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An Ultimate Ungulate Fact Sheet
Syncerus caffer
African buffalo
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Syncerus caffer [Sparrman, 1779].
Citation: K. Svenska Vet.-Akad. Handl. Stockholm, 40:79.
Type locality: "Seecov Rivier" and "Akter Brunties hoogte", now restricted to South Africa, Eastern Cape Prov., Uitenhage district, Sunday River, Algoa Bay.

The taxonomic record (above) is taken from Wilson and Reeder (2005). The African buffalo is the only extant member of the genus Syncerus. There are two highly distinct forms of African buffalo: the large, black savannah type (the Cape buffalo, Syncerus caffer caffer) and the smaller red or brown forest type (the forest buffalo, S. c. nanus). A third subspecies, an intermediate form from West Africa, is known as the Sudan buffalo (S. c. brachyceros) (Buchholtz, 1990; Kingdon, 1997). East (1999) names three subspecies of savannah buffalo: S. c. caffer (from southern Africa), S. c. brachyceros (from west Africa, although it may actually ally more closely with S. c. nanus - see Wilson and Reeder, 2005), and the central African S. c. aequinoctialis. A fifth subspecies, the "mountain buffalo" (S. c. mathewsi) from eastern Africa, is recognized by some authorities (see Kingdon, 1997).

Physical Characteristics

Male African buffalo are considerably larger than females, and savannah races can be up to twice as heavy large as the forest-dwelling S. c. nanus (Nowak, 1991). Fully grown Cape buffalo males may grow to 340 cm in length and reach 700-900 kilograms in weight, while forest buffalo tend to measure less than 120 cm in height and weigh under 320 kg (Nowak, 1991; Kingdon, 1997).

Reported measurements for African buffalo (Syncerus caffer)
Source Adult Weight Head & Body Length Shoulder Height Tail Length
Alden et al., 1995
(for S. c. caffer)
500-700 kg 240-340 cm 140-160 cm -
Alden et al., 1995
(for S. c. nanus)
265-320 kg 180-220 cm 100-130 cm -
Buchholtz, 1990 265-680 kg 220-340 cm 100-170 cm 70-110 cm
Kingdon, 1997 250-850 kg 170-340 cm 100-170 cm 50-80 cm
Nowak, 1991 300-900 kg 210-340 cm 100-170 cm 75-110 cm

Adult African buffalo have a sparse covering of short hair which tends to thin with age (Buchholtz, 1990; Nowak, 1991; Kingdon, 1997). The body is unpatterned, with the color ranging from rich red to black depending on the subspecies (Alden et al., 1995). Adult savannah buffalo are extremely dark brown or black, with males typically darker than females; old male savannah buffalo may develop grizzled white patches around the eyes (Buchholtz, 1990; Nowak, 1991; Alden et al., 1995). Forest buffalo are typically red to reddish brown (Buchholtz, 1990; Nowak, 1991). As in the savannah buffalo, male forest buffalo tend to darken with age, sometimes becoming blackish (Alden et al., 1995). The chin and underside are often paler, and the face and legs may have patches of contrasting color (Kingdon, 1997). Although morphological differences between forest and savannah buffaloes are very great, intermediate and mixed types do occur (Kingdon, 1997).

In all races the body is barrel-shaped and the chest wide (Nowak, 1991; Alden et al., 1995). The legs are stocky, the head massive, and the neck is short and thick (Nowak, 1991; Alden et al., 1995). The long tail has a terminal tassel of longer hairs (Alden et al., 1995). Apart from the horns, the most distinguishing character on the head are the large, droopy ears which are fringed with long hair on the edges (Nowak, 1991; Alden et al., 1995). In forest buffalo, two long white or pale yellow tracts of hair line the inside surface of each ear and extend as tufts along the bottom edge (Buchholtz, 1990).

Both sexes of the African buffalo bear horns, although their size and shape is quite variable (Alden et al., 1995). In the Cape race, the horns are hook-shaped, curving downwards from their origin in the skull before curling upwards and inwards (Buchholtz, 1990). The horns are massive in males, broadening into a heavy shield (known as a "boss") across the forehead (Nowak, 1991; Alden et al., 1995). Horn length may be as long as 160 cm along the outer curve in large males, with a horizontal spread greater than 90 cm (Buchholtz, 1990; Alden et al., 1995). The horns of female savannah buffalo are shorter and thinner than in males, with the boss incomplete or absent (Alden et al., 1995). The horns of forest buffalo are much shorter (only reaching 30-40 cm in length) and sweep back from the head in line with the forehead; males of this subspecies do not develop a frontal boss (Buchholtz, 1990; Alden et al., 1995).

Reproduction and Development

Syncerus caffer may breed throughout the year, but births tend to be seasonal where rainfall is limited (Nowak, 1991). Females cycle every 23 days, and are in estrus for 5-6 days. Gestation is approximately 340 days long, after which a single calf (rarely two) is born (Buchholtz, 1990; Nowak, 1991). In the Serengeti, the breeding peak is towards then end of the rains (June-July), with the resulting calf arriving in the second half of the following wet season (Buchholtz, 1990; Nowak, 1991). An interbirth interval of two years is normal (Kingdon, 1997).

Young are born reddish-brown or blackish-brown in color (forest buffalo calves may be bright red), and have a thick covering of hair (Buchholtz, 1990; Nowak, 1991). Birth weights for the species average 40 kilograms (Nowak, 1991), but Cape buffalo may weigh 55-60 kg at birth (Buchholtz, 1990). Calves share a strong bond with their mothers, who will protect their infant even when directly threatened by a predator (Kingdon, 1997; Alden et al., 1995). Calves are weaned around six months of age, and reach sexual maturity between 3.5 and 5 years of age (Buchholtz, 1990; Nowak, 1991). Wild individuals have been recorded as old as 18 years old, while in captivity buffalo can live well into their twenties (20-26) - one captive specimen died at 29 years and 6 months of age (Buchholtz, 1990; Nowak, 1991).


S. caffer inhabits a wide range of habitats across Africa (Nowak, 1991). Cape buffalo are found in savannah and woodland mosaics, preferring areas with access to grass, water, and dense cover, such as thickets, reeds, or forest (Buchholtz, 1990; Nowak, 1991; Kingdon, 1997). They will seek out glades where possible, but can stay out in the open without shade for extended periods of time (Kingdon, 1997). Forest buffalo are found in swampy jungle, primary rainforest and secondary-growth forests; most foraging occurs in grassy glades, along watercourses, and in waterlogged basins (Kingdon, 1997).

African buffalo have a symbiotic relationship with birds like oxpeckers and cattle egrets, which remove biting and sucking insects from their skin (Buchholtz, 1990). Apart from humans, buffalo are hunted by lions and crocodiles, who typically attack only old solitary animals and young calves (Buchholtz, 1990).

S. caffer is grazer, feeding on grasses, herbs, swamp vegetation, and occasionally browsing on leaves (Buchholtz, 1990; Nowak, 1991; Kingdon, 1997). Preferred grass species reported by Kingdon (1997) include Cynodon, Sporobolus, Digitaria, Panicum, Heteropogon, and Cenchrus species.


The social structure of savannah buffalo has been closely studied, while less is known about forest buffalo (Buchholtz, 1990). Savannah buffalo live in large herds containing 50 to 500 animals (Nowak, 1991). Within these herds are a number of smaller social groups made up of several females and their most recent offspring (up to two years of age) (Buchholtz, 1990; Nowak, 1991). The bond between females is very strong, and all animals will respond to distress calls, especially those made by calves. This cohesion also provides protection for weakened individuals, such that blind buffaloes and three-legged individuals are able to survive in a herd setting (Nowak, 1991; Kingdon, 1997). Bachelor groups containing as many as twelve males are also found within the herd substructure, along with groups of similarly-aged juveniles (Nowak, 1991). Adult males either associate with a female group or are found apart from the herd in a small unit of similar older males (Nowak, 1991). Old males may also be solitary (Buchholtz, 1990). Temporary aggregations of 2,000 to 3,000 buffalo occasionally form from several smaller herds, but these large groups lack social cohesion and are only possible on large, rich pastures (Nowak, 1991; Kingdon, 1997). Forest buffalo are found in smaller groups than their savannah relatives, usually with 8-20 related individuals (Nowak, 1991). Kingdon (1997) gives the maximum group size for forest buffalo as 12, composed of related females and their offspring with attendant males. Male forest buffalo also associate in bachelor herds or live alone (Kingdon, 1997). Hearing appears to be the most important sense to all African buffalo, and quiet lowing (similar to domestic cattle) serves to ensure herd cohesiveness both in dense forest (where it is necessary) as well as in open grassland (Nowak, 1991; Kingdon, 1997).

Savannah buffalo tend to be non-migratory, inhabiting a home range which is largely exclusive to that group (Nowak, 1991). Home ranges can vary in size from 126 to 1,075 square kilometers, supporting population densities between 0.17 and 3.77 individuals per square kilometer (Nowak, 1991). In areas in east Africa with high rainfall, home range size may be as small as 10 square kilometers with a density of 18 buffalo per square kilometer (Nowak, 1991). Territoriality has never been observed, but groups remain attached to traditional ranges even when conditions change (Buchholtz, 1990; Kingdon, 1997).

Savannah buffalo are active throughout the day, spending 18 hours per day moving and foraging (Nowak, 1991). Grazing occurs as the herds move, although feeding is most frequent in the late afternoon and evening (Nowak, 1991). The grazing and trampling by buffalo favours rapid regrowth of vegetation, which in turn encourages repeated foraging (Kingdon, 1997). As a result, herds tend to move through their home range on a circuitous route 50-105 km long (Nowak, 1991). Drinking usually occurs in the morning and at dusk (Nowak, 1991). During the hottest time of the day (12h00-16h00), herds will typically rest and ruminate, although they seem to prefer resting in the open rather than in shade (Nowak, 1991). In areas with high human disturbance, buffalo will switch from continuous grazing to night-time foraging (Kingdon, 1997).

With its large size, massive horns, and cohesive social dynamic, S. caffer is a formidable fighter (Nowak, 1991). The average rate of travel is 5.4 km per hour, although buffalo can run up to 57 km per hour for short distances (Nowak, 1991). Coupled with the habit of charging en masse, few predators use African buffalo as a regular food source (Alden et al., 1995).

Mud wallows are frequently used and apparently enjoyed by buffalo (Buchholtz, 1990; Nowak, 1991). The mud serves to cool the animals, as well as forming a protective crust when dried, which discourages insets from biting (Buchholtz, 1990).


One of the most widespread African ungulates, African buffalo are found throughout most of Africa south of the Sahara (Buchholtz, 1990).

Countries: Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, United Republic of Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe. Regionally extinct in Gambia and Eritrea, and reintroduced into Swaziland (IUCN Antelope Specialist Group, 2008).

Range Map
(After IUCN Antelope Specialist Group, 2008)

Conservation Status

S. caffer is a species of least concern according to the IUCN (IUCN Antelope Specialist Group, 2008). It is not listed on any CITES appendix (2009). The total population of African buffalo is approximately 900,000 animals across the continent (East, 1999). Nearly all of these animals are savannah buffalo, accounting for 830,000 individuals, broken down as such: S. c. brachyceros - 27,000; S. c. aequinoctialis -133,000; S. c. caffer - 670,000 (East, 1999). Censusing forest buffalo is very difficult, but an approximate population figure is 60,000, 75%of which inhabit protected areas (East, 1999). African buffalo are threatened by habitat loss and hunting pressures (Kingdon, 1997; IUCN Antelope Specialist Group, 2008). Rinderpest (a disease) has proven a major threat to this species in the past; an epidemic in southern Africa during the 1890s virtually eliminated the buffalo population (they have never recovered), while its spread into east Africa destroyed 90% of the region's buffalo population (Buchholtz, 1990; Kingdon, 1997). The potential for another rinderpest outbreak remains a threat today (IUCN Antelope Specialist Group, 2008).


Because of their power and disposition, African buffalo are considered the most dangerous game species in Africa (Nowak, 1991). Nonetheless (or perhaps because of their reputation), S. caffer has been heavily hunted for trophies and food (Nowak, 1991). Unlike the Asian water buffalo, domestication attempts with this species have proven unsuccessful (Buchholtz, 1990).

The scientific name Syncerus caffer is derived as follows: Sun (Greek) together; keras (Greek) the horn of an animal: a reference to the closely abutting bases (or boss) of the horns in adult male Cape buffalo. Cafer (Latin) means "of Caffraria/Kaffraria", the country of the Kaffirs (Africa).

Local names
Nyati, Mbogo [Swahili] (Kingdon, 1997)
Buffle d'Afrique (Buchholtz, 1990)
Afrikanischer Büffel, Kaffernbüffel (Buchholtz, 1990)
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