The African, or Cape buffalo is probably the least impactful member of the Big 5. It lacks the impressive dimensions of the elephant, the prehistoric look of the rhino and could never compete with the presence and beauty of the big cats. Let’s be frank: it’s a big cow. On steroids! However, what it lacks in aesthetic beauty it makes up with sheer aggression and freakish strength. Of Africa’s most famous quintet, the buffalo is the most feared amongst rangers and for good reason. The most relevant of these factors is their unpredictable levels of aggression, coupled with an apparent lack of any emotion. It is possible to read the moods and temperament of most of the animals in the bush but the buffalo is a master of concealing its intentions. They are the bush’s ultimate poker players. The eyes betray most animals, even humans, but a buffalo’s eyes are lifeless, like a dolls eyes. They contain no information or intention and because of that, they are always to be respected.
Herds of buffalo in the area can reach over 1000 individuals and because of this they do not hold territories dues to their constant need to graze and dependency on water. These great black waves roll in and out of the area as they search for available resources. During the winter, these tides of testosterone sweep through the Sabi Sabi reserve indulging in the permanent water that resides here and bring with them wondrous sightings and fascinating social interactions, not to mention a multitude of opportunities for hungry lions!
The social structure of a buffalo herd is very interesting as the composition follows a fairly rigid structure and this is one of the reasons they are a very dangerous prospect for a lion in search of a substantial meal. At the head of the herd, the dominant males, along with a smattering of the oldest and most experienced females forge a path through the bush. They are generals that lead the rest of the battalions strung out behind them. The central core of the herd normally contains the females and calves, whilst the older and younger males bring up the rear. This is typical of a protective strategy whereby the more vulnerable members are flanked by a fearsome force.
In the summer months, large herds are slightly less common as their need for water can be fulfilled by the multiple seasonal pans that emerge during the rains. Buffalos regularly coat themselves in thick layers of mud and a large male can carry an additional 25-30kgs after a satisfying wallow. This serves multiple purposes in so much as it acts as protection from the sun and the abundant parasites intent on feasting on their blood. Males also partake in an activity known as ‘mud caking’ whereby they actively cover their horns in mud to presumably increase their size and thereby look more intimidating. It seems in the buffalo kingdom, size does matter; and these fearsome armourments constitute some of he most powerful weapons to be found in the bush.
Once male buffalos reach their early teens, their priorities change. No longer do they feel it necessary to follow the swathe of females across the veld, but prefer to remain in one place and wait for the herds to pass through. It is these old men that pose us such a danger, on foot especially. They are the epitome of grumpy old men and their level of tolerance is minimal at best. What causes this heightened aggression is a mystery but some of this behavior can surely be attributed to an unpleasantly large number of ticks that abide on their skin. These irritations can number in excess of 100,000 per animal! I would also be somewhat cantankerous faced with such an infestation!! These muscle-bound bachelors have been coined ‘dagga boys’ due to their penchant for rolling in the mud (‘dagga’ is a variation on the Shangaan word for mud) and then using the soil particles as a body scrub for removing these numerous unwanted guests.
The buffalo then is a bit of an enigma. Although the least striking of the Big 5, its presence in the bush commands the most respect of them all. It comes as a surprise to the majority of guests that this bovine battering ram is considered the most dangerous animal in the bush by rangers and hunters alike. Under that no-nonsense simplistic build however lies an animal that strives to survive. Even after the Rinderpest virus killed 99% of all buffalo in Africa in the late 1800’s their will to survive has seen them recover to great numbers and they roam the bush like well drilled armies as they continue to multiply. I like to refer to them as ‘bank managers’. When they stare at you with those soulless eyes, you are left with no clue of what thoughts lie beneath that freakishly strong exterior except this strange feeling that you must owe them money…