When one delves deeper into the animal kingdom – and more specifically their social structures – we realise more than ever that humans are really not that far removed from the natural world, and that certain concepts that we have taken centuries to conceptualise, actually already exist all around us. There are countless examples of this but today we take a closer look into the lives of African (or Cape) Buffalo.
For seasoned safari-goers, the buffalo is often considered the ‘under-whelming’ item of the big five. But there’s a lot more to them than what first meets the eye. If we take a look at a large breeding herd, which can easily number over a thousand individuals in some areas, we are met on the surface by a mass of lumbering bodies and a constant bellow of deep grunts and groans. However, beyond this, what you’ll find is a fascinating and intricately structured herd system that closely resembles that of our (supposedly) democratic human society.
Associating in a herd benefits countless species in the wild and generally arises through their efforts to increase their security and share resources. As is the case with humans though, whenever their are a large number of individuals co-existing, systems need to be put in place that lend themselves to the smooth running of the herd or society and allow the animals or people to coordinate their day-to-day activities and avoid unnecessary conflicts as much as possible.
Watching individual buffalo within a herd, we can quite easily observe them as they establish and reinforce their social status with subtle signals of body language, vocalisations and even odour – all of which we as humans can also be seen responding too amongst each other, albeit on a more subconscious level. But furthermore, ecologist Herbert Prins, who spent years observing buffalo behaviour, formulated a theory that the large herds of buffalo in fact have a rudimentary voting system to determine the direction they move in.
He noticed that during towards the end of the day, while the buffalo still lay and rested, the mature females (of any social rank) would routinely stand up, shuffle about and sit down again, now with their heads held high. This would usually happen within an hour before the herd began to move again. After recording the direction that each female faced on every particular afternoon, he calculated the average direction they faced for each day. When it came time for the herd to start moving, the herd would rise and move off in the direction that the majority of females were facing. This ultimately showed that the mature females of a buffalo herd were acting as the pathfinder committee and would vote as to the direction they thought the best pastures and water would be.
A fair amount goes into this decision making as these large herds feed in cyclical routes through a home range area, doing their best to avoid other buffalo herds. They need to consider rainfall, topography, vegetation types, habitat, availability of water and even soil types all while avoiding areas that have recently been grazed; be it by another herd or themselves. This requires local knowledge which would have been learnt by these ‘pathfinder’ females as they grew up in the same herd, learning from their elders. Their knowledge and guidance then benefits the herd as a whole, particularly the younger individuals who are inexperienced in finding suitable grazing and water.
So while some of the benefits of herding are fairly obvious, such as safety, others may require a bit more observation to fully appreciate.
Next time you find yourself sitting with a large herd, take a bit of time to watch the restless females and hang around to see who wins the vote that afternoon.