Let me set the scene.
You’re on your final afternoon safari at Londolozi. Your guiding team decides it would be a great idea to pour one last refreshing drink to watch the sun dip under the horizon at a water hole in the open grasslands. On approach to the waterhole, your masterful tracker notices a large herd of buffalo approaching the exact watering hole you’ve decided to stop at. What a sight! Your ranger positions the vehicle on the water’s edge, and you all marvel as the herd of +- 300 buffalo slowly meander towards you. The energy emanating from the herd is exciting – collectively, their pace picks up as they get closer and closer to the water, leaving clouds of dust in their wake, with a sunset like no other painting the sky.
The initial 100 buffalo come piling into the water and begin to quench their thirst. Your senses are in overdrive as the rest of the herd joins the others – where to look? There are countless buffalo around you, and it seems as though there is an endless stream of the herd all in search of a refreshing drink. The leaders of the herd finish off their wallow and drink, beginning to lead their way out toward grassy areas; it is now time for a few of the older but very impressive bulls to roll in. These straggling males have lost their place of dominance in the herd and now act as rear guards.
Before you know it, you watch all 300 buffalo vanish into the horizon. Now, it is your turn to celebrate an amazing sighting while on safari (and finally you get to have that drink!)
At Londolozi, we are very fortunate with buffalo sightings. The large open grasslands in the southwestern parts of the reserve, as well as the perineal Sand River, is a massive draw for the large herds of buffalo that wander throughout the Sabi Sands. Being very reliant on water and good grazing, the herds have a lot on offer when moving through Londolozi.
Buffalo are gregarious and live in mixed herds that can often reach numbers that exceed 500 individuals. The strength of the herd is greater than the sum of its parts. There is safety in numbers and these huge herds can be beneficial when trying to fend off a pride of hungry lions. Rather than holding territories, buffalo have home ranges that they are constantly moving through. Their home range is determined by the access to water and grazing value. A herd will have multiple family units or clans within the greater whole, made up of closely related cows and their offspring. These family units will move together in tight formation, the leading females of each clan establishing a direction for the masses.
Within the herd, buffalo bulls are ranked by their age and size. Bulls will become sexually mature around the age of five years old, but will only be granted the opportunity to mate when they hold a more dominant position when aged around seven or eight years old. Buffalo bulls have a massive role in protecting the herd from any predators as they are larger and stronger and a lot more aggressive than the females. Once they have passed their reproductive prime, they tend to struggle to keep up with the herd’s movements and start to fall back, eventually deciding to leave the herd and begin a more solitary lifestyle.
The Old Boys
As mentioned above, buffalo bulls move into a solitary way of life once passed their sexual prime. They will leave the herd and head towards areas with a constant water supply. The Sand River is a very popular place to find these older bulls, who are sometimes seen in smaller bachelor herds or individually. The thicker vegetation around the river means there is great grazing and constant access to water, without having to cover great distances in search of either. Although this may seem like it is a wonderful life for the older bulls, there isn’t the protection of the herd anymore, and they become very vulnerable to predation. So, these bulls give up safety in order to not be on the move as much, but the unfortunate cost of this is that they become a hot target for lions.
And that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to the complex social dynamics involved in buffalo herds. Spending time with these magnificent animals is and will always be one of my favourite things to do here at Londolozi. The sights, smells and sounds will always capture my interest.