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African Animal of the Week: Cape Buffalo

cape buffalo featured
All images, unless specified, courtesy of Big Game Hunting Adventures

The Cape buffalo is a large and stocky species of bovine that inhabits much of sub-Saharan Africa. Keep reading to find out everything you ever wanted to know about hunting Cape buffalo in Africa.

Though not nearly as numerous or as widespread as kudu, impala, or warthog, this week’s African animal is the most common species of “The Big 5” in Africa: the Cape buffalo.

Popularized by the many “charge” videos that abound on the internet, the Cape buffalo is probably best known for being an incredibly tough and aggressive animal. The buffalo presents a very challenging adversary on a hunt and many hunters find that few other animals are as satisfying to hunt after having matched wits with the Cape buffalo. Not surprisingly, the buffalo is one of the most sought-after trophies by hunters in Africa.

Cape Buffalo Description

Scientific Name: Syncerus caffer, also known as “mbogo” or “nyati.”

The Cape buffalo is a very large, stocky, and powerful species of bovine that inhabits the savannas and grasslands of eastern and southern Africa. They are currently hunted in Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Namibia.

Bulls can weigh over 1,800 pounds and stand over five feet tall at the shoulder. Cows do not grow nearly as big or as muscular as bulls, but a full-grown cow can still weigh nearly 1,200 pounds. As demonstrated in the photo below, calves are usually more of a reddish color and darken into a dark brown or black color as the buffalo matures.

cape buffalo calf

Cape buffalo are grazing animals, though they are not very selective and will eat almost any type of grass that they encounter, along with the occasional shrub or leaves if grass is in short supply. They are also herd animals, living in herds ranging from a dozen to hundreds of buffalo, with the size of the herd varying throughout the year. Older male buffalo, known as “dagga (the word for mud in many African languages) boys,” are most often found in bachelor herds of young males and other older bulls.

They can be found in a wide variety of habitats, though they seem to prefer areas with thicker cover. They are also found in the open grasslands of some countries. That being said, the one constant in their habitats is that they always live in close proximity to water. Buffalo must drink at least once a day and will never be found more than a short walk from a reliable water supply.

Cape Buffalo Sex Determination

Both bulls (top) and cows (bottom) have horns. However, cows have horns that look like they grow out of the sides of the head. Bulls have a thick “boss” on their forehead. Additionally, they are also bigger bodied and have thicker necks than cows. They also have a penis and testicles, which cows obviously lack. cape buffalo bullcape buffalo cow

Recommended Calibers for Cape Buffalo Hunting

In most countries, the legal minimum caliber for hunting Cape buffalo is the .375 H&H. This is an outstanding “all around” caliber for hunting a wide variety of game in Africa and the .375 H&H has probably killed more buffalo than any other single cartridge. The newer .375 Ruger is also a very good choice. Many hunters prefer to use bigger calibers, such as the .416 Rigby, .458 Lott, and .505 Gibbs on buffalo as well.

However, a word of caution is in order regarding big bore hunting cartridges: a large and powerful cartridge is no good if you cannot hit your target. A bigger bullet will not make up for poor shot placement when hunting buffalo. Only use a cartridge that you are comfortable with and can shoot accurately.

Though there are some people who bowhunt Cape buffalo successfully, it can be an extremely dangerous proposition if something goes wrong. I do not personally recommend it.

If you really want to do it, use a bow with at least an 80-pound (though 90 is even better) draw weight and an extremely heavy (at least 850 grains) arrow with a very sharp, two-blade broad head. Above all else, you want an arrow that will penetrate as deep into the buffalo as possible. For that reason, stay away from mechanical broadheads when bowhunting Cape buffalo at all costs.

Cape Buffalo Hunting Methods

Almost all Cape buffalo hunting is conducted via walk and stalk. If you’re planning a buffalo hunt, get in shape, because you will probably need to walk several miles each day during the hunt.

Every now and then people shoot a buffalo from an ambush position. Sometimes this is from a blind overlooking a water hole. More likely, this results from finding a herd of buffalo who are on their feet and grazing in a particular direction. Once making contact with the herd, it is sometimes possible to leapfrog ahead of them and set up on the route that they are travelling. When it works out, this puts the hunter in an ideal situation ahead of the herd and allows them to choose and shoot the right buffalo without the herd being alerted to their presence.

Cape Buffalo Shot Placement

Shot placement is extremely important on buffalo, perhaps more so than any other animal on the continent. There is a saying among hunters in Africa that if you mess up your first shot on a buffalo, the next dozen will serve no purpose other than to make him even angrier. Cape buffalo are extremely tough and aggressive, which means they can be very dangerous when wounded. Luckily, if using a powerful cartridge, a buffalo will not last very long if you place your first shot properly.

Most of the time, a traditional heart/lung shot on a buffalo the the best choice. If the buffalo is standing broadside, simply aim at the center of the shoulder, approximately one third of the way up the body (this goes for both rifle and bowhunters). A shot placed in this matter will hit the lungs and the top of the heart. Shots like this make for a short and uninteresting follow-up on the buffalo, which is exactly what you want.

cape buffalo shot placement broadside


Quartering shots on Cape buffalo can be tricky and this is where a lot of hunters get into trouble. If the buffalo is quartering towards you, aim slightly forward of the shoulder about one third the way up the body.


cape buffalo shot placement quartering towards


You should be very cautious when taking a quartering away shot. A buffalo has a very interesting anatomical layout and the liver is located on the right side of the body between the stomach and lungs. On the left side of the body, the stomach directly borders the diaphragm.

With this in mind, an initial shot on a buffalo that is quartering away should only be taken if the buffalo’s right side is facing you. In this case, aim slightly behind the shoulder. The presence of the liver on the right side of the body gives you a little room for error if you pull the shot slightly to the rear (which is what saved this hunter). Bullets that hit the liver are often devastating to the buffalo.


cape buffalo shot placement quartering away

Quartering shots on the left side should never be taken. Since the stomach is nestled right up against the diaphragm, there is too great of a chance of the bullet hitting it and being stopped before reaching the vitals of the buffalo. This is exactly what you do not want and can result in a very long and dangerous follow-up.

Additionally, though they can be quite effective when the shot is placed directly in the center of the chest, I do not normally recommend taking a frontal chest shot when hunting Cape buffalo. The chances of pulling the shot to either direction, resulting in the bullet being deflected by the ribs, are too great. In this case, wait for the buffalo to turn slightly to the side before shooting.

Finally, I do not recommend that bowhunters take any shot other than a straight-on, broadside shot.

Choosing the Right Cape Buffalo

As when trophy hunting any animal, it is important to have a good idea what a “big” Cape buffalo looks like. Fortunately, the professional hunter who will be accompanying you on your hunt in Africa should be very skilled at judging all animals, including buffalo. While it is impossible to precisely judge any animal “on the hoof,” they should be very good at estimating the size of a buffalo to within a couple of inches.

A lot of people get caught up with how much a buffalo will measure. While this is certainly important, I believe that shooting a mature buffalo is more important than how many inches a buffalo measures. Not all mature buffalo have gigantic measurements and not all buffalo that have gigantic measurements are mature buffalo. This is due to the fact that older buffalo often sport broken horns resulting from fights with other buffalo. Obviously, a buffalo missing half (or more) of a horn will not measure favorably with a younger buffalo with unbroken horns.

However, all mature buffalo will have a very solid and well-defined “boss” on their forehead. In my opinion, this is the most important factor in judging any buffalo. For example, the buffalo on the left in the photo below is an immature, soft-bossed bull. In a few years he’ll be a nice trophy, but you should let him walk in the meantime and target either of his brothers, both of which are mature and have hard bosses.

cape buffalo trophy evaluation


As a point of reference when hunting buffalo, a “good” bull (as long as he has hard bosses) will have an outside spread of over 36 inches. A “great” bull will measure 40 inches or more and an “incredible” bull will measure over 42 inches. Both of the buffalo in the photo below, especially the one on the right, are excellent bulls and you should be very happy to take either one of them.


cape buffalo trophy evaluation 2

Cost to Hunt Cape Buffalo

Since they are dangerous game, and since they are not quite as common or as widely distributed across Africa as most species of plains game, hunting Cape buffalo can be a costly venture. However, they are usually the least expensive member of the “Big 5” (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and buffalo) to hunt in most places. While the exact price of a buffalo hunt depends on the specific country and outfitter, an all inclusive Cape buffalo hunt will usually run $10,000-30,000, with an average of around $14,000-15,000.

Ready to go Cape buffalo hunting?

All images, unless specified, courtesy of Big Game Hunting Adventures

Like what you see here? You can read more great hunting articles by John McAdams at The Big Game Hunting Blog. Follow him on Twitter @TheBigGameHunt.


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African Animal of the Week: Cape Buffalo