domingo, 18 de enero de 2015


On January 16, 1969 the world famous zoologist and naturalist Dr. Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente published the following very interesting article in La Actualidad Española magazine dealing on the African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer), the most dangerous animal in this continent, and the experiences he gleaned on contacting a herd of them during his stay in the great East Rift Valley, specifically by the Manyara lake (Tanzania), managing to approach them within a very short distance.

It was one of the first in-depth studies made on this tremendously powerful bovid species, and the lavish text of his report is a treat for any enthusiast of natural science and wild animals, with the added bonus of the pictures made by Francisco Ontañón and the remarkable sketches made by Josechu Lalanda, an internationally recognized drawer of fauna and author of fabulous lithographies.

The account is likewise outstanding because displaying his customary discernment, Dr. Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente foretells with some decades of anticipation the potential future use of buffalos in XXI Century worldwide cattle farms and dairies.

There are animals like antelopes and gazelles that have become famous thanks to their beauty. Other ones like the lion, draw attention because of their bravery and proud bearing. Finally, the giants like elephants and giraffes make an impression due to their colossal dimensions.

But there is an African creature which aside from its big size, demeanour and physical appearance, is famous among every hunter and zoologist for being specially dangerous.

I refer to the wild African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), the large bovid of the savannah.

Because it is known that this herbivore has caused more casualties among its natural enemies, including man, than any other seemingly more aggressive and uncontrollable wild animal.

For European and American hunters looking for strong emotions in Africa, the buffalo has always made up something highly coveted, because if the shooter doesn´t manage to knock it down with the first bullet, its compulsory trailing is exceedingly risky, since the wounded animal goes away to the most impenetrable brush, always trying to take a roundabout way to attack on the back of the man attempting to kill it, on a location greatly hampering both visibility and movements.

During its charge, the sturdy ruminant which can reach a ton weight advances straight ahead breaking the scrub in its path.

Unlike bulls, it always bears its head up and its muzzle in the wind so as not to lose the olfactory contact with the victim.

Its keen hearing and sharp eyesight complete the defensive mechanism in synergy with an amazing agility for such a bulky and strong ruminant.

Its extraordinarily solid horns are a kind of helmet on its forehead, progressively bending downwards and protruding in two sharp lateral tips.

The simple hit of the middle shield of its horns will suffice to kill a man.

On the other hand, the African buffalo often chases its enemies trying to hunt it, treading them down after throwing them to the ground. 

But in spite of its amazing strength and stamina, this most times peaciful exceedingly large bull only attacks when it is harassed, behaving under normal conditions as a harmless and shy creature.

During one scorching morning in the Great East Rift Valley we were filming white pelicans on the banks of Manyara Lake, when we saw half a dozen large male African buffalos wallowing in a quagmire.

As soon as they discovered our car coming out of a track through the thicket, the huge bovids got up to watch us. Covered with glittering black mud, they stood out on the sandy ground as six burnished basalt statues.

A flock of exceedingly white lesser egrets pecking around them searching for insects and parasites, took flight elegantly, composing a landscape of such a deep African taste, with the waters of the great lake in the background, that I couldn´t resist the temptation of beholding it and photographing it from the ground.

I got off the car trying not to let myself be impressed by the hesitant gesture of the professional guide and moved slowly towards the buffalos with the camera in my hand.

I must confess that the Land Rover followed me at a short distance and that however fast those buffalos could have been in their charge, I would have always had enough time to get on the car.

But the buffalos reaction was the one foreseen by those featuring an insight of the legendary African animal.

First of all, they raised their usually fallen ears, pointed their damp and blunt muzzles at me and gave a range of loud snorts, after which they went away running in the direction of the luxuriant growth closing the beach towards the reserve.

In spite of the thrill the episode spawned on me, it wasn´t any act of courage, because as I have already explained, buffalos only charge when they´re irked or wounded, when you stand between a female and its calf lying on the grass, or if one enters the territory of an old isolated male, generally being shortsighted and deaf, which uses its smell to identify its aggressors and prefers an instant charge rather than a flight that could put its rearguard at the mercy of the attacker.

In any event, the aggresiveness of wild animals has always a reason and represents an attitude in their behaviour being favourable for the development of the species.

The buffalos, ungulates, ruminants and herbivores would be a highly sought-after prey for all the carnivores sharing its habitat if they hadn´t managed to disuade them with some efficient resources.

Because as it is widely known, phytophagous animals (id est, the ones feeding from plants) use a comprehensive range of systems to defend themselves from predators: some protect themselves through mere escape thanks to their specialized qualities for running; other ones prefer to remain standstill striving after going unnoticed by means of their pelts being perfectly camouflaged in the environment; other ones boasting remarkable swimming, digging or climbing abilities choose to save themselves diving into water, getting into deep burrows or going up to a treetop.

Only a few phytophagi have developed muscular bodies, adequate weapons and aggresssive tendencies to defend from their enemies through attack. 

But these stubborn colossi most times opt for getting away rather than fighting and only bring their defensive abilities into play at critical moments. All the wild bovids and particularly the African buffalo act according to that strategy.

And its security system is so firm that they only have two natural enemies: man and lion.

I´m not going to describe the multiple tragedies brought about by buffalos among sporting hunters that I was reported, because I´m not in favour of the physical confrontation between men and animals, unless the former ones need the meat of the latter ones to survive, as currently happens with some tribes of Pygmies and the elephants.

But I will quote the story told by Mervyn Cowie, observed by a patrol of rangers who camped by the banks of Galana River, in Kenya.

A couple of two buffalos made up by an old male and a half adult one were attacked by a lion which threw the young one on the ground.

The old buffalo came immediately to help its companion, charged on the lion and horn thrusted it into the air.

The fallen buffalo got up quickly and both of them went after the lion, making him get into the river waters.

But not happy with their feat, the relentless buffalos looked for the lions pride and made such an onslaught on them that the felines were subsequently scattered.

The African buffalo prefers the savannahs interlarded with more or less dense forests and often gather in herds that sometimes exceed a hundred individuals.

They can be seen  soberly grazing as herds of black and shiny cattle in the regions where they are not tracked down by hunters: in all the reserves and parks of Eastern Africa.

The adult males set up small groups or couples at a distance from the females and calves, and to defend themselves from the lions attacks, they make up a circle inside which females and calves place, while an impregnable defensive barrier formed by the males horns prevents the felines from entering.

In those countries where the African buffalo is highly chased by hunters, it usually spends the whole day inside the overgrowth, going to the grazings after sunset and withdrawing with the first lights of dawn.

Whatever the circumstances, these ruminants are often in the humid areas near rivers or lakes.

Once they reach the mires, they go deep on the muddy banks, where other animals don´t dare to stay and they can be seen taking mud baths to get rid of parasites.

The oxpeckers and lesser egrets always escort buffalo herds. The former ones because they feed on their ticks, and the latter ones because they usually catch the insects lifted by buffalos when these walk through the grasslands.

Calves are born between December and February, being closely watched by their mothers, in such a way that only a few of them will die within the claws of the lions.

Some experiences are being made aiming at the future transformation of the wild African buffalo into a tamed animal for the manufacturing of dairy products in specialized farms, because the massive weight reached by these animals together with their ability for adaptation to different pastures (far superior to the standard bovid cattle) and their resistance to diseases, turn them into an ideal species for a future agricultural and livestock use in large areas of some young African nations.

In addition to the big wild buffalo of the savannahs, we can find the smaller and reddish forest buffalo (Syncerus nanus) in central and western Africa. It inhabits the humid tropical jungles and its habits, including its fierceness, are very similar to the one exhibited by its black relative.

In Uganda and Congo, in the boundaring zones between savannahs and forests, herds made up by individuals seeming to be intermediate types between the big wild African buffalo and the smaller one can be seen.

Translated into English by José Manuel Serrano Esparza