The Cape Buffalo—A Cooperative Beast
By Awake! correspondent in Kenya
YOU are driving across the African savanna. Your car lurches over a rise, and suddenly, just a few yards away, a line of fearsome beasts appears. They are massive creatures, each standing about five feet [1.5 m] at the shoulder and weighing nearly a ton. Alarmed by your advance, they stand frozen, their heads thrown back to catch your scent, their eyes gazing at you menacingly.
Your eyes, however, are locked on their huge horns, which sweep down and out to the sides. Tip to tip those horns measure as much as 58 inches [147 cm] across. On some of the beasts, the ridged bases of the horns broaden out and extend across the top of the forehead, forming a huge helmet. You wonder how many blows your vehicle could withstand from such a battering ram.
Given the reputation of these beasts, such fears are understandable. After all, these are Cape buffalo, and they are reputed to be extremely dangerous, prone to charge at the slightest provocation. Indeed, Cape buffalo are said to have injured or killed more men—and lions—than any other herbivore on earth. No wonder the sight of them may alarm you! So when one of the creatures lets loose an explosive snort, you brace yourself for the worst. But to your surprised relief, no attack comes. Instead, the whole line of bulls turns around and trots off!
No, you did not succeed in frightening off these creatures with your gaze. For, while it is not a beast to be toyed with, the Cape buffalo is a surprisingly tranquil creature by nature. Its diet is grass—not meat (animal or human). Its reputation for ferocity is the result of legend and tall tales told by hunters, not scientific study. In reality, it will flee from confrontation rather than seek it. And far from being a disagreeable brute, the Cape buffalo is a model of cooperation.
Cooperation for Survival
The Cape buffalo is a uniquely social creature. Found throughout most of Africa south of the Sahara, it is content in virtually any type of terrain as long as it is close to water. During the rainy seasons when water and food are plentiful, Cape buffalo travel in huge herds. While in some areas the average herd is about 350 strong, some herds number into the thousands. In the dry season, the herds shrink to groups of from 2 to 20. Every day—once in the morning and once at night—the herd travels to a nearby water source. A single buffalo will drink as much as eight to ten gallons [30-40 L].
In the heat of the day, these sociable quadrupeds love to lie in the water and wallow in the mud. Not only is this habit cooling and refreshing but it helps rid them of irritating parasites. Or they may simply lie in the shade in seeming meditation, slowly digesting the grass, bushes, and leaves they grazed on during the night.
When danger strikes, the spirit of cooperation quickly becomes apparent. A buffalo will sound the alarm by letting loose a loud snort. Soon, the whole herd rallies to its defense. Why, buffalo have been known to herd together and charge a lion! This instinct to protect one another is quite unusual among herbivores, the rule usually being every beast for himself when danger appears. As a result, lame and blind buffalo are able to survive as long as they stick close to the herd.
The same cohesiveness continues even when no danger is imminent. For example, when there is a change of activity, say from grazing to lying down, the entire herd quickly conforms within a few minutes. Scientists used to believe that the herd followed a single lead animal in doing so, but more recently it has been suggested that they follow whichever member is most familiar with the particular area in which they find themselves. Generally, this will be an older female. Full-grown males tend to strike out on their own and leave the herd. Therefore, the herds are not bullied into obedience by a dominating leader but show themselves to be quite cooperative by nature.
The Solitary Bull—A Loner?
Why, though, do males break off from the herds? Have they become antisocial? Not at all. Their comparatively solitary existence appears to result from their huge bulk. Too heavy to move about as frequently as the herd does, they come to prefer a more sedentary life-style. Each one therefore stakes out a personal territory—a place with shade, vegetation for nightly grazing, and a nearby watering place. Still, he stays as close as possible to the path the herd treads in its daily treks for water. From time to time, he will graze with his old companions. When water supplies dwindle during the dry seasons, several bulls will band together for their twice-a-day trips to their water source.
What if the herd is forced to cross a bull’s personal territory? Does a huge fight ensue? Not at all. The bull will meet the herd at the border of his “property” and personally escort them to the border of the territory of a neighboring bull. This one, in turn, takes charge and conducts them to the next territory. The process repeats itself until the herd has reached its watering grounds. If the herd is menaced, the bulls will take on the role of protectors for the cows and calves. They will automatically take the rear guard—the most dangerous position—and will be the last to run.
The Cape buffalo’s reputation as a fearsome beast is thus undeserved. Having come to know this beast a little better, we can see it, not as a mindlessly aggressive juggernaut, but as a peaceful example of cooperation that is worthy of contemplation—perhaps even imitation.
[Pictures on page 24, 25]
Buffalo have been known to herd together and charge a lion
Though bulls leave the herd, they continue to be quite sociable