The African savanna buffalo


Photograph ©Martin Harvey / AfriPics

Syncerus caffer caffer

J du P Bothma

The African buffalo Syncerus caffer was first described scientifically as Bos caffer by Sparrman in 1779, based on a specimen that was collected along the Sunday’s River near Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape Province. Later studies revealed that it was not related to cattle and Hodgson then created the genus Syncerus for it in 1847. The origin of the name Syncerus is obscure but the name caffer refers to the Arab word käfir for someone who is not a Muslim. It is based on the Arabic term kafara which means ‘not to believe’.

Fossils of Syncerus only date some 250 000 years back, but a giant, extinct, ancestral buffalo Pelorovis antiquus, with horns of up to 2 m long, lived some 5 million years ago at Langebaanweg in the Western Cape Province. There are five subspecies of African buffalo and they mostly occur in isolated populations. However, the African savanna buffalo Syncerus caffer caffer of Southern and Eastern Africa has a wide distribution. The buffaloes of Eastern and Southern Africa are genetically close although some ecotypes are adapted to specific habitats.


The African buffalo shows the greatest variation in horn shape and build of all African mammals. In the African savanna buffalo the horns of the cow are more slightly built, have a flatter boss and are without sclerotised keratin compared to those of the bull. The buffalo is a heavy, large herbivore with the front hooves larger than the rear ones to accommodate carrying the massive head. The coat colour varies from dark grey with a reddish tint to black, but old bulls are pitch-black. Buffalo bulls require mud in which to wallow on hot days because they lose some hair on their backs with age and the mud protects them against the sun. Bulls with a broad white band around the middle of the body are known from the Luangwa River Valley in Zambia. The calves are reddish-brown. The bare patches at the inner corners of the eyes are not preorbital glands but have an unknown cause and function. The black tail is long and has a black or dark brown tassel. The shoulder height of an adult bull is around 1,5 m and it weighs up to 850 kg as opposed to 1,4 m and 750 kg in a cow. Maximum body growth in both sexes occurs within the first year of life.


The buffalo once occurred over much of Africa south of the Sahara, except in the deserts, but it now largely has a fragmented distribution. In South Africa, the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces currently have the largest populations, with scattered populations elsewhere such as in the Addo National Park in the Eastern Cape.


The ideal habitat is open savanna with tall grass, shade and water in the summer. The buffalo avoids floodplains and grasslands which are trampled or overutilised. Shade or extensive reed beds in which to rest during hot days should be close enough to optimal grazing areas and the buffalo is not partial to recently burned areas.

Diet and water

The African savanna buffalo is a grass and roughage feeder but 22 per cent of the diet includes leaves and twigs, especially in the dry season. It feeds selectively in the wet season and eats 2 per cent of its body weight in food per day, feeding mostly in the early morning. It digests fibrous foods better than other bovids and secretes several litres of saliva per day for digestion. It chews the cud to improve fermentation and digestion. With the high lignite content of grasses in the dry season, a buffalo will spend more time ruminating then. It always grazes near water and eats soil to obtain trace elements, especially in the dry season. The buffalo is dependent on water and drinks some 31 litres of water per day, mainly early in the morning and evening and preferably from natural waterholes. However, it may only drink water once every 36 hours.

Population characteristics

Climatic events such as variations in rainfall are key elements in the population dynamics of the buffalo and it does best in high rainfall areas.The rinderpest epidemic, which lasted from 1890 to 1900 in Africa, decimated its buffalo population when it killed as much as 95 per cent of all buffaloes. The buffalo is highly gregarious and may form mixed herds of several thousand animals but these herds disperse from time to time. In the Serengeti ecosystem the buffalo forms part of the annual wildlife migration. There are bachelor and breeding herds, with a linear hierarchy among the adult bulls in the latter. In the wild, the breeding herds occupy clearly defined ranges of around 120 km2 with little overlap although 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

A bull becomes sexually mature when he is two and a half to three years old and the 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. Therefore, a buffalo bull only has a limited breeding life. Moreover, several bulls will mate with every cow that is in oestrus. Bulls will only remain in the breeding herd until they are around nine years old. Like 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 latter half of the rainy season but it can happen any time of the year. 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 of 26 to 42 kg is strong enough to join the herd after a few hours but may be hidden when the herd grazes. The cow has four inguinal mammae and weaning occurs at an age of five to nine months although this can extend up to fifteen months. Newly born calves are sometimes left behind when a large herd moves because a cow will desert her calf to remain in the safety of the herd.

Diseases are the main mortality factor as the African savanna buffalo is susceptible to several serious diseases, including foot-and-mouth disease, corridor disease and bovine tuberculosis. Large herds will cross wide, deep rivers en masse to reduce mortalities from crocodiles. Calf mortality in the Kruger National Park can exceed 50 per cent but this rate reduces after the age of two years. The longevity of a buffalo in the wild varies from 22 to 29 years.

Management and utilisation

Only the Southern African three of the seven known types of foot-and-mouth virus are linked to wildlife and require management attention for the buffalo. The calf is temporarily immune to infection until the age of five to eight months when a carrier adult infects it in midwinter. The irresponsible movement of infected buffaloes can cause major harm to the entire agricultural industry 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 a buffalo.

Capture and transport

Mass capture in bomas is possible, provided that these bomas are sturdy. Chemical capture requires 8 to 10 mg of M-99 or 80 to 100 mg of fentanyl both with 150 to 200 mg of azaperone and an antidote of 16 to 20 mg of M-5050. In the field, 10 mg of A3080 combined with 50 mg of azaperone is used, but in a boma this can be reduced to 5 mg with 40 mg of azaperone.

Transport family groups together in mass crates with at least 2,3 m2 of floor space per animal and a maximum of three animals together. Single crates must be large enough to accommodate an adult bull although such a bull can be transported in a separate compartment in a mass crate. Tranquillise the animals when they are restless or aggressive by using 20 to 30 mg of haloperidol for short-term and 200 to 250 mg of perphenazine enanthate for long-term tranquillisation.

Temporary captivity

Holding pens that are made from metal material are preferred and at least two pens with a sliding gate between them are required. The pens should be 15 m long x 5 m wide x 2 m high with a minimum floor space of 2 m2 per 50 kg of animal weight. Such a long, rectangular pen will provide the animals with enough space to remain far enough from humans to avoid aggression

Stocking density

The stocking density of large herbivores on a wildlife ranch depends on the quantity and quality of grass and the available browse on woody plants. To calculate the stocking density of grazers for a wildlife ranch the grazing capacity is calculated in Grazing Units per 100 ha based inter alia on the veld condition, grass cover, terrain, fire and recent rain. The browsing capacity is calculated in Browser Units per 100 ha based on the quantity of leaves within the reach of a specific type of animal. The grazing and browsing capacity combined form the ecological capacity of the ranch for large herbivores. Through an appropriate equation, stocking density equivalents are then calculated based on the weight of various types of wildlife relative to a blue wildebeest of 180 kg (1 Grazer Unit) and a greater kudu of 180 kg (1 Browser Unit). The ecological capacity of the ranch for large herbivores can now be apportioned to various suitable types of wildlife. An African savanna buffalo is equivalent to 2,21 Grazing or Browsing Units based on its weight. However, because its diet consists of 22 per cent browse and 78 per cent grass, a buffalo is equivalent to 1,72 Grazer and 0,49 Browser Units.

Meat and live sales

A buffalo carcass dresses at 50 per cent of the live weight and yields some 225 to 296 kg of meat. A single buffalo bull with horns of 50 inches (127.00 cm) was sold for R18 million at a live wildlife auction on Thaba Tholo while one from East Africa was sold for R26 million in 2012. These prices have created a false impression of the value of a buffalo given that the mean price per buffalo was R447 494 in that year. Moreover, this was a decrease of a little over 12 per cent over 2011. At a mean weight of 520 kg per animal in a population the mean price paid translates into R860.57 per kg of the live weight.

Trophy hunting

The African savanna buffalo is reputed to be the most dangerous of all African game to hunt. Some of the recent best trophies are:

Rowland Ward: Minimum horn length: 42,000 inches (106,68 cm); best: 64,000 inches (162,56 cm) and held by M H Cabrera.

Safari Club International: Minimum horn points: 100,000: best: 140.250 points and held by Bradford F Johnson.

South African Method: Minimum horn length: 40,000 inches (101.60 cm); best: 49,5625 inches (126,05 cm) and held by L W Meyer.

Selected sources available from the editor

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