The African, or Cape, buffalo is a member of the so-called "Big Five" group of animals, with the elephant, rhino, lion and leopard. Once popular trophies for hunters, these large and often dangerous animals have continued to capture the imagination. Buffaloes have earned a bad reputation from hunters and other people who come in close contact with them. They are unpredictable and can be dangerous if cornered or wounded. Though they have been known to ambush men and are often accused of deliberate savagery, they are usually placid if left alone.
There is only one species of buffalo in Africa, but two distinct subspecies exist: the large savanna buffalo and the much smaller forest buffalo. The forest subspecies is only found in central and West Africa.
Savanna buffaloes are large, heavy cowlike animals. They vary greatly not only in size, but in the shapes of their horns and color. Adults are usually dark gray or black (or even look red or white if they have been wallowing in mud of that color) and the young are often reddish-brown. The smaller forest buffalo maintains the red color even as an adult, although in western Uganda, many savanna buffaloes are also red or pale orange instead of black. Adults lose hair as they age.
Both male and female buffaloes have heavy, ridged horns that grow straight out from the head or curve downward and then up. The horns are formidable weapons against predators and for jostling for space within the herd; males use the horns in fights for dominance.
Both savanna buffaloes and forest buffaloes live close to water. In general buffaloes are found throughout the northern and southern savanna as well as the lowland rain forest.
Buffaloes can live in herds of a few hundred, but have been known to congregate in thousands in the Serengeti during the rainy season. The females and their offspring make up the bulk of the herd. Males may spend much of their time in bachelor groups. These groups are of two types, those that contain males from 4 to 7 years of age and those that have males 12 years and older. The older bulls often prefer to be on their own. Males do not reach their full weight until about age 10. After this, however, their body weight and condition decline, probably because the teeth become worn.
Sight and hearing are both rather poor, but scent is well developed in buffaloes. Although quiet for the most part, the animals do communicate. In mating seasons they grunt and emit hoarse bellows. A calf in danger will bellow mournfully, bringing herd members running at a gallop to defend it.
Females have their first calves at age 4 or 5. They usually calve only once every two years. Although young may be born throughout the year, most births occur in the rainy season when abundant grass improves the nutritional level for the females when they are pregnant or nursing. The female and her offspring have an unusually intense and prolonged relationship. Calves are suckled for as long as a year and during this time are completely dependent on their mothers. Female offspring usually stay in the natal herd, but males leave when they are about 4 years old.