African Buffalo

  • SCIENTIFIC NAME: Syncerus caffer

  • SWAHILI NAME: Nyati; Mbogo

One of Africa’s “big five”—in addition to the lion, leopard, rhinoceros and elephant—the African buffalo is often called one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. Both male and female buffalos grow large, deadly horns that they use as weapons and for defense. African buffalos have excellent eyesight, hearing, and a sense of smell that helps them detect the presence of lions, their greatest enemies. Their eyesight is so acute that buffalos often graze at night. In some areas, they are completely nocturnal.

African Buffalo

African Buffalo



Daily Rhythm




Life span

In the wild: 12 years (average); 20 years (maximum)

Conservation Status

Lower risk


Male: 1,455 to 1,871 lb (660 to 849 kg)
Female: 937 to 1,030 lb (425 to 467 kg)


Male: 4.5 to 5 ft (1.4 to 1.5 m), tall, at the shoulder
Female: 4.4 to 4.6 ft (1.4 m), tall, at the shoulder

African Buffalo

Tracks and Scat

Tracks: Almost indistinguishable from those of domestic cattle; round, deep prints
Scat: Often loose, very much like that of domestic cattle; dark brown when fresh, shading to pale tan with age

African Buffalo tracks

Trivia Question

​How many subspecies of African buffalo live on the continent?


The four subspecies of African buffalos are the Cape buffalo (the type frequently seen at Mpala), West African savanna buffalo, Central African savanna buffalo, and the diminuitive forest or dwarf buffalo.

Social Structure

Buffalo herds vary tremendously in size, from 20 to more than 1,000 animals. A single herd can last for over 50 years, spanning multiple generations. Large herds often split off for a time, and separate herds sometimes mingle together. Females remain in the herd where they were born, and their offspring stay there as well, often remaining with their mother well into adulthood. Adult bulls leave the herd to either join bull herds or to migrate between a solitary existence and the larger herd. Some males coordinate with other bulls about when to re-enter a herd. Within the herd, each buffalo occupies a set position—rear, middle, or front. Adult females determine where the herd will move by using a democratic system. Each female “casts her vote” by standing with her head facing the direction she wants the herd to take. The majority opinion determines the outcome. The group also has “lead animals,” adult males or females that walk in front and direct the others when to stop.


Buffalos communicate mostly through ritualized body movements and postures. To threaten another bull, a male buffalo stands with his head high and muzzle low. The submissive bull approaches with his head low, sets his muzzle between the back legs of the dominant bull, and emits a thundering bellow. Otherwise, buffalos are mostly quiet except for the occasional grunt or snort. At night, buffalos use a unique warning system to communicate danger: The herd falls completely silent, effectively concealing each individual in the dark.


A buffalo’s day alternates between periods of grazing and ruminating, or digesting food already eaten. While some herds are quite sedentary, others walk long distances between grazing sessions—up to five miles (8 km) in 24 hours. Buffalos also enjoy wallowing in mud, probably to deter biting insects. Calves rarely play with one another, but adult bulls engage in sparring matches. Two competitors hook and butt each other with their horns. This may be a way to test dominance between bulls, particularly within the complicated male hierarchy of larger herds. However, both winner and loser appear to enjoy these duels. Actual fights are rare, and can result in the death of one or both animals.


Habitat destruction (particularly from overgrazing by livestock) and disease pose the biggest threats to buffalo populations. Buffalos are extremely vulnerable to rinderpest, which can spread to them from cattle. Unfortunately, many farmers blame buffalos for the spread of this disease, and have pushed for the eradication of the species to protect their cattle. The construction of roads also threatens buffalo by fragmenting herds and increasing poachers’ ability to hunt. Because of their reputation as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, buffalos are considered valuable trophies.

Range & Habitat

Common throughout Africa, buffalo are widely distributed south of the Sahara. However, most of the population (an estimated 70 percent) now lives in protected areas. The quality of their habitat—mainly the availability of food and water—determine how many buffalo live in a particular area. They are usually one of the most prevalent large herbivores.

African buffalo thrive in a wide range of habitats, from lowland rain forests and woodlands to drier forests and savannas. The only habitat they avoid is the desert, though they can live in semiarid areas as long as they have access to water and grass.


Buffalos rely on water. They have to drink at least every two days and generally consume 15 gallons (45 l) of water each day. Grass makes up the majority of their diet, though they are rather picky about what grass they eat. Buffalos prefer grass that grows in mats or lawns, with an average amount of protein and a leaf height greater than four inches (10 cm). Buffalos will completely ignore particular plants if their quality is too low.


A bull buffalo joins a herd to mate. Before he can successfully mate, the female must be completely willing. The male spends extensive time tending and courting her, and eventually tries to place his muzzle on the base of her tail. He usually makes multiple attempts at this before the female acquiesces. As the female becomes ready to mate, however, a more dominant bull often deposes the tending male so he can mate with the female instead.

Friends & Foes

Lions may be called the “kings of the jungle,” but buffalos are their worthy adversaries. When pursued by a lion, buffalos either retreat into bushes so that only their horns show, or they form a group defense and present the lion with a wall of horns. Their thick skin is impenetrable in most places to a lion’s claws—in fact, Maasai use buffalo skin for their shields because of its strength and resilience. A buffalo’s neck is so burly that a lion cannot break it; instead, it must try to suffocate the buffalo by holding down its muzzle, a strategy called the “kiss of death.” Buffalos often attack lions unprovoked by goring them, tossing them in the air, or impaling them on acacia thorns.

Population in Kenya & Beyond

In the 1890s, an outbreak of rinderpest, an infectious cattle disease, nearly wiped out the species, killing 90 percent of all African buffalos. An estimated 830,000 buffalos remain today, mostly in parks and other protected areas.

African Buffalo

Did you know?

The African buffalo is so adept in the water that it can graze beneath the surface.