The African buffalo is one of the most successful grazers in Africa. It lives in swamps, floodplains as well as mopane grasslands and forests of the major mountains of Africa. Buffalo can be found from the highest mountains to sea level areas, and prefer habitat with dense cover such as reeds and thickets. Herds have also been found in open woodland and grassland. While not particularly demanding with regard to habitat, they require water daily and therefore depend on perennial sources of water.
Like the Plains zebra, the buffalo can subsist on tall, coarse grasses. Herds of buffalo will reduce grass level to the height that is preferred by selective grazers. When feeding, the buffalo makes use of its tongue and wide incisor row to eat grass more quickly than most other African herbivores. Buffalo do not stay on trampled or depleted areas for long.Other than humans, African buffalo have few predators and are capable of defending themselves against (and sometimes killing) lions. Lions do kill and eat buffalo regularly, but it typically takes multiple lions to bring down a single adult buffalo. The Nile Crocodile will typically attack only old solitary animals and young calves. The cheetah, leopard and spotted hyena are a threat only to newborn calves, though spotted hyenas have been recorded to kill full grown bulls on occasion.
Herd size is highly variable. The basic herds consist of related females, and their offspring, in an almost linear dominance hierarchy. The basic herds are surrounded by sub-herds of bachelor males, high-ranking males and females, and old or invalid animals. The young males keep their distance from the dominant bull, who is recognizable by the thickness of his horns.
Adult bulls will spar in play, dominance interactions or actual fights. A bull will approach another slowing with his horns down and wait for the other bull to do the same thing. When sparring the bulls twist their horns from side to side. If the sparring is for play the bulls may rub each other's faces and bodies during the sparring session. Actual fights are violent but rare and brief. Calves may also spar in play but adult females rarely spar at all.
When chased by predators a herd will stick close together and make it hard for the predators to pick off one member. Calves are gathered in the middle. Buffalo will try to rescue a member that has been caught. A calf's distress call will get the attention of not only the mother but also the herd. Buffalo will engage in mobbing behavior when fighting off predators. They have been recorded treeing lions for two hours, after the lions have killed a member of their group. Lion cubs can get trampled and killed. In one videotaped instance, a calf survived an attack by both lions and a crocodile after intervention of the herd.
Buffalo mate and give birth strictly during the rainy seasons. Birth peak takes place early in the season while mating peaks later. A bull will closely guard a cow that comes into heat, while keeping other bulls at bay. This is difficult as cows are quite evasive and attract many males to the scene. By the time a cow is in full estrous only the most dominant bull in the herd/subherd is there.Cows first calve at five years of age, after a gestation period of 11.5 months. Newly born calves remain hidden in vegetation for the first few weeks while being nursed occasionally by the mother before joining the main herd. Calves are held in the centre of the herd for safety. The maternal bond between mother and calf lasts longer than in most bovids. However when a new calf is born the bonding ends and the mother will keep her previous offspring out of the way with horn jabs. Nevertheless the yearling will still tag along for another year or so. Males leave their mothers when they are two years old and join the bachelor groups.
Relationship with humans
The current status of African cape buffalo is dependent on the existence of the animal's value to both trophy hunters and tourists, paving the way for conservation efforts through anti-poaching patrols, village crop damage payouts, and CAMPFIRE payback programs to local areas.
The current total number of cape buffalo is spread throughout non-desert Africa, from Chad in the North to South Africa in the South. The cape buffalo are estimated to number around a million, but accurate counts are not possible with the lack of research funding in places like Sudan, Chad, Congo, and Benin. Most professional hunters, safari outfitters, and wildlife professionals believe the number to be only representing the actual Cape subspecies, and not counting the Nile, northeast, or forest buffalo.
Known as one of the "big five" or "Black Death" in Africa, the African buffalo is widely regarded as a very dangerous animal, as it gores and kills over 200 people every year. Buffalo are sometimes reported to kill more people in Africa than any other animal, although the same claim is sometimes made of Hippopotamus, or Crocodiles. Buffalo are notorious among big game hunters as very dangerous animals, with wounded animals reported to ambush and attack pursuers.