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Nasty Beast

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 11, 2013

Cape Buffalo (Photo: Keith Connelly)

Cape Buffalo (Photo: Keith Connelly)

To a dismaying extent, our faces make us who we are.  If you are born with a lowering brow, the world will never believe that you are at heart a happy-go-lucky guy.  Few animals on earth have a meaner, more malevolent face than the cape buffalo, and I am afraid they have the disposition to go with it.

“I am afraid.”  Yes, those would be the key words. Cape buffalo kill a great many people who wander in the African bush.  They like to catch you by surprise, gore you in the gut, and then hammer you into the earth relentlessly with that helmet-like boss on their foreheads.  You are not just dead.  You are pulverized.

The ranking of deadliest animals in Africa is an entertaining pastime, and Cape buffalo always find their way up near the top of the list, well ahead, for instance, of lions.

(With apologies, here’s a link to a really bad web site about Africa’s most deadly animals.  Just for starters,  mosquitoes do not rank second behind hippos.  By spreading malaria, they kill roughly 700,000 people a year.  The 80,000 or so hippos on the continent would have to score nine human deaths apiece per year just to stay in the game.  Which would be fun, of course.  But tiring.)

Anyway, Keith Connelly’s excellent photo brought this all back to me this morning, and I recalled the last time I was wandering with Cape buffalo, while reporting on rhinos in Kwazulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park:

We spot the droppings first, and then
a lone bull out on a slope, browsing and looking characteristically angry and forlorn.

“The males in the herd change all the time,” says guide Jed Bird.  “A male comes in and all he cares about is breeding and pushing other males out.  He stops eating, and eventually he loses condition and some younger, stronger male comes and forces him out.  Then he goes off alone to feed.  It’s a jamming session, and he re-builds his condition so he can come back.”

Jed Bird

Jed Bird

The lone males are often wounded and bleeding, so they roll in the mud , or daga, to heal themselves.  Hence locals call them The Daga Boys.  “They’re the ones you have to watch out for.   Herds generally turn and run away, but the lone males can come at you, if you surprise them.  You just have to give them plenty of room and go around.”

This one watches us closely, his head swinging around to track our movements.  Cape buffalo are not just hostile, but also have extremely sharp vision, an unfortunate combination.  And they are persistently hostile.  They don’t just want to throw a scare into you.

They want to pound you into the dust and make you pay for every slight they have ever suffered. Everyone seems to know somebody who has been speared, or tossed, or pounded into the earth until dead by one of these things.   Later, as we are dropping down into a river bed, Bird spots one just ahead, lying like a massive rock in the dry sandy bottom.

He motions us back and we go around again.  Staying alive is good.

6 Responses to “Nasty Beast”

  1. vdinets said

    Actually, there’s only a handful of documented Cape buffalo attacks, except by wounded animals attacking hunters. Looks like Cape buffalo is the African version of South American candiru: a fake scare.

    • I have swum with, caught, and performed a sort of experiment on candiru in the Amazon, and I agree that the threat is at best wildly exaggerated. But with Cape buffalo, I have met people, or their survivors, who have experienced attacks. Getting reliable documentation on anything in Africa can be difficult, but I’d be interested in seeing any documentation on Cape buffalo attacks, one way or the other.

      • vdinets said

        There is a good Wiki article on candiru, explaining that no urethra penetration has ever been documented.
        I’ve heard of many CB attacks, but all occurred during hunting. I’ve spent plenty of time walking and riding a bicycle near, around, and through CB herds, including a herd of 600+ in S Luangwa NP, and didn’t notice any difference in aggressiveness compared to Angus cattle. Some other cattle breeds and both bison species are more dangerous, even though their aggressiveness is also often exaggerated.

  2. Here’s one of the cases I was thinking of, a hiker, not a hunter. I met his widow the following year while reporting on the Cholmondeley shootings on the Delamere estate: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/1479098/Wildlife-artist-is-gored-to-death-by-buffalo.html

  3. […] malevolence I find unnerving.  I think this lion probably feels the same way. (But also see the comments on my previous posting about this particular fear of […]

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