Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

Cape Buffalo

Syncerus caffer (Sparrman, 1779)

 Photo: Doug Lee



German: Büffel
French: Buffle d'Afrique
isiNdebele: Inyathi
isiZulu: Inyathi
isiXhosa: Inyathi
seSotho: Nare
seTswana: Nare
Shona: Nyati
Shangaan: Nyarhi
Nama/Damara: |Goab

IUCN Conservation Status:

Low Risk, conservation dependent (LR/cd)The total current African buffalo population is approximately 900,000. The Cape Buffalo is a member of the Big Five, and is regarded as most dangerous of all African game species, especially if wounded or solitary. Its economic value has been enhanced by veterinary restrictions that prevent its translocation because of the danger of spreading disease. During the 18th century the buffalo was the most abundant game species south of the Zambezi River. Early European colonists quickly adopted buffalo as a favourite meat after they settled in the Cape.



Suborder: PECORA
Superfamily: Bovoidea
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Bovinae
Tribe: Bovini
Genus: Syncerus
Species: caffer

In the past, major variations in body appearance and skin colour led to the classification of 44 sub-species, although at present, only four are recognized

  • the dwarf or red forest buffalo Syncerus caffer nanus, restricted to the swampy jungle and rain forests of West Africa stretching from Gambia to the Congo and to northern Angola
  • the north-eastern or Nile savannah buffalo S.c. aequinoctialis, from central East Africa, Chad, Sudan to Somalia and south to Tanzania
  • the north-western savannah buffalo S.c. brachyceros, from Senegal, through the Sahel to Chad
  • the southern or Cape buffalo S.c. caffer, occupying an area from southern Tanzania down to the Cape, including Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Angola.

Other buffalo-like animals are:

  •     the Asian water-buffalo of south-east Asia, Bubalus babalis
  •     the anoa of Indonesia, B. depressicornis
  •     the tamarau of the Phillipines, B. mindorensis
  •     the Indian bison or gaur, Bos gaurus
  •     the banteng from the Far East, B. banteng
  •     the kouprey of Cambodia, B. sauveli
  •     the American bison, Bison bison
  •     the European bison, B. bonasus

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A large ox-like animal with thick legs, heavier front than hind quarters, thick neck and massive bosses. It is the smallest member of the extant mega-herbivores.

A Comparison Of The Size Of The Extant Mega Herbivores Of The World
Mega Herbivore Animal Species
Adult Body Mass
Adult Shoulder Height
Elephant Loxodonta africana
Indian elephant Elaphas maximus
White rhino Ceratotherium simum
Indian rhino Rhinoceros unicornis
Hippo Hippopotamus amphibius


Black rhino Diceros bicornis
Javan rhino Rhinoceros sondaicus


Giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis
Asian gaur Bos gaurus
Bison Bison bison
Eland Tragelaphys oryx
Cape Buffalo Syncerus caffer caffer
North-Western buffalo S.c. brachyceros
North-Eastern buffalo S.c. aequinoctialis
Red Forest buffalo S.c. nanus
Asian Water-buffalo Bubalus babalis

Comparison To Man


Both sexes bear well-developed horns although the horns of bulls are thicker and heavier and have larger bosses than cows. The boss is formed of a thickened frontal bone covered by a keratin layer. The bosses of cows remain separate, but the bosses of bulls increase in size and fuse at 7-8 years age, reaching a thickness of up to 25 cm. The horns grow diagonally in a straight line for 2.5 year after which they begin to curve upwards. At 5 years it begins to descent in a curve down the side of the head. The minimum Rowland Ward trophy status is reached after 8 years. Geographically isolated populations can show major differences in horn structure.

Habitat requirement

The most important parameters are abundant tall, sweet-grass species, ample surface water, mud baths and sufficient shrub and trees for refuge. These are mostly associated with riverine valleys, marshlands, sub-tropical savannah woodlands and ecotones of broadleaf montane forests. Vast open, grassy plains lacking woody shelter are usually avoided as are sour-veld, short-grass or heavily over-grazed areas. Internal thermo-regulation is a significant problem for mega-herbivores. Mud baths are thus important to buffalo as a mud cover on the skin regulates body temperature and repels ecto-parasites and flies. This enables the animal to tolerate air temperatures of up to 40 degrees C. However, buffalo can also tolerate low temperatures for short periods and are even found on the snowline of Mount Kilimanjaro at altitudes of 4 000 m.


Feeding & Nutrition

Buffalo are always found close to surface water and drink 30-40 litres of fresh water once or twice a day and take frequent mud baths. They are active during both day and night for up to 18-20 hours of a 24 hour cycle. Up to 70% of their grazing takes place at night. It is a ruminant and a partly selective roughage grazer, feeding predominantly on medium high to tall (25-130 cm), sweet, palatable grass species. Sweet grasses with a high protein content are selected. In the absence of moist, green leaf growth during the dry winter season, buffalo will consume old dry stems and seed heads of the same grass species regardless of their height. During droughts, they search for grazing and move up to 17 km from their water source each day. In the absence of suitable feed the buffalo can adapt to unlikely resources, such as sedges and water plants, or will migrate long distances. Although diet composition changes regularly with season, it usually consists of 90-95% grass, 5-8% browse and 1-2% forbs.

Social structure

It is a social animal with groups varying from 4-30 individuals in bull herds, to mass herds that can exceed 3 000. Herd sizes are influenced by habitat and food availability. In dense thicket and forest vegetation buffalo split into small family groups of 6-15 individuals but in open savannah woodland family groups converge into mass herds. The individual family groups remain intact when absorbed into a mass herd. During dry seasons mass herds keep to drainage lines and rivers but during moist seasons the herds split into temporary, smaller herds of 50-200 animals that spread onto larger plains. Family groups are relatively stable with fixed bonding between mothers and their offspring until an age of three years, and they have demarcated home ranges, although large herds may follow a seasonal cyclic movement of mini-migrations. Buffalo do not display any territorial behaviour.

Four social structures occur

  • Family groups: 6-15 individuals comprising of an adult breeding bull, several adult cows, sub-adult heifers and calves of different ages
  • Bachelor groups: 4-30 young bulls of 3-7 years, that migrate between family groups within the larger herd
  • Adult bull herds: 4-12 mature bulls of >7 years that are not associated with a family group and keep to their own home range
  • Outcast post-mature bulls: 1-6 individuals that keep to themselves in a small area and do not associate with other buffalo

A definite order of dominance hierarchy exists in family groups. Within bachelor and bull herds a linear hierarchy exists according to age and body mass, with the oldest, heaviest animal being the dominant leader. During the rut the leading breeding bull forces the sub-adult bulls out of the family group to join bachelor herds. At an age of 7-8 years the bulls attempt to establish their own family groups or to replace a dominant bull from an existing family group. Defeated bulls stay within the bull herds until 15 years when they lose their hierarchal position and join cohesive, frustrated post-mature groups that are extremely dangerous and are known as "killer machines" or "dagga boys". Bulls and related bull herds account for 6-7% of the buffalo population.

Buffalo a circuitous route of 50-105 km per day at a walking speed of 5.4 km/hr. When frightened or during a charge they rapidly reach a speed of 57 km/hr. Post-mature bulls do not follow the breeding herds but stay in thicket bush in riverine habitats.

Photo: Doug Lee


The"red line"-fence erected in terms of veterinary legislation in 1964 divided the southern Cape buffalo population into two geographic sub-populations by prohibiting the translocation of both animals and their untreated products across the line. Its function was to control the spread of corridor disease, Nagana fever, foot-and-mouth disease and tuberculosis to cattle herds. Other diseases are anthrax, redwater, brucellosis, rabies, mange and rinderpest. Buffalo are not susceptible to hartwater. By law, any movement of buffalo must be accompanied by a State veterinarian and blood samples must be taken from each animal that is moved.

Information Table

 Buffalo Information Table
Adult body weight
Adult shoulder height
Expected longevity
Age of sexual maturity
Age of social adulthood (1st mating)

1st Calf born at

Calving interval

Post maturity age (last mating)
Rutting season
Mar-May (Lowveld Region)
Calving season

Weaning age months
Gender ratio: Natural (all ages)
Gender ratio: Production (all ages)
Mating ratio: Natural (adults)
Mating ratio: Production (adults)
Re-establishment: Absolute minimum number needed
Re-establishment: smallest viable population size
Spatial behaviour: home range
Spatial behaviour: territory range
Large stock grazing unit (adult)
Dietary ratio (grass)
1.4 per animal (78% of diet)

1.1 per animal (78% of diet)

Browsing unit (adult)
Dietary ratio (browse)
2.68 per animal (22% of diet)
2.68 per animal (22% of diet)
Maximum stocking load
10 animals per 1000 ha (at 400mm annual rainfall)
30 animals per 1000 ha (at 700mm annual rainfall)
Minimum habitat size required
Annual population growth
6-18% (mean 16%)
Optimal annual rainfall
Optimal vegetation structure:
Grass height:
Woodycanopy cover:

12-130 cm


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