Africa’s only wild African buffalo ox species is a versatile and widespread creature found in large herds on the savanna and smaller groups in forested areas. The African buffalo, known scientifically as Syncerus caffer, holds the title of the most dangerous among African game species, especially when wounded or solitary. This reputation has elevated the buffalo to the prestigious “big five” status recognized worldwide.
Appearance and Characteristics
African buffaloes are large, even-toed ungulates known for their robust build and hefty horns. Unlike other animals, they can be easily identified by their dark black color and distinct horns that curve outward, backward, and upward. Both males and females have horns, which are not ridged. The horns are smaller and lighter, adding to the buffalo’s unique appearance. The ears are large, fringed with hair, and hang below the massive horns.
Distribution in Uganda’s National Parks
Buffaloes can be observed in nearly all of Uganda’s national parks and large forests. In parks like Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls, there are hybrids of the savanna buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) from East Africa and the red buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) from the West African forest.
African buffaloes have specific habitat requirements, including abundant tall, sweet grass, ample surface water, mud baths, and enough shrubs and trees for refuge. These conditions are typically found in riverine valleys, marshlands, sub-tropical savannah woodlands, and ecotones of broadleaf montane forests. Buffaloes tend to avoid vast open grassy plains without woody shelter and areas with short grass or heavy grazing.
To regulate body temperature and repel parasites and flies, buffaloes indulge in mud baths, a crucial activity for their internal thermo-regulation. This allows them to endure high air temperatures of up to 40°C. Despite their preference for warmer climates, buffaloes can also tolerate lower temperatures for short periods, even being found on the snowline of Mount Kilimanjaro at altitudes of 4000 m.
African buffaloes are social animals that gather in herds ranging from a few individuals to over a thousand. These herds can be categorized into two types: large, mixed-sex, and mixed-age herds known as “breeding herds,” and smaller, all-male “bachelor herds” consisting of approximately 20 to 1500 individuals.
Most herds do not migrate, especially those facing challenges such as habitat fragmentation, fences, or other barriers. However, migrations of over 80 km have been documented, with buffaloes displaying different ranges for different seasons.
Buffaloes are not strictly diurnal, displaying activity throughout the 24 hours of a day, with periods of low activity in the early morning and late afternoon. Mixed herds primarily consist of adult females with their young and sub-adults, along with a few transient adult males. Adults make up 72% of the population, sub-adults 22%, and young approximately 6%.
Dominance and Social Interactions
Dominance among African buffaloes is likely based on the difference in body condition between interacting males. Some speculate that endocrinal factors contribute to this hierarchy. Male buffaloes may engage in sparring to determine dominance, with the frequency varying among populations. Typically, sparring involves one male presenting his horns to another, and they lock horns, twisting them from side to side. Adult bulls average seven bouts per sparring session, each lasting about 10 seconds. After sparring, males usually return to grazing, as these interactions rarely escalate beyond mild competition.
Dominance interactions are rare and often include threat displays. Occasionally, males may collide head-on, with the winner determined by speed and weight. The loser is usually chased a short distance. Serious fights leading to the death of one or both combatants are extremely rare.
Herds seem to exhibit communal decision-making when choosing where to travel. During rest periods in the morning and afternoon, a few adult cows sequentially stand up and gaze in the same direction. When the herd is rousing, those individuals are the first to move in that direction, leading the others towards their new grazing location. Decisions about where to graze appear to be influenced by the females, as males following the lead may continue grazing before reaching the predetermined destination.
An intriguing behavior observed in African buffaloes is seemingly altruistic partnerships. In one case, two old males formed a partnership where the healthier one assisted his blind and ailing companion. The more able bull would signal to the other when and in which direction to move and when to stop, showcasing a remarkable level of cooperation among these magnificent creatures.