Chobe’s water loving buffaloes

Cape buffaloes can exist in herds of thousands. Equally, they can coexist in a small mixed breeding herd consisting of few females and their offspring, young males, and older, dominant males in their prime. The old buffalo bulls tend to lag behind the herd when they are on the move.

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

The bulls are also found in bachelor herds, and after a certain age (around 12), most males move away from the safety of the breeding herds and live out their lives in small groups or on their own. These old bulls are often bad-tempered possibly because they are often harassed by lions and elephants. In southern Africa, the summers are hot, so to cope with the heat, the buffaloes love to wallow in the water and in mud pools.

“Men argue. Nature acts.” ~ Voltaire

The massive grumpy old bulls are affectionately known as “dagga boys”. The word “dagga” originating from the Zulu word “dagga” meaning mud. These bulls spend hours wallowing in the mud and can often be seen driving their horns and boss through the mud. In this process, mud builds up on their bosses which seems to add to their stature. These natural mud packs not only help control ectoparasites such as ticks, but they may prevent unwanted skin and tissue infections caused from skirmishes with predators or gashes incurred during power struggles. Mud wallowing also assists with thermo-regulation.

Cape buffaloes are never too far from water. They are good swimmers and I have often seen a herd crossing the wide and deep channel in the Chobe river to get to richer grazing grounds. They swim surprisingly fast and tend to cross the channels in large groups to minimise predation by crocodiles.

“When a buffalo looks at you. Its stares straight at you, its focus intense. With head raised, it lifts up its nose searching for your scent. Only once it flicks its head and turns away can you start to breathe again. Do not take you eyes off that buffalo until you have enough flight distance” ~ Mike Haworth

The male Cape buffalo is an impressive creature, reaching a shoulder heights of 1.8 metres and weighing 850 kilograms. A record-sized Cape buffalo bull weighed 1 000kg.

A Cape Buffalo is most aggressive when it has been wounded, or, if one of the calves from the herd is under attack. Also known as Black Death, the Cape buffalo is said to have killed more big game hunters than any other animal in Africa. An angry or wounded buffalo will double back, circle and stalk its aggressor, waiting for the perfect moment to attack. When in herds Cape Buffalo also engage in mobbing behaviour when fighting off predators.

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the Sunset.”~ Crowfoot

It takes the bulls about five years to fully develop their horns. The structure of the horns of the Cape buffalo give an indication of age and gender. The females and young males do not have the hard shielding that protects the base of the skull found in large adult males.

A Cape buffalo’s boss typically spans 130 cm. A characteristic feature of the horns of adult male Cape buffalo is that the base grows very close together to form a shield referred to as a “boss”. From the base, the horns diverge downwards, then smoothly curve upwards and outwards and in some cases inwards and or backwards. In large bulls, the distance between the ends of the horns can reach upwards of one metre (the record being 164 cm).

Shaka was the ruler of the Zulu nation from 1816 until his assassination in 1828. This Zulu king was responsible for developing the famous Zulu battle tactics known as the “Horns of the Buffalo” (izimpondo ze-inyathi). This tactic was originally used by the Zulus for hunting, but Shaka adapted it for battle with devastating effects. The horn formation comprised three elements: the “horns”, or flanking right and left wing elements, to encircle and pin the enemy.

“A Cape buffalo’s horns tell many tales. It signals who is the boss and its etching show the fury of fights. The boss is smoothed with many contacts. Frequent digging in the mud smooths the horns to shiny ebony. But the horns do not reveal how many have been impaled on these weapons.” ~ Mike Haworth

The horns form fully when the animal reaches the age of 5 or 6 years old, but the bosses do not become “hard” until it reaches the age of 8 to 9 years old.

Buffaloes are carriers of foot and mouth disease and they also suffer from bovine tuberculosis. Therefore they are not allowed beyond certain areas as they might infect other animals, more particularly cattle. In Africa, the movement of live cloven-hoofed animals is inevitable but requires strict veterinary intervention. This is the case in Botswana. Possibly the best known fence is the ‘Buffalo Fence’ that separates Maun from the Okavango Delta. It literally stretches across the breadth of the country. There was a huge outcry when the fence was erected but it has since been acknowledged by many that the fence may have saved the Okavango Delta.

Many Cape buffaloes can be seen along the Chobe river where there is water all year round. They can be seen crossing the river’s channels “en mass” and a few “old dagga” boys can also be seen standing chest deep in the water eating the floating water lily rhizomes and roots, which looks salad-like.

Buffaloes need a good fresh water supply as they love to cool down and also drink water daily. Bulls especially like to lie in water and mud hollows where they can roll in the mud and take mud baths to rid themselves of flies, horseflies and ticks.

Cape buffaloes have a thick hide, covered with brown-black hair. Three species of birds tend to move with the buffaloes: oxpeckers, cattle egrets and wattled starlings, and occasionally carmine bee-eaters. The red-billed oxpecker is the most common of the two oxpeckers species. It is a starling sized-bird. The adults are brown and have totally red beaks and distinctive yellow rings around their bright red eyes. The adult has a wide bill, stiff tail, and sharp claws. Their claws help them hold onto their moving host and the stiff tail provides support while feeding. These oxpeckers feed on ticks, flies, and maggots from their host’s hide. The red billed oxpecker is slimmer than its yellow-billed cousin and has a flatter beak which it uses in a scissor-like motion to its cleaning work. These oxpeckers, as the name suggests, pecks at any sores or scabs on the host cleaning up the wound but in the process often causes it to bleed. When alarmed, these birds hiss, alerting their hosts to possible danger.

Learning about the interrelationships between species helps me understand the connectedness of the different species in the scene. It also helps me better anticipate behaviour, a crucial element in wildlife photography. All species have a role, no matter how big or small.

When I am watching a Cape buffalo bull standing chest high in the waters of the Chobe river, I am always amazed at their nonchalance about crocodiles. They blissfully munch on the diet of salads provided by the water lilies. I have only seen the large “dagga boys” standing chest deep in the river. The buffalo cows and calves are too vulnerable so only drink from the river’s edge.

Breeding herds of Cape buffalo travel together on land and in water. Just upstream from Kasane, the Chobe river splits into a south and north channel around Sedudu island. The next image shows a small section of a much larger breeding herd of buffaloes walking west upriver along the edge of northern channel of Sedudu island. In June each year, the level of the Chobe river is high as it is carrying the flood waters from Angola. The high water level results in partial flooding of Sedudu island. At this time of the year, the buffaloes have to cross several shallow inlets as they walk along the bank of the northern channel.

Every now and then, the herd is spooked by something and they charge through the shallow water creating an impressive display. It is easy to see why a crocodile does not want to get tangled amongst those hooves while trying to hunt.

The whole herd charges through the shallow water, calves included among the adults. It is easy to see how a calf could get trampled in this situation.

A female will have her first calf at about five years of age, and these calves are born during the rainy season. The bond between mothers and calves remains strong or up to three years, before the next calf is born.

When the herd gets spooked it tends to charge through the shallow water. The larger adults plough through the water easily. Small calves are slowed in the water and often lose contact with their mothers. This calf was left behind in a water rush and was wading through the water on its own. This is a vulnerable time for the calf and it would be easy prey for a decent sized “croc”.

It is only when you watch a buffalo feeding on the leaves and stems of the water lilies for half an hour or more, do you do you begin understand the dynamics and the subtle relationships which are not evident at first glance.

“Learning to see is vital in photography. It is beyond just looking at your subject. It is taking the time to understand the dynamics of the context. It takes patience to pick up patterns in behaviour. It requires respect to give the subject its natural space.” ~ Mike Haworth

This massive Cape buffalo bull was unperturbed by a petite sub-adult African Jacana feeding on the insects disturbed by the buffalo while he was munching on the lily leaves in front of him.

It was clear the buffalo could see his small avain friend right in front of his nose but never tried to push it away.

Commensalism is a positive relationship between two species. In this relationship one of the species gains a direct benefit from associating with the second species, and although the second species does not benefit from this relationship and it is not harmed in anyway. So is the relationship between the buffalo bull and a African Jacana.

“Symbiotic relationship in nature teaches us cooperation and shows that we are all connected” ~ Sanchita Pandey

Mutualism is another form of symbiosis whereby both species benefit from the interaction with each other. One of the most well-known examples in the bush is the relationship between an oxpecker with various species such as giraffe, rhino and buffalo. 

In parasitic relationships, one species benefits while the other one is negatively affected. Klaas’s Cuckoos have been known to lay their eggs in other birds’ nests.

When the herd gets agitated and starts to stampede, it is easy to see how a calf is separated from its mother. In the water stampede, if the calf fell in the water it is easy to see how it could get trampled by the adults.

Cape buffalo communicate through a complex series of grunts, gargles and mumbles. Gargling sounds are often heard in communication between adult females and calves. Unlike wildebeest, many different females live in the same herd and they help each other out with motherly duties, and not just between a specific mother and her own calf. Long gargling sounds are used to warn calves of impending danger. They are also a means of locating a calf and guiding it back to its mother and herd.

A young buffalo calf is well protected by its herd. Whilst on its own it looks very vulnerable but is tougher than it looks. I have seen a Cape buffalo calf attacked by about nine hyaenas early in the morning in the Masai Mara. For some strange reason, the herd had left this particular calf behind which left it highly exposed in the Mara. Hyaenas so picked up on this lone calf and attacked it by biting and hanging on as the calf ran around in a circle dragging several attached hyaena with it for about half an hour before collapsing. I was astounded at the calf’s strength and tenacity. Despite having lost much blood and having part of its intestine exposed during the repeated hyaena attacks, it carried on running around trying to get away from the hyaenas. Being grossly out numbered by hyaenas and without back up from its herd the calf was never going to survive.

While the “old dagga boys” are wonderful photographic subjects, you under estimate the power, speed and strength of these old boys at your peril. On walking safari, unsuspecting hikers can have a buffalo barrelling out of a reed bed next to them as they walk along the river’s edge, not for a second expecting almost a tonne of fury lying unseen in the reeds.

” Learn to see – accustoming the eye to calm, to patience, to letting things come to it; learning to defer judgement, to encircle and encompass the question on all sides.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Buffaloes are worthy opponents to lions. A skilled lioness can take a buffalo cow by the head but it will take two large male lions a hour to bring down a strong old “dagga boy”.

It is easy to glide past these browsing bull buffaloes standing shoulder deep in the river without giving them a second glance. Next time, ponder on the context of what you are looking at!

“The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.” ~ Brian Herbert

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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