Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Big Five - part 3

The first of Africa’s Big Five that I wrote about was my favourite animal, the elephant – full of character, family oriented, with a great sense of humour.  The second was my favourite cat, the leopard – beautiful, cunning, difficult to see, and a great tree-climber.  

This week I am going to tell you about my least favourite of the Big Five – the African or Cape buffalo – a surly beast if there ever was one.

The Cape buffalo is a large animal, but not as large as its Asian counterpart.  It can weigh up to 900 kgs (2000 lbs), stand 5’ 6” (1.6 metres) at the shoulder, and be 11 ft (3.2 metres) long (excluding the tail). 

African or Cape buffalo with Oxpeckers (the birds)

Its most impressive physical feature are its horns.  A large male buffalo’s horns have a very distinctive shape and can be over a metre wide (40 inches).  The horns are unusual in that they are fused in the middle.  I am told that where they join, called the boss, they are so hard that they will stop a bullet – not that I’ve ever tested this theory.

Buffalo stand with their heads very low (maybe this is because of the heavy horns?) and are definitely very menacing when looking straight at you. 

"I'm watching you!"

Buffalo normally live in herds of varying sizes, from a mere handful to thousands.  Michael and I were once on the river road in Chobe National Park in Botswana and had to stop the vehicle because a herd of buffalo decided to cross just in front of us.  Forty-five minutes later the last one passed, the first being long out of sight.  We estimated that there must have been around a thousand in that herd.

Large herd

Herd with young

Buffalo like to keep cosy

Buffalo are also regarded as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, particularly when solitary or injured, killing around 200 people annually.  When wounded by a hunter, they are reputed to lie in ambush, waiting for the hunter to follow them, or circle around behind and charge from the rear.

Hemingway must have felt like a real man after this.

But I have to admit that buffalo have some appealing features too.  For example, when one of a herd is attacked by a predator, say a lion, the others will come to its assistance and are quite capable of killing the lion and driving away the pride.  If you click here, you can watch one of the most amazing amateur videos I’ve ever seen (over 73 million views on YouTube as of today).  A poor baby buffalo is first attacked by a crocodile, then by a lion.  The buffalo herd intervenes with amazing results.  It is worth every second of the eight minutes it will take to view the video.

A lion is no match for a herd of buffalo.

There is also a soft side to buffalo – maybe.  When a group of friends and I were in Hwange in Zimbabwe, a herd of about 40 buffalo were sauntering towards a waterhole.  Suddenly they were attacked by a Blacksmith Lapwing – a smallish bird - that repeatedly flew at the leading animal.  The Lapwing was trying to protect its nest, which was on the ground in the herd’s path.  After a few minutes, the herd decided to deviate and moved around the nest.  It was probably not worth the aggravation to continue to be harassed rather than showing empathy for the bird.

Blacksmith Lapwing - very protective of its nest

Although the buffalo will never win a beauty contest, there is something very special about large herds of them.  My friend Mette and I were at Ingwelala next to the Kruger National Park recently and were surrounded by a herd of about 300 buffalo, munching the grass and slowly walking along.  There was never any threat to us, and being in the midst of so many huge animals was magic.

I have also seen several hundred buffalo all dive into a waterhole at the same time – buffalo love to be in water and mud.  It was delightful seeing them frolic, rolling onto their backs or submerging completely.  Two-thousand pound little kids.  

Buffalo love mud baths.

Actually, there is more to their like of mud than just pleasure.  Coating themselves with mud, letting it dry, then have it fall off, takes the ticks off their hide.  Buffalo are also often hosts to birds called Oxpeckers that accomplish the same thing.  The Oxpeckers ride the buffalo and eat the ticks.  Finally, another bird, the Cattle Egret, often follows herds of buffalo, eating the insects that are disturbed as the buffalo walk by.

Red-billed Oxpeckers eat ticks off buffalo. 

Next time, I’ll write about the most endangered of the Big Five – the rhino – which is in danger of extinction because people in countries like Vietnam and China think that its horn has medicinal and/or aphrodisiacal properties.  Bah humbug.

Stan - Thursday


  1. Great video Stan, I had to watch it twice - just to make sure. (No spoiler!)
    Buffalo ears? Always fascinated me, they look as though they were stuck on as an afterthought by somebody who was busy.

  2. WOW! Stan, what a video! Thanks for the lesson in buffalo lore and the lovely little oxpecker. In a long walk in the Serengeti, the only danger we were in was a lone buffalo hiding in clump of trees. Our ranger said they get skittish when they are alone, and he made sure we gave the big bull wide berth. Thanks for taking me back there.

  3. The video is definitely one of the YouTube classics of all time! The African Buffalo, while being the "least favorite," is also the least likely to be driven close to (or into) extinction. I wonder if there's a correlation there? We (the human species) kill what we love?

  4. My heart's still pounding from the video. It beats anything I've ever seen in New Jersey! Then again, from what I hear, I guess it's sort of like the opening of the doors at the "Black Friday" sale (the day after Thanksgiving) at Walmart.

  5. Jeff, you've obviously been in the wrong places in NJ if you've never seen anything like this.

    It is an amazing video of a more amazing scene. How I wish I had been there.