African Buffalo were probably extirpated from Bioko Island sometime between 1860 and 1910 (Butynski et al. 1997).
The African buffalo is an extremely large animal. The length from the head to the back ranges from 2,100 mm to 3,000 mm; tail length ranges from 750 mm to 1,100 mm; and the shoulder height ranges from 1,000 mm to 1,700 mm. African buffalos have large heads and limbs along with a broad chest. The ears on these buffalos are large and droopy. The horns of the African buffalo either spread out and downward, upward, or out and back. In males, the two horns are joined by a boss, which is a shield that covers the entire head. Size varies between subspecies of the African buffalo; S. c. caffer, found in the eastern savannahs, may be twice as large as S. c. nana, which occurs in equatorial forests. The color of buffalo hair ranges from brown to black. Young buffalos have a dense covering of hair; adults have sparce hair; and very little hair is present on the very old (Nowak, 1983).
Range mass: 500 to 900 kg.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Habitat and Ecology
African buffaloes are found in arid biomes, including areas with rivers, lakes, and swamps. They are found at sea level as well as in mountainous altitudes. African buffaloes like dense cover, but are found in open woodlands as well (Estes, 1991).
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest ; scrub forest
African buffalos are herbivorous and are grazing animals. In the dry season, the pastures diminish and the buffalos move toward water or a depression in the ground and feed off of low nutrient grass. Once the rainy season begins, grasses increase considerably and are heavily grazed by the buffalo (Mloszewski, 1983). African buffalo spend 8 1/2 to 10 1/3 hours a day grazing. These animals graze slightly more at night than in the day. African buffalo also water once every day (Estes, 1991).
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: tactile ; chemical
Status: wild: 29.5 years.
Status: wild: 26.0 years.
Status: captivity: 16.0 years.
Status: wild: 18.0 years.
Status: captivity: 29.5 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Reproduction occurs throughout the year in African buffalo, but reproduction peaks are associated with seasonal rainfall. On the Serengeti Plain, heavy rains occur from February to July. Conception usually occurs at the end of this wet season, and the birth of the calf takes place during the second half of the following wet season. Females are in heat for 23 days and estrus lasts 5 - 6 days. Once the egg is fertilized, gestation takes almost a year, 340 days.
Usually only one calf is born, and it weighs around 40 kg. Males leave their mother after two years to join a bachelor group. Females remain with the mother until they have produced their own young or longer (Nowak, 1983). Females reach sexual maturity at 5 years of age, which is 3 - 4 years before males (Estes, 1991).
Range number of offspring: 1 (low) .
Average number of offspring: 1.
Range gestation period: 11.43 to 11.53 months.
Range weaning age: 4 to 12 months.
Key Reproductive Features: gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual
Average birth mass: 44000 g.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 1674 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 1475 days.
Parental Investment: altricial ; post-independence association with parents
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Syncerus caffer
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Syncerus caffer
Public Records: 44
Specimens with Barcodes: 45
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 1996Lower Risk/conservation dependent (LR/cd)
The population of African buffaloes has decreased a little to due an increase in human activities (Nowak, 1983).
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
Few population estimates are available for the forest buffalo. It tends to occur locally at relatively high densities in open, grassy areas within the equatorial forest, but at much lower densities in extensive areas of continuous forest. East (1999) produced a total population estimate for the forest buffalo of about 60,000. This estimate is probably very conservative, but forest buffalo populations are in decline over most of the subspecies remaining range.
The species distribution and numbers have also been greatly reduced by habitat loss and poaching. It is a favourite target of meat hunters in many countries, and poaching has been a major contributor to the recent decline of buffalo populations in many protected areas, e.g., national parks such as Comoe (Ivory Coast), Garamba (Congo-Kinshasa) and Serengeti (Tanzania), and probably in many other areas. It is also susceptible to drought, which has caused substantial declines in some populations during the 1990s, alone or in combination with diseases such as anthrax or rinderpest, e.g., in Tsavo, Serengeti/Mara, Gonarezhou and Kruger (East 1999).
About 75% of the estimated total population of the forest buffalo occurs in nominally protected areas, including Lobeke (Cameroon) - Dzanga-Sangha (CAR) - Nouabale-Ndoki-Kabo (Congo-Brazzaville), Lope, Wonga-Wongue and Gamba (Gabon), Odzala (Congo-Brazzaville) and Maiko (Congo-Kinshasa).
The future status of this species is closely linked to the future of protected areas and well-managed hunting zones, since it is a frequent target of poachers.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Some people consider African buffaloes to be the most dangerous big game animal in Africa. Old bulls have been known to stalk and attack humans. Scientists discredit this claim and say that these stories come from hunters who were trying to hunt down a wounded animal (Nowak, 1983).
In the past, African buffaloes have been hunted for food and for sport (Nowak, 1983).
Positive Impacts: food ; body parts are source of valuable material
It is not closely related to the slightly larger wild Asian water buffalo, and its ancestry remains unclear. The African buffalo is not an 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 most recent and available census data at continental scale, the total estimated numbers of the three African buffalo savanna subspecies are at 513,000 individuals.
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 ticks off with mud and keep cool) in Phinda, South Africa
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