific habitats.

www.leopard.tvThe African buffalo has the greatest variation in horn shape and size of all the African bovids. The horns of the cows are more slender, have a flatter boss and are without sclerotic keratin than those of the bulls. The front hooves are larger than the rear ones to be able to carry the massive head. The coat of an old bull is pitch black, but it in younger bulls it varies from dark grey with a reddish tint to black. In the Luangwa River Valley of Zambia, some of the bulls have a broad white band around the middle of the body. The older bulls wallow in mud when it is hot because they lose hair on their backs with age and the mud protects them against the sun. The calf is reddish-brown. The bare patches at the inner corners of the eyes have an unknown cause and function. The long, black tail has a black or dark brown tassel. The shoulder height of an adult bull is around 1,5 m and he weighs up to 900 kg as opposed to 1,4 m and 750 kg in a cow. The body grows maximally within the first year of life in both sexes.

www.leopard.tvThe African savanna buffalo is a grass and roughage feeder and 22 per cent of the diet consists of leaves and twigs which it especially eats in the dry season. It is a selective feeder in the wet season when it eats 2 per cent of its body weight per day, mostly in the early morning. An African savanna buffalo digests fibrous foods better than other members of the family Bovidae by secreting several litres of saliva per day and chewing the cud to improve fermentation and digestion. In the dry season, the high fibre content of dry season grasses necessitates a buffalo to spend more time on ruminating in than in the wet season. Buffaloes graze close to water and they eat soil in the dry season to obtain trace minerals. They are dependent on water and drinks some 31 litres of water per day, mainly early in the morning and evening. However, it may only drink water once every 36 hours.

Variations in rainfall and habitat are key elements in the population dynamics of the buffalo, and it does best in high rainfall areas. The African buffalo is highly gregarious and may form herds of several thousand animals which disperse from time to time. There are bachelor and breeding herds, with a linear hierarchy among the adult bulls in the latter. In the wild, the breeding herds occupy defined ranges of around 120 km2 with little overlap. Nevertheless, the range size depends on the quality of the habitat, being the smallest in the wet, hot season and the largest in the dry, cold season in the African savannas.

www.leopard.tvA bull becomes sexually mature when he is 2,5 to three years old and a cow when she is three years old. However, a bull will not breed until he becomes socially dominant at the age of around seven years. He is usually displaced as a herd bull at the age of nine years or so and therefore only has a limited breeding life. Moreover, several bulls will mate with every cow that is in oestrus. As does most hoofed animals, a bull will show flehmen in which the upper lip is curled back in a grimace to test the oestrus cycle of a cow when smelling at her urine.

Breeding mostly occurs in the last half of the rainy season but it can happen at any time of the year. However, the calves are usually born when the grass cover is optimal. Gestation lasts 343 days and the calves are born within the herd in the afternoon or just before dawn when it is resting. The calf weighs 26 to 42 kg at birth and it is strong enough to join the herd after a few hours, but it may be hidden when the herd grazes. The cow has four inguinal teats and the calf weans at an age of five to nine months, although this can extend to 15 months. Newly born calves may at times be left behind when a large herd moves around to graze because a cow will desert her calf to remain in the safety of the herd.

The African buffalo is susceptible to many diseases and the rinderpest epidemic from 1890 to 1900 in Africa killed as much as 95 per cent of all the buffaloes. Other major diseases are foot-and-mouth disease, corridor disease and bovine tuberculosis. Large herds will cross wide, deep rivers en masse to limit predation by crocodiles. In the Kruger National Park calf mortality can exceed 50 per cent but it reduces after the age of two years. The longevity of a buffalo in the wild varies from 22 to 29 years.

www.leopard.tvOnly the three of the known seven types of southern African foot-and-mouth virus are linked to wildlife and require management attention for the buffalo. The calf is immune to infection until the age of five to eight months until a carrier adult infects it in the mid-winter. The irresponsible movement of infected buffaloes can cause major harm to the entire agricultural and wildlife industries, and wildlife ranches must be registered with the Directorate of Veterinary Services when keeping African savanna buffaloes. The minimum founder population is three bulls and four cows. An electrified strand 750 mm above the ground and 225 mm away from a wire fence is required to contain buffaloes.

When hunting African game, the savanna buffalo is reputed to be the most dangerous of all African game. The most recent best Rowland Ward trophy had horns which measured 64,000 inches (162,56 cm). The best Safari Club International trophy scored 140.250 points.

On live wildlife auctions, the African buffalo has become popular with a high price, but it showed a mean price per animal decrease of 3.7 per cent from 2013 to 2014.



Bengis, R 2013. Foot-and-mouth disease in sub-Saharan Africa – the buffalo connection. Game & Hunt 19(04): 93, 94, 97 & 107.

Bothma, J du P & J G du Toit (Eds) 2015. Game ranch management, sixth edition. Pretoria: Van Schaik. In press.

Cloete, F 2014. Lewendewild-handel stoom voort. Game & Hunt 21(02): 71 - 74.

Du Toit, J G 2005. The African savanna buffalo. In J du P Bothma and N van Rooyen (Eds), Intensive wildlife production in southern Africa. Pretoria: Van Schaik, pp 78 - 105.

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


article by Prof J du P Bothma


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