Black Death in the long grass…

Black Death in the long grass…

Many years ago, I read a book by Peter Hathaway Capstick called “Death in the long grass”. It is a hunter’s account of deaths – of the hunters and the hunted. There may or may not be exaggeration and hyperbole, but either way it’s one hell of a read. One of the animals featured in the book is the Cape buffalo, which is often referred to as “Black Death” or “Widow maker” – names which are well deserved.

“I lurched up and looked at Mbogo, and Mbogo looked at me. He was 50 to 60 yards off, his head low, his eyes staring right down my soul. He looked at me as if he hated my guts. He looked as if I had despoiled his fiancée, murdered his mother, and burned down his house. He looked at me as if I owed him money. I never saw such malevolence in the eyes of any animal or human being, before or since. So, I shot him.” Robert Ruark 

The aggressive and extremely unpredictable Cape buffalos are thought to be responsible for killing around 200 people per year, and most of these victims have been big game hunters. An injured buffalo is incredibly dangerous. When wounded or when a calf or a weak member of the herd is under attack is when the Cape buffalo is at its most dangerous. They have an excellent sense of smell and can detect the scent of predators from up to 1.6 kilometres away. 

These large animals require 30 – 40 litres of water daily, so they depend on perennial sources of water. Their preference is for a habitat with dense cover, such as reeds and thickets near their water source. This environment allows them to move around without getting noticed – so by the time a hunter does see the buffalo, it is often too late to escape. Once charging, it is bloody-minded determined to kill its target – and almost impossible to stop. However, it’s not only hunters that buffalo kill… Whilst they will obviously try to kill any of their predators, they are also known for killing lion cubs and other enemies’ off-spring. This makes sense as they are reducing the risk of predation in the future. They also have a tendency to take revenge when messed with and have been known to circle back, stalk and attack or kill hunters.

“It wasn’t going to be a game, shooting that buffalo. If he charged us in the dark, we couldn’t suddenly decide we didn’t like big game hunting and go back to camp. The buffalo would put all his chips in the pot. It would be either his life or ours.” Ralph Hammer 

The horns on a bull Cape buffalo are connected in the middle. This creates a thick and extremely hard and protective layer that is called a “boss”. Bulls often have individual fights during which they go “head-to-head” (quite literally), where they will charge at full speed towards each other and bang their heads together. According to research done by Dr John Conde, the Cape Buffalo has four times the strength of an ox. Add to that a charging speed of 60 km/h and almost a ton in weight behind that charge, and you have a serious contender for one of the most dangerous animals on earth. When two 800kg bulls charging at a mere 20 km/h collide head-on, the impact is equal to a car hitting a wall at 50 km/h. The horns of an adult buffalo cow don’t touch – they don’t need a boss as they do not fight like the males. The hide on the buffalo’s neck can be as thick as two inches in places – to protect it during battles with other male bulls for dominance.

When you see Cape buffalo in Africa, they’re usually not alone. These herds can range from a modest group of 20 to a massive gathering of over 1000 animals. The herd is usually led by a dominant male. Within these herds they have a hierarchy and are ranked by their fighting capabilities and strength. They’re known for their fierce loyalty to their herd – if one buffalo is attacked by a predator, the others will often come to its defence. Buffalo are excellent swimmers and won’t hesitate to cross a river to escape a predator – or to reach new grazing lands.

Buffalo are continually required to manage the external parasites on their bodies. They do this by wallowing in the mud to kill off ticks and other parasites on their skin. They also allow oxpecker birds to eat the ticks on their backs, tails, legs, inside their ears and even inside their noses!

As an interesting aside, buffalo calves suckle from between the back legs of their mothers. This is a behavioural adaptation which helps make feeding easier for the calf as their mother, and the rest of the herd, is on the move all the time.

In truth, buffalo can be placid and distinctly bovine. Just don’t mess with them. As with any wild animal, show the necessary respect. Give them a wide berth when on foot. And if you’re hunting them – well, all bets are off…

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team

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