Score matters…but so do age and experience.
The actual experience of hunting a Cape buffalo does not depend on the size of the trophy. As with Zimbabwe’s tuskless elephant hunting, in areas where buffalo are overpopulated and female buffalo are on license, the hunt for a buffalo cow is just as exciting and just as dangerous as a hunt for the new world record bull. Dangerous game hunting becomes much more about the experience than the size of the trophy.
With buffalo, however, it is important to keep in mind the relatively short window that a bull has to breed and pass along his genes. The ideal is to take an older bull that has been cast out from the herd. The term often used is “dagga bull,” dagga coming from the Shona word for mud. All buffalo love to wallow in mud, so at face value a “mud bull” says nothing about age. Implied, however, is an older bull that has left the herd and is found alone or in the company of other bulls.
This is also misleading. Buffalo bulls often form bachelor groups, especially when the primary mating season isn’t ongoing. These groups are often older bulls, but not always.
For me “trophy bull” and “mature bull” are synonymous. The problem with buffalo is their horns often reach the greatest length and spread before full maturity. Like most animals, it is almost impossible to accurately “age” a buffalo on the hoof. To my knowledge, only sheep and goats show countable annual growth rings. Everything else is an approximate guess, but the southern or Cape buffalo does have one certain indicator: The helmet-like growth at the base of the horns that we call the “boss.” A young bull may grow a very impressive spread, and his tips may be long and sharp and will “score well”—but the base of the horns are incipient horn growth, often covered with hair. The most common term used to describe this is “soft,” but sometimes the word used is “green.”
The boss usually doesn’t transition to completely hard horn until the bull is about nine or ten years old. In a normal environment this is about the same time that a bull can establish dominance of a herd. I don’t actually know if this is coincidental, or part of Nature’s plan because, while buffalo hook with their sharp horn tips, they also butt and ram with the boss. Absent an older or more aggressive bull in the herd, buffalo can absolutely breed at a much younger age. Certainly they hang around the herd hoping the herd bull isn’t looking. Similarly, older bulls already displaced will come around the edges of the herd in search of a bit of action—but most of the breeding is done by herd bulls at the height of their strength and horn growth.
As the bull ages, horn growth slows and wear at the tips starts to exceed new growth from the bases. Although we tend to talk about buffalo quality in terms of extreme spread (as we talk about mule deer), this is actually a meaningless measurement. Buffalo are measured for our SCI Record Book based on a total measurement from one horn tip to the other, following the outside curve and bridging the forehead gap at the front of the bosses. Then the bosses are measured: Widest point, hard horn to hard horn, perpendicular to the long axis of the horns. These three measurements together give the total score. The minimum for inclusion in our book is a total of 100 inches.
This is not an easy minimum to achieve, and many mature buffalo fall short. Obviously some buffalo are wide and others are narrow, but clearly the most important of these three measurements is the overall length, the largest measurement. For instance, many buffalo will have very average bosses of, say, 13 inches. Times two is 26 inches, so to make the minimum the overall length must be 74 inches. These numbers describe a very good buffalo! But keep in mind that some buffalo with wide spreads have “flat” horns with little drop; others with modest spreads have a lot of drop and tips that sweep up and sometimes curve back. Keep this in mind, as there is always more length in a curved horn than on the straight. So it is that, while we silly hunters covet a bull with a spread into the forties, a narrower bull with lots of drop and long tips will often outscore a wider bull with less curve.
Here, however, is the real complexity. A buffalo’s horns will probably be at their maximum measurement about the time his bosses become completely hard, say ten years old. The bosses may continue to increase slightly, but at somewhere around ten years a buffalo will be absolutely fully mature—“hard-bossed”—and his horns will be at maximum length. He is now the herd bull, able to defeat all rivals. Within a year or two, the tips will start to wear down and he will no longer “measure” quite as well. If he survives, the wear continues. Every now and then you see an ancient buffalo with horns worn right down to the bases, wearing sort of a helmet. It cannot be known if this is all wear, or if one or both horns were broken; in older bulls broken horns are not uncommon.
American hunters prefer to take older animals, but we also desire the largest horns. It is a simple fact that the oldest buffalo bulls will not have the largest horns. In this regard I admire the typical European ethic of placing the greatest emphasis on age. Many European hunters would take a “scrum cap” bull without hesitation…but such a bull cannot make any book, and this is not the kind of bull American hunters dream of. Many of us will pass an old bull with badly worn or broken horns. Considering the cost of a buffalo hunt today, that is totally understandable. It is, however, a fine line to walk. Over the years some of our scoring methodology has been changed, as in the way circumferences of antlered game are now done. Mind you, it is not a simple thing to change scoring methodology! One solution that I thought clever was giving double or even triple credit to the boss measurements. There is precedence in that the “palm measurements” on fallow deer are doubled. Our committee duly studied this suggestion and found it did little to alter record book placement, so wasn’t worth it. After much thought I tend to agree, and should add that the point isn’t to promote shooting buffalo with larger bosses, but to promote shooting older buffalo with fully formed hard bosses.
THE RIGHT BUFFALO
So, as in most things hunting, it comes down to us. The proper ethic is to shoot older buffalo, and the first and primary criterion is to be as certain as possible that the boss is fully hard. I can honestly say that is what I try to do. But I have done a lot of buffalo hunting. It’s not the end of the world if I don’t get one, and it’s perfectly okay if it falls short of the record book minimum (note: most mature buffalo do!). It is unrealistic to expect a hunter to pass a mature buffalo bull because the horn tips are still too long and sharp and the record book score will be too high!
Seeking mature buffalo is the right thing to do for two reasons: First, regardless of trophy size or record book score, a mature buffalo is a trophy; an immature bull is not. Second, the real crime comes when an exceptional young bull with great shape, long horns, wide spread (or some combination) is taken before it has a chance to breed. We as visiting hunters can’t be expected to make the distinction, especially with middle-aged bulls that are “almost there.” Even the best PH won’t get it right every time, but they can make the distinction, and it’s our job as hunters to have the discipline to listen to them and let them do their job. Finding a fully hard-bossed bull is what all professional hunters worth their license strive for…and the ethic that we as hunters should embrace. And if you’re willing to take genuinely old buffalo it’s even better!– Craig Boddington