Hunting the Cape Buffalo
Species: Syncerus caffer (Sparrman,
English: Buffalo (African or Cape
buffalo), Afrikaans: Buffel, Shangaan: Nyari, Zulu: Nyati, Tswana:
Nyari, Shona: Nyati, Ndebele: Inyathi
The decision to hunt the African buffalo
should not be taken lightly. Its reputation as a “killer” is not
hearsay. It is true. If you are going to hunt buffalo the more you
know about it the better your chances will be of emerging unscathed.
An aura of apprehension and respect is
aroused when the words “African buffalo” are spoken.
to by some as “black death” and to others as the most dangerous
animal on the dark continent, it poses challenge enough to hunt this
animal with a high powered rifle. To hunt it with bow and arrow
however must surely rank as one of the greatest challenges life can
offer - and it can be done – with the right equipment, using the
right technique, and with a liberal measure of courage and a cool
head thrown in for good effect. An additional recommendation is an
experienced PH armed with a heavy calibre rifle - who can hopefully
Are all the stories true? Buffalo bulls
circling back on the hunter and waiting in ambush? Their toughness –
able to absorb tens of thousands of foot pounds of energy and still
keep coming? Their aggressive nature – the murderous gleam in the
eye, foam flecked muzzle – and the intent to kill, dismember and
destroy any man that dares cross their path?
Is it true or has the disposition of this
great African beast become exaggerated? The answer to this question
is yes……and - no. Let’s take a look.
Belonging to the bovid family, buffalo are
heavy animals and have cattle – like features: massive bodies and
stout limbs. They have a shoulder height of about 120 -140cm (47-55
inches). Adult bulls weigh in at about 800kg (1,763 pounds) and cows
at about 750kg (1,653 pounds). Cows are dark brown and old bulls
black in colour. Young animals are reddish brown, darkening with
age. Hair covering also thins as animals grow older. The neck is
relatively short and thick.
Horns are heavy with a massive base,
carried by both sexes, but less well developed in females. Size,
general coloration, and shape of horns are variable. Bulls usually
have heavier horn structure with a large boss. Cows horns are
generally more slender but can grow to exceptional lengths (see
below). The horns of older animals are often worn and smooth and
often break off. Tails are long with a terminal tuft. The muzzle is
large, broad, bare and moist. The eyes of buffalo can be
intimidating. When the head is lifted to stare at an intruder the
whites of the eyes show and the eyes are often red rimmed. The bulk
of a buffalo’s mass is carried in the forequarters. This is
reflected in the much larger front hooves.
Buffalo show a wide range of ecological
adaptation, ranging from dense forest (preferring secondary growth
and clearings) to open woodland. Habitat preference includes an
abundance of grazing, shade and water. Suitable grass species occur
in Brachystegia, Mopane, Acacia and Baikiaea woodland and in
open, vlei (marsh) areas associated with these veld types. Although
buffalo will utilize open grass plains during the cooler hours of
the day or during the night, they prefer moving to wooded areas
during the heat of the day to rest in the shade.
Buffalo are water dependent and will
generally drink twice a day. They are also partial to resting and
feeding in reed beds associated with bodies of water. They enjoy
wallowing in mud which helps them to regulate body temperature and
to rid themselves of external parasites.
Small bull herds and lone bulls are often
found in the sodic areas (“brak kolle”) adjacent to perennial and
seasonal streams. In these areas one often finds seasonal pans and
pools of water to which buffalo gravitate to wallow in.
In open habitat this gregarious animal may
occur in herds numbering in the hundreds and at times in the
thousands (Savuti in Botswana). These are generally breeding herds
made of both sexes of all age groups. These large herds often split
up into smaller groups for awhile and then join the large herd
again. Adult and older bulls often leave the breeding herds to form
small bachelor groups of 4 to 10 animals – these and old, lone bulls
are often referred to as “dagga boys”. The word “dagga” refers to
the mud that often encrusts these old warriors, which they pick up
whilst partaking in one of their favorite pastimes - wallowing.
There is a well defined hierarchy within these bachelor herds. Lone
bulls will sometimes rejoin breeding herds to mate with cows in
The larger herds may migrate seasonally in
search of water and grazing and might split up into smaller groups
to reduce competition for scarce resources.
Buffalo herds have fairly well defined
home ranges which can overlap with neighboring herds. The size of
home range can vary according to available resources and will also
change to adapt to the different seasons.
Buffalo generally drink early morning and
at sunset. They rest in available shade or in reed beds during the
heat of the day.
They rest in available shade or in reed
beds during the heat of the day. Bulls will often wallow at this
time as well.
Is the bad reputation of the buffalo
justified? In some respects no. Buffalo are generally placid and
peace loving animals – in many respects like cattle. The author of
this article has had hundreds of encounters with buffalo whilst
leading wilderness trails on foot in the Kruger National Park. Many
of these encounters were at close range, walking trail groups within
15 – 20m of herds of up to 400 animals. What was remarkable was the
curiosity of these animals. When approached at a tangent (see
hunting techniques) a protective phalanx would be formed by the
bulls with the cows and younger animals safely ensconced within the
The bulls would stare intently at the
intruders, and, with noses raised to test the air and eyes rolled
back, would determine for themselves if the intrusion was perceived
as a threat or not. If the intruders were regarded as a danger the
bulls would stamp their feet, sweep their horns, and emit loud
snorts. This behavior would then initiate a flight response from the
herd who would run away from the perceived danger. Frequently herds
would not feel in imminent danger and cows and young animals would
then begin to poke their inquisitive noses through the protective
ring of bulls. Bulls themselves would often also approach closer for
a better “look see”.
If we ourselves started to feel
uncomfortable because of the close proximity and closer approach of
the herd it was easily turned by clapping hands and walking towards
the herd. It was also important to be able to read the “mood” of the
herd. Buffalo herds appear to be more nervous and skittish early
morning but are far more content and “approachable” late afternoon.
The small bachelor herds and lone bulls are definitely more nervous
and less predictable, and caution is advocated when approaching
them. They are definitely more aggressive - often without any
During culling operations and when
shooting buffalo for bait during lion capture operations I have been
amazed to see the type of punishment a buffalo can absorb before
dying. Well placed heart / lung shots with .375 or .458 calibre
rifles would not cause an animal to flinch. Only a well placed brain
or neck / spinal shot would have the desired effect and drop the
animal in it’s tracks. There is enough well documented evidence to
support the fact that a wounded buffalo is worth it’s reputation –
and then some. Take a look at some of the commercially available
videos for an eye opener. Six or seven shots with 500 Nitro’s in the
engine room and the beast still charges – after absorbing in excess
of 30 000 foot pounds of energy!
Without doubt a wounded buffalo is
definitely one of the greatest hazards one can encounter in Africa.
These animals will usually head for cover when hurt and if followed
up will, in most instances, charge the intruder. A charge from a
wounded buffalo can only be successfully thwarted with a brain or
spinal shot with a large calibre rifle. Once initiated, a buffalo
charge will not stop until either the buffalo itself or the pursuer
has been terminated. A charge invariably begins with a snort. The
head is held high with the buffalo peering down its nose at the
intended victim. The head is dropped at the last moment to either
use the boss as a battering ram or to scoop the victim with the
horns. Repeated ramming and goring with the horns will follow
accompanied by trampling with the massive hooves. The final
conclusion to the question “are buffalo as dangerous as they are
made out to be?” is yes, if you underestimate them and do not afford
them the respect they are worthy of…..and no, if you understand
them, are cautious and remain aware of their lethal potential.
Figure 2: Buffalo cows can also produce impressive horns
Buffalo have fairly poor hearing. Their
eyesight is reasonable but not good. The sense of smell is highly
developed and it is important therefore to approach buffalo from
Buffalo are primarily grazers but will
take in a small percentage of browse. Although they will be
attracted to the short green flush of burnt areas they are not as
partial to this as other species. They feed readily on old grass but
will avoid areas where it has been overgrazed or trampled.
They are selective grazers with a
preference for assegai grass (Heteropogon contortus), white buffalo
grass (Panicum coloratum), Guinea grass (Panicum maximum), red grass
(Themeda triandra), and finger grasses (Digitaria spp.).
Plants on which they will occasionally
browse include sickle bush (Dichrostachys cinerea), snow berry (Securinega
virosa), mopane (Colophospermum mopane), and raisin bush (Grewia spp.).
Buffalo are dark skinned and their body
temperature rises quickly in direct sun. When it gets too hot they
will stop feeding and seek out the nearest shade where they will
rest and ruminate until it cools down. About 85% of the 24 hour
cycle is spent on feeding and ruminating. Feeding takes place mostly
Cows reach reproductive status at about 3
years and some drop their first calves at 4 years although the
majority calve for the first time in their 5th year. Although bulls
are sexually mature by 3 years, group dynamics and dominance of
older bulls seldom allow them to breed until they are in their 7th
or 8th year. Cows calve every alternate year. The gestation period
is 330 – 346 days. Calves weigh in at about 40kg at birth and are
weaned at about 15 months. Calving can occur throughout the year but
most young are born between October to April with a peak in January
HUNTING THE BUFFALO
Hunting buffalo has become a very
expensive undertaking. Free ranging (not fenced in) buffalo are not
available for hunting in South Africa. All are confined to game
ranches (some very large in extent but nevertheless confined). To
hunt free ranging buffalo one has to set your sights on Mocambique,
Zimbabwe or further north. Hunting free ranging buffalo requires a
lot more physical effort in terms of locating and tracking the
Unfortunately with the unrelenting march
of “progress” the privilege of hunting buffalo in their wild, free
ranging state, will eventually be accessible to very few and if
people in Africa don’t soon begin to realize that the long term
value of this continent is vested in it’s last few remaining wild
places it is a privilege which will sadly, in the not too distant
future, disappear forever.
Whether a full mount, shoulder mount or
just the horns mounted onto a shield buffalo make impressive
trophies. The massive bosses of the males are eye catching,
formidable and imposing. But don’t write off the cows with their
more slender horns as they can produce some stunning trophies in
terms of shape and length. See Figure2.
To qualify for the record books the
minimum criteria are as follows:
Safari Club International (SCI): To
qualify for inclusion into the SCI record books the total score must
exceed 100. The record is 1402/8.The method of measurement is
illustrated in Figure 3.
Rowland Ward (RW): To qualify for
inclusion into the RW record books the total length must exceed 45”
(114.5 cm). The record is 64” (a cow).
Signs to look for when hunting buffalo
It helps when looking for buffalo to know
what signs to look for to indicate their presence.
The typical large tracks of buffalo cannot
be easily confused with other species. The front hooves are larger
than the rear. On hard ground the dew claws will not show up in the
tracks but in soft sand or mud will be clearly visible. Large herds
of buffalo trample grass to a significant degree. It is easier when
following a herd of buffalo in grassy areas where tracks do not show
up well by following the swathes left behind in the grass as the
animals move along in file.
Flat pancake shape typical of cattle.
Dimensions: Length 100mm. Breadth: 100mm. Olive green when fresh
darkening with age to very dark brown.
Buffalo dung fresh (left) and darkening
with age (right).
Rubs and horning
Buffalo will often leave “horning” sign on
trees. They choose some convenient tree as an opponent and give it a
good “horning” leaving it often in shreds. Sometimes old tree stumps
or rocks are selected as rubbing posts to rub mud off or relieve an
itch, as is sometimes the case with rhino and warthog buffalo will
return to favorite rubbing posts.
Buffalo lie up in shady areas during the
heat of the day and whilst resting at night. They leave clear sign.
Grass will be flattened around the base of trees and bushes. The
positions of where they have been lying, relative to that of the sun
and shade at a particular time of day can also sometimes give you a
clue as to when they have been there. The smell of their droppings
and bodies is also very evident.
Buffalo tend, at times, to be quite vocal.
As they jostle one another and sort out levels of dominance they can
bellow, grunt, snort, and bash horns together. All these sounds plus
the calling of calves can be heard distinctly from a long way off
and serve warning to the hunter that buffalo are in the vicinity.
The sight and sound of red billed ox peckers descending into or
rising from a herd are also very useful indicators. Breeding herds
are far noisier than bachelor herds and lone bulls that are
generally very quiet. It is easy to stumble unexpectedly upon them.
Buffalo enjoy wallowing. They often leave
clear sign when walking away from ( (photo Alex Brackskowski) a
wallow by dropping mud and depositing it onto vegetation which they
brush up against. This is easy to follow and a useful aid in
determining whether the sign is fresh or not. They also leave clear
sign in mud wallows -–body impressions and tracks.
If the wind is taken into consideration
and kept in the hunters favour, buffalo are one of the easier
animals to hunt using walk and stalk and spot and stalk methods. A
properly camouflaged hunter using wind and terrain to advantage
should be able to approach to within bow range and especially rifle
range with relative ease. By determining the direction in which a
grazing herd is moving it is also possible to move ahead of them and
wait in ambush.
you are spotted approaching and the herd becomes inquisitive or
restless, walk away allowing the animals to see you departing. They
will quickly settle down and allow you, within ten to fifteen
minutes, to resume your stalk. Unlike other animals who will run off
and put considerable distance between themselves and the perceived
threat, buffalo will soon calm down and resume their activities.
Shot placement is critically important
with buffalo especially with a bow as the hunter has only one option
and that is a heart / lung shot. The rifle hunter has basically
three options – a heart / lung shot, a neck shot and a brain shot.
Note that the yellow dots indicate what I
like to refer to as the Intended Point of Impact or I.P.I. (not to
be confused with the term T.P.I. which stands for Tissue Penetration
Index). It must be understood that the I.P.I and the actual aiming
point on the surface of an animal’s body are not necessarily, and
are often not one and the same thing. That is because the aiming
point shifts according to a number of criteria.
These criteria include the following:
In a nervous or highly strung animal or
of a species that is a notorious “string jumper” when hunted with a
bow the aiming point can move forward by two or three inches and
down by an inch or so.
This is done in anticipation of the
animal lowering itself, bunching up its muscles and preparing to
explode away – usually (but not always) in a forwards direction.
Look at some video footage of “string jumpers” and slow the playback
speed. Note how the animal lowers itself and then leaps forward at
the sound of the bowstring. Here the bowhunter has to compensate for
the expected reaction of the animal by shifting the aiming point.
The I.P.I remains the same (the bowhunter still intends for the
arrow to end up in the heart) but the aiming point shifts.
there is the wind factor. Now if most bowhunters stuck to shooting
at 20m or less, wind deflection would be small enough, in most
cases, for an arrow to still hit the vital area. If however there
are bowhunters who have enough (self) confidence to attempt shots at
30, 40m or even longer distances then wind, especially crosswinds
become a critical factor and the aiming point will have to be
shifted to allow for wind drift. The bowhunter would have had to
have spent a considerable time practicing at these sort of ranges,
under similar windy conditions to know how much the arrow will drift
and to know how much to “aim off”. Again the I.P.I will still be the
same but the actual aiming point will have to take the wind into
The aiming point will also have to be
adjusted if an animal is moving. Now ideally we should not attempt
shots at moving animals but it is a fact that many bowhunters do
attempt shots at non-stationary targets. As the speed of an animal
increases from a slow walk through all the transitional stages up to
a full run the aiming point has to be adjusted although the I.P.I.
remains constant. I have a video at home where a “Pro” working for
Precision Shooting Equipment (P.S.E) took a shot at a red hartebeest
running at full speed past him! Fortunately the arrow passed through
the hindquarters slicing through a femoral artery which left a very
distinct blood trail and the animal died fairly quickly from blood
instance in which the aiming point does not coincide with the I.P.I
is where the shot is steeply uphill or downhill.
The only time where the I.P.I and aiming
point would more or less coincide is under the following conditions:
1. When the animal is standing
2. When the shot is taken on level
3. When there is little or no wind to
influence arrow flight.
4. When the animal is very calm, has
relatively slow reflexes and does not “string jump”.
When hunting buffalo with a bow keep the
following in mind: these animals are heavy boned, have a lot of
muscle mass, and a relatively thick skin. Another important
consideration is that their ribs which are 10 – 15mm thick overlap
one another to a large degree, presenting a significant barrier
which can limit or reduce arrow penetration. The generally
advocated, behind the shoulder heart / lung shot for most species,
can be used in buffalo but can result in unsatisfactory penetration
on occasion as the arrow must punch through the rib cage.
A better shot for buffalo is quartering
away where the arrow is slipped in behind the rib cage. In this shot
the arrow can penetrate deeply into the vitals without first having
to pass through the ribs. For a good quartering away shot you should
get within 20m or less of the animal. Aim for the opposite leg at
the appropriate height. Be prepared for the unexpected when your
Buffalo will generally run away from the
cause of their initial disturbance – but not always. Sometimes their
response might be to investigate or seek out the cause of their
disturbance or injury. If possible, immediately after the shot, drop
out of sight or move into thick cover so that the animal does not
spot you. Hunch or sit down and keep still and quiet. If the buffalo
has swung to face its attacker and cannot locate the source straight
away, the chances are good that it will move away, into the wind,
and away from you.
If it comes for you I hope, for your sake,
that you have a suitable tree nearby, and an experienced PH at hand,
to cover your behind whilst you climb it. Rear end, head, neck and
frontal shots should not be attempted with buffalo when using
archery equipment. Some hunters have been successful with frontal
shots but many have not been. Insufficient arrow penetration on
hitting heavy bones of the foreleg, shoulder or brisket (sternum),
being the usual problem.
Shot placement in buffalo – side on and
frontal is shown by the yellow dots indicate the Intended Point of
Impact. Only the heart / lung area should be aimed for when using
bow and arrow. Neck and frontal brain shots are additional options
for rifle hunters.
The rifle hunter using the appropriate
calibre and bullet should be able to reach the vitals from a variety
of angles. Remember that a heart / lung shot will not drop a buffalo
in its tracks. It will run off and usually take a few minutes to
expire. If it charges it will have to be dropped with a brain shot
and this dictates the use of a monolithic solid to penetrate the
boss and thick skull. For heart lung and neck shots soft points of
suitably strong construction will work.
A wounded buffalo is extremely dangerous.
Don’t ever underestimate this animal. Even with a good heart / lung
shot it can cover considerable ground before expiring. In the case
of a bowhunter and assuming your shot has been a good one, wait 30
to 40 minutes before following up. If it has been a poor shot wait 4
- 5 hours. Whatever the case proceed with caution!
When injured or wounded, buffalo will rest
up in heavy cover. They will be very silent. If you are following,
and it is not dead, it will wait for you and when you get close
enough will charge you with the intention of annihilating you.
sure your PH or backup is always close at hand. As you are following
sign (blood, tracks or whatever) keep your eyes and ears open for
oxpeckers or cattle egrets who might warn you of the animal’s
whereabouts. If the animal is not dead it will in all likelihood
have to be dispatched with a heavy rifle of .375 calibre or greater.
If a buffalo charges it will not deviate but will follow through to
its ultimate conclusion. It can only be stopped by a brain shot.
Choice of equipment
Buffalo are classified as dangerous game
and for good reason. It is strongly advised that you use a bow
delivering minimum kinetic energy of 80 ft. lbs. or more and an
arrow weight of at least 700 grains. Ideally the arrow for hunting
buffalo should be heavy (880 – 900 grains), have a shaft thinner
than the ferrule of the broadhead and a strong, well constructed
broadhead, with one or two blades which have a high mechanical
Too much emphasis is placed on kinetic
energy - this is not always a good indicator of good penetration
potential. Kinetic energy is scalar or non directional in nature,
and includes all the types of energy of a body in motion. Kinetic
energy has no direct bearing on penetration.
Momentum, however, is the correct formula
to measure the directional (in this case forward) “impulse” of a
body in motion. It is the force exerted over a period of time in one
specific direction – i.e. a unidirectional force vector. In big,
thick skinned game penetration is of vital importance and momentum
is what provides it.
Do not even consider using mechanical
broadheads on these robust animals.
A strongly constructed one-piece broadhead
with resharpenable blades is recommended. Zwickey broadheads have a
good reputation. Magnus broadheads are also a good choice.
A two-blade; cut on impact broadhead has
better penetration qualities than a three or four blade option.
Simmons Landshark with bleeders and Muzzy 220 grain Phantom
broadhead with bleeders have good potential as well.
hunting buffalo, use well constructed broadheads of single or two
blade construction with a high mechanical advantage.
For the rifle hunter the calibre of choice
should deliver in excess of 3900 foot pounds of energy to be on the
safe side and a Taylor KO Index equal to or more than 35.9.
Choices available would then include
calibres such as the .375 H&H Magnum, .404 Rigby, .416 Rigby, .425
Westley Richards, .458 Winchester Magnum, .458 Lott, .460 Weatherby
Magnum, .470 Nitro Express, .500 Nitro Express, .500 Jeffrey or 600
Cheney holds a bachelor of science degree in zoology and
a master’s degree in animal physiology. He is a
wilderness trail leader, rated field guide instructor
and the author of many leading articles on the subjects
of tracking, guiding, bowhunting and survival. Cleve has unrivalled experience in wildlife management, game capture and hunting, both with bow and rifle.
Click here to visit his site
Bullets should weigh a minimum of 270
grains and be of good construction. Soft points can be considered
for heart / lung and neck shots but when brain shots are considered
a monolithic bullet is imperative.
When hunting buffalo make sure you have
enough power in hand. Big calibres and well constructed bullets
are a wise choice.
The sheer size of a buffalo, its strength,
guile, and toughness make it a formidable adversary - and the
privileged few who are afforded the opportunity to hunt these
magnificent animals will be left with unforgettable memories.