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Forest Buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Forest Buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus)

Taxonomy and Evolutionary History

  • The tribe Bovini, which includes cattle, bison, and buffalo, seems to have a Eurasian origin.
  • Closest living relative of the African buffalo on morphological and behavioral grounds is the Asian water buffalo, Bubalus bubalus. Syncerus and Bubalus are also closely linked by ribosomal-DNA data (Wall et al., 1992).
  • Nearest known relative of the Syncerus lineage is the extinct Ugandax gautieri, first found in Uganda. Syncerus probably originated in the area between Lake Victoria and the Horn of Africa, spreading southward and westward.
  • Large savanna buffalo may represent recent expansion and evolution of the smaller forest buffalo. Larger body and horn size of the savanna buffalo may have evolved because of increased male competition in larger herds that could be supported by range that is more open. Nutritional superiority of a grassland diet over a forest diet may have also been a factor in the development of larger body size.
  • Controversy surrounding the relationship of the various types of African buffalo is exemplified by the 43 specific and subspecific names that Allen (1939) listed as having been assigned to them. In addition to S. c. caffer and S. c. nanus, other possible subspecies include aequinoctialis, brachyceros, mathewsi, and planiceros. East (1998) argues that aequinoctialis, brachyceros, caffer, and nanus should be distinguished for purposes such as assessment of conservation status.
  • Syncerus caffer shows a great deal of morphological variation, and some taxonomists have regarded the forest buffalo as a separate species from the Cape buffalo. However, there is considerable intergradation and hybridization of the two in many areas where their distributions overlap, and most authorities consider both to be subspecies of S. caffer.


  • Syncerus originates from the Greek sun (together) and keras (horn); a reference to the horns which are close together at the base). Syncerus was coined by Hodgson in 1847.
  • caffer is derived from the new Latin cafer (of Caffraria, or Kaffraria) and is attributed to Sparrman (1779).
  • Buffalo originates from the Portuguese name for the species, bufalo.
  • Native names for African buffalo include: the Kiswahili nyati and mbogo; imboogo (Luhya); mboho, mbowo, and boo   (Kichagga); nyahi (Kirabai); njari (Kuamba); jowi and jubi (Lwo); odru (Lugbara and Madi); soyet (Kipsigi); soet (Kalenjin); ekosobwan (Ateso); losowan (Samburu); olosowaan and olarro (Masai), gardas (Kiliangulu), and the Somali gessi.


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia (Linnaeus, 1758) - mammals

Order: Artiodactyla* (Owen, 1848) - even-toed hoofed animals (includes pigs, sheep goats, cattle, deer)

Family: Bovidae (Gray, 1821) - antelopes, cattle, goats, sheep, bovids

Genus: Syncerus (Hodgson, 1847)

Species: Syncerus caffer (Sparrman, 1779) - African buffalo, Cape buffalo

Subspecies: Syncerus caffer nanus (Boddaert, 1785) - forest buffalo


Describer (Date): A. Sparrman (1779). "A reference to the African buffalo." Kongl. Svenska Vet.-Akad. Handl. (Stockholm), 40:79.

*New anatomical and DNA evidence on the relationship between Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates) and Cetacea (whales and dolphins) recently led to a merging of the two orders into a new group, Cetartiodactyla (Montgelard, 1997; reviewed in Kulemzina, 2009). As of October 2012, experts had not agreed on whether to define Cetartiodactyla as an official taxonomic order that would replace Artiodactyla and Cetacea. Some continue to list the forest buffalo in the order Artiodactyla (Franklin, 2011) or use the term Cetartiodactyla without defining it as an order (IUCN, 2008).

Page Citations

Gotch (1995)
Grubb (1972)
Kingdon (1982, 1997)
Maglio & Cooke (1978)
(McKenna & Bell (1997)
Meester & Setzer (1971)
Mloszewski (1983)
Sinclair (1977)
Smithers (1983)
Wilson & Reeder (1993)

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