African (Cape) Buffalo Syncerus caffer caffer (Sparrman, 1779) UPDATED

By Deon Furstenburg, 2022

African (Cape) Buffalo
Syncerus caffer caffer (Sparrman, 1779) UPDATED

Furstenburg, D. 2022. African (Cape) Buffalo Syncerus caffer (Sparrman 1779), SUCo-SA, Updated from: Ed. Furstenburg, D. 2015. The Game Species Window – E-Book. Amazon USA, web-p 832-1,263. ISBN 978-0-620-65883-6. The Game Species Window

IUCN Conservation Status:
Lower Risk, conservation dependent (LR/cd).
The total African buffalo (excluding the forest buffalo) population in 2007 was approximately 900,000, and 670,000 Southern & Eastern savannah buffalo Syncerus caffer caffer in 2008 (IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group). The total South African (Cape) buffalo S.c. caffer population estimate in 2013 was 50,231 animals in 70 protected areas, and an additional 19,561 animals on 110 private ranches, a total population size of at least 69,882 (Tambling et al. 2013).
Forest buffalo S.c. nanus: IUCN Conservation status is “Near Threatened”. Estimated population in 2018 was 65,000 (IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group 2019).
The most dangerous of all African game species especially if wounded or solitary. Its reputation has given the buffalo the status of being one of the “big five” recognized worldwide. Its economic value has been further enhanced by veterinary restrictions that prevent its translocation because of the danger of spreading disease. During the 18th century the buffalo was ranked second to the eland Tragelaphus oryx in having the largest distribution in Africa and were 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.


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 namely:

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

Other buffalo-like animals are

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


The buffalo originated from the extinct ancestor Syncerus antiquus (formerly Pelorovis antiquus), the long-horned buffalo from 107,000 to 6,000 years BP, the largest African bovid (1,200-1,800 kg), had the broadest geographic distribution of the late-Pleistocene-Holocene extinct species, across southern, eastern, central, and northern Africa. Research evidence indicates it was a bulk grazer (Codron et al. 2008), consuming large quantities low quality forage in open habitats. The tip-to-tip trophy spread of adults extended from above 118” inches.

Size comparison between the African savanna buffalo S. caffer and the extinct long-horned ancestor Syncerus antiquus.

The southern or Cape buffalo is the only sub-species found south of the Zambezi River. According to the journals of early transporters, buffalo were not present in the Greater Karoo, the plains of the central Free State Province, the eastern highveld, the highlands of Lesotho, south-western Botswana or in the western Namib Desert.

During 1652-1750 there were reports of buffalo ranging in an area stretching from Cape Hangklip 70 km east of the Cape peninsula, along the east coast and northwards past the Zambezi River mouth. Vast numbers roamed the savannah plains and marshlands of KwaZulu-Natal, Mozambique, the eastern lowveld and the North-West Province. Buffalo were also abundant along the Orange River, in northern Namaqualand as far south as Garries and in the Rigtersveld, the southern Kalahari, the Little Karoo, north-eastern Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

  • 1750-1890 Southern Cape region
    By 1777 European settlement had decimated the Cape buffalo in the area between the Cape peninsula and Swellendam. The settlement pressure continued until 1850 by which time the area had spread eastwards to Mosselbaai, the last individual being shot in the Blauwkrantz region to the east of Knysna in 1883. Between 1850 and 1870 English settlers continued to eradicate buffalo in an area stretching from the Tugela River mouth in KwaZulu-Natal to the Kei River mouth in the Eastern Cape Province. The only Cape buffalo remaining were these of the Uitenhage District near Port Elizabeth.
  • 1890-1910 Rinderpest
    The rinderpest epidemic of 1896 killed more than 80% of the remaining Cape buffalo. Although they were the most severely affected game species, kudu, eland and giraffe were also decimated. Several small satellite buffalo groups were preserved in isolation in Mozambique, Zululand, the eastern Lowveld, north-eastern Botswana and the Caprivi Strip. Buffalo in the Eastern Cape were not affected by the epidemic and some 700 individuals survived, 30 in the Kowie-bush, 20 in Albania, 100 in the vicinity of Port Alfred, 100 around Alexandria, 100 around Bathurst and 350 in the Uitenhage region. These numbers were further depleted by human pressure. Some years later the remaining Cape buffalo from the southern coastline were relocated to Addo Elephant National Park. The last free roaming individual in the coast area was shot in the Baviaanskloof near the present Couga dam.

In this historic era the Kruger National Park (Sabie game reserve) was established, protecting the remaining northern populations of the Cape buffalo and preventing their extinction. The Anglo Boer War following in 1898-1902 had little impact on buffalo numbers.

  • 1920-1965 Tsetse control
    Between 1920 and 1965 the government eradicated huge numbers of game in an attempt to control the devastating Nagana-fever carried by the tsetse fly. This disease was a threat to the survival of cattle and caused hardship to the farmers whose livelihood depended upon them. In an attempt to control the disease, a total of 620 000 head of game was shot by the State veterinarians in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana, including:

In 1964 a red-line game fence was erected from Zululand through the eastern lowveld, along the border of South Africa and Zimbabwe and through the eastern half of Botswana to northern Namibia. The fence prevented the movement of wild animals and was intended to stop the spread of foot-and-mouth disease that had become a major threat to domestic livestock. Migrating game such as blue wildebeest, eland, red hartebeest and buffalo were stranded along the fence line and were killed in their masses. The spraying of DDT insecticide to control tsetse fly in buffalo habitats such as watercourses and marshlands killed even more buffalo.

  • 1965-1970 Population restitution
    After 1965, there was an increase in conservation activities. Disease free buffalo were translocated to nature reserves and private ranches and the number of Cape buffalo began to increase outside of the red-line restriction. By 1970, 11 614 Cape buffalo remained in the country; 10 500 in the Kruger National Park, 240 in the Addo-Elephant National Park, 9 in the Bontebok National Park, 500 in the Hluhluwe Game Reserve, 250 in Umfolozi Game Reserve, 7 in the Willem Pretorius Game Reserve, 9 in the Golden Gate National Park and 100 on private ranches in Limpopo. Elsewhere in Africa there were herds of 10 000 on the Gorongoza plains, 16 000 in the Marromeu region of Mozambique and a few in the Zambezi valley, the Okavango swamps and the Caprivi Strip. Since 1970 the number of buffalo in Africa has increased to 670 000. At present the total population consists of 133 000 north-eastern buffalo, 27 000 north-western buffalo, 60 000 red forest buffalo and 450 000 Cape buffalo.

The buffalo is the smallest member of the mega-herbivores in the world.

The legs of the buffalo, which are thicker than those of the antelope, are needed to support their heavier body mass. The front hooves are larger than the hind hooves because the additional weight of the massive horns and neck requires more support. Thus the front spoor is larger than the hind spoor.

Calves are an olive-brown colour that turns to light yellow-brown in two months and then to a dark chocolate-brown at one year. After three years the colouring changes to a dull, brown-black in cows and a grey-black in bulls. The faces, necks and back-saddles of post mature bulls turn grey-white with advancing age. Buffalos have a long tail ending in a tuft of long hair. The ears have sharp tips and hang down directly under the horn base; they are horizontal when the buffalo is alert. Some individuals have a short mane but this is not a distinctive characteristic of the species.

Like domestic cattle, the hooves are split but are much wider in the centre to allow a more efficient spread of mass. The front spoor of 15×15 cm is larger than the hind measuring 14×12 cm. The direction of movement can be distinguished, as the spoor is slightly narrower towards the front than the back.


Information table

Both sexes bear well-developed horns although the horns of bulls are thicker and heavier and have larger bosses than cows. The boss is situated at the base of the horn and is formed of a thickened frontal bone covered by a keratin layer. While the bosses of cows remain separate, the bosses of bulls increase in size with age and fuse at seven to eight years reaching a thickness of up to 25 cm. They are designed to absorb the head-on collisions of fighting bulls. The skin between the bosses in cows becomes hairless with age. The horns grow diagonally in a straight line for 2.5 year after which time they begin to curve upwards. After five years a horn begins to grow down the side of the head and takes on the distinctive trophy appearance. The minimum Rowland Ward trophy status is only reached after eight years. Geographically isolated populations can show major differences in horn structure as seen in the inferior, light structure of buffalo in the Addo Elephant National Park.

The trophy measuring techniques differ between official trophy registers. The Rowland Ward measurement is taken as the maximum tip-to-tip span and not the horn length along the outer circumference, as for most of the antelope species. Safari Club International also measures the maximum circumference of each boss.

Trophy mount of world record Roland Ward, 64” Cape buffalo cow (BEAST Interiors Taxidermy)

Habitat requirement
The most important habitat requirements are abundant tall, sweet grass species, ample surface water, mud baths and sufficient shrub and trees for refuge. These habitat parameters are 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 short-grass or heavily over-grazed areas.

Internal thermo-regulation is a significant problem for mega-herbivores. Mud baths are 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°C. However, buffalo can also tolerate low temperatures for short periods and are even found on the snowline Mount Kilimanjaro at altitudes of 4 000 m.

Buffalo are generally active during both day and night for up to 18-20 hours or 75-83% of a 24 hour cycle. Up to 70% of their grazing takes place during night hours. They follow 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.

Buffalo are always found close to surface water and inhabit riverine and marshy areas and drainage lines. They drink 30-40 litres of fresh water once or twice a day and take frequent mud baths, rolling around until the majority of skin is covered.

Old post-mature bulls do not follow the breeding herds but stay in thicket bush in riverine habitats. These bulls are extremely temperamental and will charge nearby animals or humans for no apparent reason. Family herds and larger feeding groups pose little danger, as they generally take off in a mass stampede when approached by man on foot. However, when kept in a boma for an extended period, sub-adults can become aggressive and remain a threat even after being released, particularly if they are slow to join other free roaming adults that can discipline them.

Buffalo enjoy water and will enter until only their nostrils protrude above the surface. They are good swimmers and cross full rivers regularly. They frequently take to water if ambushed by lions.

Feeding & Nutrition
Buffalo are ruminant roughage grazers feeding predominantly on medium to tall, sweet, palatable grass species of 25-130 cm. Although classed as a bulk feeder, buffalo in the Kruger National Park select sweet grasses with a high protein content but are non-selective of specific plant parts. In a study by Potgieter in 1984, it was found that the buffalo was not a true bulk feeder as are most cattle breeds but was rather a low, selective roughage feeder. 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. Buffalo regularly swim to the islands of Lake Kariba to graze on buffalo grass Panicum maximum when it has been depleted on the shores of the lake. In a dry winter, reeds in drainage lines and swamps are favoured. During droughts, buffalo search for grazing and are capable of moving up to 17 km from their water source each day.

In the absence of suitable feed the buffalo can adapt to unlikely resources or will travel long distances in order to find it. In the former Karoo Nature Reserve at Graaff Reinet, buffalo adapted to a diet consisting entirely of water grasses growing on the margins of a major dam surrounded by unsuitable, semi-arid, karoo habitat. An aerial survey in the Baviaanskloof wilderness area near Port Elizabeth found that the grazing was insufficient to satisfy both the buffalo and the large numbers of post-mature eland bulls Tragelaphus oryx that had been pushed out from family herds in the adjacent mountain plateaux. In response to the competition for graze, the buffalo moved to an old pasture field on a mid plateau 3.5 km up a 60° mountain slope that was established with weeping love grass Eragrostis curvula and surrounded by Cape fynbos (Machia). On a daily basis the buffalo left the dam and climbed the steep slope to access the only suitable grazing left in the area.

Although diet composition changes regularly with season, it usually consists of 90-95% grass, 5-8% browse and 1-2% forbs. Analysis has shown that 85-94% of the diet consists of sweet, protein rich grass species such as red grass Themeda trianda, buffalo grass Panicum maximum and P. coloratum, finger grass Digitaria eriantha, blue buffalo grass Cenchrus ciliaris and bushveld signal grass Urochloa mosambicensus.

Browse that are frequently utilized are the raisin bush Grewia spp, sickle bush Dichrostachys cinerea, large-fruited bushwillow Combretum zeyheri, bluebush Diospyros lycioides, white-berry bush Flueggea virosa, mopane Colophospermum mopane and spekboom Portulacaria afra.

Territory & Home range
Buffalo family groups are relatively stable and have demarcated home ranges, although large herds tend to follow a seasonal cyclic movement of mini-migrations triggered off by the availability of water and food sources. As the cycle follows the same annual path, the entire migration area becomes the home range. The home ranges of mass herds overlap, measuring between 12 000 and 108 000 ha while mature bull herds have smaller home ranges of 100-1 800 ha which do not overlap. Bachelor herds keep within the home range of mass herds and join them periodically but do not associate with any of the individual family groups within the herd. Post-mature bulls keep to a home range of between 17 and 400 ha that is usually associated with a single drainage line.

Buffalo do not display territorial behaviour and thus do not exhibit defensive behaviour. In essence they migrate, but only within the perimeters of a large home range.

In managed (semi-extensive) breeding systems, buffalo herds of less than <50 animals are kept in camps of 50-500 ha, and partially reliant on natural grazing with additional supplement feeding depending on body condition score, the ambient rainfall precipitation and veld condition, and a camp rotation grazing/veld resting programme. Also refer to breeding parameters as described by Bengis (2016).

Social structure
The buffalo is a social animal with groups varying in size from 4-30 individuals in bull herds, to mass herds that can exceed 3 000 as seen in the Savuti area of Botswana. A herd of 1 700 was recorded over a period of time in the lower Sabi region of the Kruger National Park. 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. However, they remain within the large, fixed home range of the mass herd. At the approach of the dry season the herds re-converge into the initial mass herd.

Four social structures are found:
family groups: 6-15 individuals comprising of an adult breeding bull, several adult cows and sub-adult heifers and calves of different ages;
bachelor groups: 4-30 young, socially immature 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 among members of a family group. Family bonding is strict and remains between mothers and their offspring until an age of three years. Within bachelor and bull herds a linear hierarchy exists according to age and body mass, with the oldest, heaviest animal being the dominant leader. Hierarchy is mostly enforced by aggressive visual displays rather than by physical fighting. 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 reach social maturity and attempt to establish their own family groups or to replace a dominant bull from an existing family group. Such an action may result in fierce aggression and fatal fights occur between bulls. Defeated adult bulls stay within the bull herds between challenges. After 15 years the dominant bulls 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. As individuals of family groups do not interchange, mass herds remain stable. If groups or individuals split up for grazing they re-unite later.

It was originally thought that cows reach sexual maturity at 3-3.5 years, but in 1977 Sinclair found that only 50% of cows were pregnant at 4.8 years, the majority of cows producing their first calf at 5.5-6 years. Bulls become sexually mature at 2.5-3 years but only reach social maturity and dominance at 7-8 years when they mate for the first time. Cows cycle every 23 days and are in oestrus for 5-6 days. The gestation period is 340 days (11.3 months) and the calving season varies between regions relative to precipitation; in central East Africa it is from October to February and in the Kruger National Park from December to April. The cow does not leave the herd for calving and within a few hours the calf moves away with the herd. Twins occur occasionally and the entire family group protects the calves. The inter-calf interval is approximately two years as the cow does not come into oestrus after birth.

A ratio of one mature bull of 7-12 years to 8-12 mature cows of >4 years is required for optimal production. The natural adult breeding ratio of one bull to two cows gives an annual population growth of 6-18% depending on the rainfall and forage resources. In Botswana the long-term natural population growth is 8% per annum with a calf mortality of 40-70% before weaning. The natural mortality rate for adult buffalo in central East Africa is 6% per annum. Only half the cows in a herd calve annually, as cows produce only one calf every two years.:

An adult Cape buffalo equals 1.1-1.4 large stock or grazing units (LSU’s) and 2.68 browser units (BU’s). A buffalo stocking unit consists of 78% LSU’s and 22% BU’s. The minimum area required by buffalo roaming in a natural habitat without supplements varies with habitat and rainfall. In sub-tropical savannah the stocking rates are as follows

  • Adult mortalities increase in relation to mounting population density. The absolute minimum group structure for the establishment of a new population for production purposes is:
    n=I bull of 6-8 years
    n=2 sub-adult bulls of 3-4 years
    n=5 adult cows of 4-6 years

A computerised model showed that, with a fecundity of 80% and a calf mortality of 20%, a group of eight buffalo has the potential to yield a maximum of 17 animals by the end of the second year, 23 by the fifth year and 26 by the eight year.

Management of this population for sustained production would require the following minimal harvesting:

  • the starting bull is harvested in year five when it reaches trophy status and the two sub-adult bulls have become socially mature and reproductive;
  • the first born bull calves are harvested at a rate of two per annum from year six onwards;
  • four to six females per annum are harvested from year 15 onwards.

Any other off-takes and/or mortalities will result in an exponential decline in the growth rate.

Also refer to breeding and management parameters as described by Bengis (2016).

Genetic integrity
Recent studies of more than 4,000 buffalo Cyncerus affer, from 37 subpopulations, including 26 private ranches (Van Hoofd et al. 2002 & 2000, Greyling 2017, Van Hoofd 2015, Greyling et al. 2015 & 2013, Smitsz et al. 2016, 2014 & 2013) revealed 12 private game ranches having genetic heterozygosity of 0,46-0,63 that is lower than the KNP population at 0,64, whereas 22 private ranches yielded higher heterozygosity (>0,64-0,72) than the fenced-in KNP population. This indicates the enhancement obtained from the metapopulation outbreeding as a result of frequent translocation live-trading of buffalo between different fragmented private populations (ranches and farms). The same had been conquered through scientific research also for roan and sable (Visser & Van Vuuren 2017), and ecologically for bontebok (Furstenburg & Currie 2019). Futher more, South Africa is the only country on the Continent after 2012 to 2018, to have managed to improve genetic integrity of the national population of sable Hippotragus niger, as per number of hunted quality trophies entered in the SCI Trophy Record Register. From n=200 trophies 153 are from South Africa, only 18 from Zambia and even less from the other countries of the number of quality trophies hunted. The South African trophies were mostly hunt on private game ranches (Rabie 2017 & 2011), indicating the enhanced impact of private game ranching and fragmented metapopulation management restoring lost genetic integrity of formerly exploited wild populations.


Number of trophy animals hunted in different African Countries (2013-2018) consequently indicating geographic range of enhanced/restored species genetic integrity.

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. By 1969 there were only 265 buffalo outside of the red line. Buffalo is the only carrier of corridor disease caused by the parasite Theileria parva that is transmitted from buffalo to cattle by the tick Raphicephalus appendiculatus. Buffalo can carry the parasite for up to 26 months without any clinical symptoms.

Other diseases spread by buffalo are anthrax, redwater, brucellosis, rabies, mange and rinderpest. Buffalo are not susceptible to hartwater. The buffalo of KwaZulu-Natal are generally free of foot-and-mouth disease but are infected with corridor disease. The buffalo of the Addo Elephant National Park are the only sub-population of the initially free-roaming buffalo that are free of corridor and foot-and mouth disease. Animals from this population have been reintroduced successfully across the entire country.

By law, any movement of buffalo must be accompanied by a State veterinarian and a blood sample must be taken from each animal that is moved. Also refer to parameters as described by Bengis (2016).

Growth rate

Average buffalo age as per teeth development (See also Bengis 2016):

non-permanent teeth – less than <2 years

n=1 incisor at 2,5 years, n=2 incisors at 3 years

n=4 incisors – fully erupted at 4 years

n=6 incisors – fully erupted at 5 years

n=8 incisors – fully erupted at 6 years, all teeth still spatulate and sharp edged

>6-10 years, wearing surface on all teeth is flattening, infundibula slowly become visible

>11 years, all incisors are rounded and well worn, infundibula visible on the worn surfaces

>13 years, cavities develop between adjacent teeth

>15 years, teeth wore down to close to the gums level

Maximum life span in nature is 15-17 years, and in captivity 20 to 24 years. Actual rate of wearing down of teeth is a function of soil type, veld type, vegetation, frequencies and number of droughts encountered during the life span, and the availability and quality of supplement feeding provided as part of the diet. The courser and more fibrous the diet consumed, the faster the rate of tooth wear.


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Photo: D Furstenburg, Red forest buffalo Syncerus caffer nanus.













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