There is only one species of buffalo in Africa, but four separate subspecies. These are the forest buffalo, west African savanna buffalo, central African buffalo and the southern savanna buffalo – also known as the Cape Buffalo.

The Cape Buffalo has a fearsome reputation in Africa, and has earned itself top spot on the Big Five animals of Africa. These are the animals deemed to be the most dangerous to hunt on foot, and also includes the lion, leopard, elephant and rhino.

What is the Cape Buffalo?

Sometimes also just referred to as the African buffalo, the Cape Buffalo is the most plentiful and the most notorious of all the subspecies.

They are a large bovine species, sometimes also referred to as the ‘widow maker’ or ‘black death’.

Cape Buffalo vs Water Buffalo

The cape buffalo and the water buffalo are two entirely different species.

The water buffalo is an Asian species, that grows significantly larger than their African cousins. Although visually they can seem similar at first glance, once you’ve noted the differences it is quite obvious.

Once found all across Asia, the water buffalo is now limited to a much smaller native area with fragmented populations. They are also widely used as a domestic species, used to support farm labour.

Cape buffalo bull
Buffalo ‘Dagga Boy’, not one to be messed with | Patrick Rosenbaum (@patrosen)


Buffalo are dimorphic, which means there is very little difference in appearance between males and females. The primary differential is size.

How big is the cape buffalo?

The Cape Buffalo is a formidable beast, and cuts an intimidating figure on the African plains.

As far as large African mammals go, the cape buffalo is not very tall – around 4 to 5ft. (1.3-1.5m) on average, with very short legs comparative to their size. An adult

Cape buffalo in the savanna
Large buffalo in the savanna | Mike Sutherland (@mikesutherlandphoto)

They are a staunch, heavily built species. More than seven foot (2m+) from tip to tail, the weight of a mature male cape buffalo will be between 1,300 and 1800lbs (600-800kg), while females are usually around 220lbs (100kg) less.

The buffalo’s bulk is supported by four large hooves. These hooves are wide set to prevent the animals from sinking in the mud while wading through water. Buffalo also use their hooves as a defensive mechanism, particularly in battles with lions.

How big are cape buffalo horns? 

One of the cape buffalo’s most prominent features are its horns.

Starting with a downward loop, before extending outwards and then curling back in, the buffalo’s horns meet in the middle. The meeting point is called a ‘boss’ and forms a helmet-like shield over the forehead. This provides much needed protection during territorial fights and battles with predators.

Ox peckers hanging out on a buffalo’s horns | Andrew van den Broeck (@andrewvdbroeck)

The boss forms slowly as the animal grows, and takes around seven years to grow fully.

Both males and females have horns, but the bull’s horns are a lot larger and more pronounced. A large cape buffalo bull can have horns that are 4 ft. (1.2m) wide.

Cape Buffalo Skin

The cape buffalo has a thin, black coat that covers their body entirely. Young calves may be more grey or brown, but this darkens with age.