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Forest Buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Forest Buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus)

Activity Cycle

Daily Pattern

  • Cape buffalo are both diurnal and nocturnal; little is known about forest buffalo.
  • 65-85% of a 24-hour period is spent grazing and ruminating.
  • Grazing activity may total 5.3-13.4 hours/day, about equally spent between night and day, though some populations may feed more at night. Grazing peaks occur between 06:00 and 10:00 and from 14:00 to 18:00 h; nocturnal grazing mostly occurs from 20:00 to 03:30 h. They may restrict grazing to dawn, dusk, and nighttime in disturbed areas.
  • Resting and ruminating peaks from 0100 to 0500 and from 1200 to 1600 h, although shorter resting periods occur every 0.5-3 hours. Buffalo prefer to rest in the open, except in extreme heat or when disturbed by humans.
  • Buffalo visit water at least once/day.
  • Average daily movement is 1.2-8 km. Breeding herds travel 2-3 times as far per day as do bachelor herds, and "pathfinder" individuals usually guide the herds. Buffalo toward the front of a moving herd tend to be in better physical condition than those toward the rear.
  • Mud wallowing, possibly related to grooming, may also have a social significance because in some populations it is done most frequently by dominant bulls, generally during the heat of the day.

Social Behavior

Social Group

  • Gregarious and nonterritorial.
  • Herds are small stable groups or clans of presumably related cows gathered in a nearly linear dominance hierarchy and adult and subadult bulls that are ranked by age and physical condition (i.e., size and strength).
  • Social life appears to be built around mother-calf relationship. Social licking is believed to foster bonds between herd members and mother and calf. An offspring accompanies its dam until about 2-3 years of age, after which time, it often forms a subgroup with other young.
  • Upon maturity, females are believed to remain in their clans, although they no longer closely follow their dam.
  • Males end their maternal bond at adolescence. Young bulls generally keep their distance from adults, and at about 4 years of age, they begin to leave the herd in bachelor groups during the dry season. Males more than 10 years of age remain permanently separated from the herd.
  • Herds vary in size according to season and locality (i.e., availability of food and water); size and composition can change frequently. Herds occasionally mingle, but the herd is a recognizable unit to its members.
  • Average herd sizes range from 3.7 to 590, but herds may number up to ca. 3,000 (Savuti, Botswana). Larger herds usually occur in more open areas (e.g., extensive floodplains and broad river valleys), and the largest may form near the end of the wet season, when mating peaks. Large herds usually contain males, females, and young; however, males are often solitary or in bachelor herds of usually not more than a dozen animals and rarely having as many as 50 individuals. Many adult males leave breeding herds after the rutting season, a time that may correspond with dry-season fragmentation of their habitat.
  • Forest buffalo live in smaller groups (up to eight individuals) than Cape buffalo.



  • Dominance/threat displays include agonistic behaviors listed above and the following: low-horn presentation, stiff-legged walk, and head tossing and hooking.
  • Defensive/submissive displays include: head-low/chin-out posture and flight-intention posture.


  • Many calls are similar to the lowing of domestic cattle but are usually lower-pitched. Buffalo are also less vocal than cattle, and they rarely call except when in a group.
  • Vocalizations include the following signals: to move, direction-giving, water, position, warning, aggression, mother-to-calf, calf distress, danger, and various grazing vocalizations.
  • Aggressive vocalizations consist of grunting and growling, and submission is indicated by bellowing.
  • A calf bleats and the dam answers with a croak when the two lose contact.

Olfactory signals

  • Role is unclear, but olfaction is likely important for detection of predators and individual recognition.

Agonistic Behavior and Defense

  • Threat behavior, rather than aggressive fighting, is usually sufficient to maintain linear hierarchy among adult bulls.
  • Body size, which increases with age, determines dominance among males, who are dominant over all females. Males 8-10 years old are usually strongest and do the mating; herd bulls keep their standing about 4-5 years. There is less aggression among males in old bachelor groups than in breeding herds.
  • Agonistic behaviors include: high-horn presentation (threat), lateral display, rubbing face or neck on ground, ground-horning with earth tossing, horning bushes, rolling in mud/dust, wallowing in deep mud, and circling.
  • Fighting can involve charging with chin raised, ramming, and front-pressing.
  • Fights occur infrequently, generally between two individuals close in dominance status, and are usually brief, though violent and possibly fatal; heaviest animal wins. Bulls often head-spar, a milder form of fighting that has the general appearance of play, to establish dominance status.

Other Behaviors


  • Running in circles, prancing, and butting, which are commonly associated with sparring.
  • Young play more frequently than adults.

Ecology and Interspecies Interactions

Delany & Happold (1979), East (1998), Estes (1991), Happold (1987), (Kingdon 1982), Mloszewski (1983), Pienaar (1969), Prins (1996), Prins & Lason (1989), Schaller (1972), Sinclair (1977), Smithers (1983)

  • Buffalo are often accompanied by cattle egrets, which feed on insects flushed during grazing. Oxpeckers feed on the ectoparasites of buffalo.
  • Their grazing and trampling of old grass opens up additional land for more selective species.
  • Mortality during the period between birth and reproductive maturity is 55-70%. Factors affecting all age groups include intraspecific competition for food and water, diseases, and predators (including humans), although older animals are more susceptible to death from starvation. Populations are mainly kept in check by carrying capacity of their habitats. Some populations may be limited by competition for food with elephant or wildebeest.
  • Lions and spotted hyenas are the main predators, but leopards and crocodiles occasionally make kills. Elephants have reportedly killed buffalo. Lions may be unsuccessful (even gored or trampled to death) in their attempts to pull down buffalo. Buffalo attack lions, often in mobs, when their calves are threatened. Herds react to predators by bunching and confronting the predator with a solid mass of horns. Lone bulls are more susceptible to predation, though are often in better physical condition, than animals in breeding herds. In the absence of epidemics or drought conditions, about 90% of buffalo die from predation.
  • Native cultures regard buffalo horns as symbolizing virility or fertility, and horns are commonly used in traditional witchcraft. Buffalo are prized for their meat in many countries.
  • Domestication attempts have largely failed due to their intractable nature.

Forest Buffalo

a Forest Buffalo walking

Forest buffalo are gregarious and live in herds.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Delany & Happold (1979)
Estes (1991)
Haltenorth & Diller (1980)
Happold (1987)
Kingdon (1982, 1997)
Mloszewski (1983)
Pienaar (1969)
Prins (1996)
Sinclair (1977)
Smithers (1983)
Taylor (1989)

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