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.
Filed under Featured General Nature Wildlife
Buffalo are my favourite animals. Love watching a big herd. Interesting blog.
Chris. Appreciate learning about the herding needs…and how the female pathfinders are important to survival. Buffalo don’t appear to have a matriarchal society as strong as elephants, but none the less elder and current knowledge is critical from “restless” females!
Very interesting. Thank you for shedding some more light on these beasts.
Hi what an interesting post! I am an ethologist so this one sounds especially intriguing. Females choose and females win… also in buffalo society. Thank you so much for explaining their detailed behaviour and for the beautiful photos
This story and the way herds operate is why the Safari is so special. I’m intrigued by the lion prides, hyena structure, etc. Why collocations form, why go alone… amazing details.
Thank you for bringing such great detail to these stories.
Look forward to doing just that on next visit. Greg did a masterful job in July 2019 videoing and then speeding up the video of a very large herd approaching a water hole.
Chris, thanks for the educational post about the buffaloes. We always wondered how they figured out which way to go, and as we see in many cases, the women in the family seem to have the best sense of what’s best for everybody! Thanks for including that first image – it included the group in our vehicle. It was a great sighting!
Very interesting behavior. Thanks for this enlightening article.
Fascinating information on Buffaloes! I wonder how many active beards are in the Sabi Sands and how many it could support.
Chris, I loved all the photos🤗
Going on safari means many different things to each traveler: seeing the big five, the ugly five, a kill, cubs…… but in my opinion, it’s the relationships within each species that makes for interesting viewing. Thank you for pointing out the hierarchy existing within the Buffalo herds, often missed because many just see a bunch of big bovines. This on site learning is what keeps drawing me back to Africa, year after year……
Nice interesting post Chris. Thank you.
So interesting, Chris! Thanks for this insight into the lives of a Buffalo Herd! One lives and learns. We had no idea of the “democracy” they have. Wendy and Neil MacNicol
Hello Chris, Very interesting to read! When we were at Londolozi we were once in the middle of a big herd of buffalos. It was a fantastic experience! They were all around us and there we sat in the car… They are so impressive! Thank you for sharing! I learned alot!
Playing catch up! This was a very interesting blog Chris, thank you.
Completely fascinating post Chris! Makes me wish to learn more about these underappreciated animals. Also, Buffalo Democracy would be a great band name!!