On a morning drive at Kruger National Park, seeing a large group of buffalo approaching we stopped our car to watch. They came closer and closer and then they stopped too. We had thought that we were watching them, but it turned out that they were also watching us.

The herd of buffalo approached at an easy ambling pace. We assumed they were on a commute between grazing areas and water. Buffalo are water dependent and need to drink every day, especially in the dry months when their main food source is dry standing hay. As some youngsters were present we took this to be a breeding herd.

Buffalos are non-territorial and very sociable animals. Herd size depends on habitat and also on the availability of grazing. In dry months herds may disperse into smaller units. The small units may be clans, which consist of related cows and their offspring accompanied by a few dominant breeding bulls, or temporary bachelor herds comprising mature bulls and subadult males.

As we watched, we were surprised to see that the buffalo did not alter their direction but continued on their path towards us. These buffalo are African buffalo (Syncerus caffer). They are the only member of the Bovini tribe (which includes wild and domestic cattle and American bison) that occurs naturally in Africa. The Bovini tribe is part of the Bovidae family that includes also antelopes and sheep and goats.

The buffalo approached calmly, obviously walking with purpose without much stopping to graze. Buffalo are primarily grazers and use their prehensile tongues to grasp bite-sized bundles of grass. They are able to eat tall, mature grasses and in the winter they eat hay-like dry standing grasses. Herbs and foliage comprises only about 5% of their diet, and their preference is for grasses.

As the buffalos got closer to us some continued walking and others paused to graze. The male leading this group has noticeably heavy horns.

As they got closer still, some stopped to look at us, sniffing the air as they tried to figure out who or what we were. Their sense of smell is more developed than their sight or their hearing.

With the herd slowing down more animals started grazing as they moved and others, like this rather gentle looking female, stopped to stare at us – or at least at our vehicle.

Some of the looks we got were quite quizzical. As we watched them watching us it became striking as to how individual and distinctive each buffalo is when one has the chance to see them ‘face-to-face’.

These females watched us with a kind of open frankness. Evidently they felt unthreatened and they seemed very placid. The mature female on the left displays lovely fringes on her drooping ears.

The base of the horns of male buffalos is more developed than in the females, the thick base or boss serves to protect the forehead.

This female buffalo lifted her head and sniffed the air as she gazed at us.

This buffalo had tatty ears and despite her rather wide-eyed expression she seemed as placid as the others.

Another female buffalo had a far tidier appearance with her rather neatly fringed ears and gentle demeanour.

The buffalo in the foreground (in the above photo) walked calmly towards us while carrying an oxpecker on her back. Female buffalos reach breeding age when they are about five years old. The gestation period for buffaloes is 11.5 months and a healthy female with sufficient access to food may give birth to a subsequent calf after an interval of 15 months.

Bringing up the rear of the herd was this group. The buffalo in the front had unusually fluffy knees.

Buffalo have a reputation for being dangerous animals, but this usually applies if they are wounded or if they are cornered or feel threatened. In areas where they are persecuted by people they are nocturnal, but in protected areas free from hunting they will feed also during the day.

Our quiet morning encounter with these African buffalo was one of the highlights of our recent visit to Kruger National Park


Dorst, Jean & Dandelot, Pierre. 1984. A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa. London: Collins;  Estes, Richard. 1993. The Safari Companion a Guide to Watching African Mammals. Halfway House:

Russel Friedman.

Posted by Carol