I was just now sending an email to Namibian PH Dawid Muller confirming details for an upcoming buffalo hunt in Caprivi when it occurred to me that I wasn’t just looking forward to that hunt, I was genuinely excited about it and spent a moment pondering exactly why. Well, for one thing, Namibia’s Caprivi Strip is a place I haven’t hunted buffalo. I hunted elephant there a year ago with Omujeve Safaris and in the process, we saw a lot of buffaloes in several big herds and I was impressed by the quality of some of the bulls.
So, new place, good genetics for horn growth–two really good reasons for high anticipation! But it’s not just that. More than anything else in Africa, and more than most other hunts in the world, I always look forward to an encounter with African buffalo. It’s been that way for a long, long time, and the addiction has only gotten stronger.
I consciously used the term “African buffalo” instead of “Cape buffalo.” Although the southern Cape buffalo is the largest and most impressive, I’m equal opportunity. The thrill is much the same whether hunting Nile buffalo in Uganda, Central African savanna buffalo in Cameroon, West African savanna buffalo in Burkina Faso or the southern Cape buffalo. I wish I could say that about dwarf forest buffalo somewhere, but although I’ve tracked them and heard them crash off ahead of me, I have yet to actually see one. Hopefully someday I can make that happen!
That said, the great majority of my buffalo hunting has been for the larger southern Cape buffalo. Circumstances vary with the area. I really enjoy the classic tracking buffalo hunt that can happen anywhere, but is perhaps most prevalent today in Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia. It’s an amazing opportunity to watch the great African trackers work their magic. On the other hand, I really like the swamp buffalo hunting in coastal Mozambique.
It’s a lot different there. We can track the herds, and often do—even I can figure out how to track several hundred buffaloes—but most of the time we glass for the white cattle egrets swooping and diving as they follow the herds. In recent years, Mozambique’s Marromeu complex with its amazing concentration of buffalo, has become my favorite place to hunt them, but it’s not exactly the same as dry-ground tracking. You don’t know what you don’t know, and I wish I’d known more about that type of buffalo hunting when I wrote the book Buffalo! and did the two Boddington on Buffalo DVDs. I know a lot more about that type of buffalo hunting now. Mozambique’s swamp buffalo will actually be my next encounter, and I’m looking forward to that as well!
However and wherever you hunt buffalo, the real hunt—and the real excitement—starts when you first make contact. In thornbush, it’s often diving tickbirds rather than cattle egrets that give them away. On dry ground you’ll see the dust pall of buffaloes on the move, and especially with herds you’ll often hear them snorting and lowing before you see them. The wind has to be right. If it is, you’ll often smell their cattle smell before you see them. But if the wind isn’t right or if it shifts on you, the first indication you’re close may be the sound of vegetation crashing and hooves striking or splashing as the herd thunders off. Then you wait a while, try to get the wind right and start all over again.
For me, the excitement really starts when you have visual contact and you’re maneuvering to see the bulls in the group. If there’s cover, you creep from bush to bush. If there isn’t, you work on your low-crawling skills. In Mozambique’s floodplains there’s often short-grass savanna between broad stretches of deadly sawgrass. The buffalo herds love to graze and bed in these openings, so I’ve added gloves and kneepads to my buffalo hunting essentials. Either way, sooner or later a sharp-eyed cow is bound to see something suspicious, so you freeze while she plays the “look away game;” staring intently for a few seconds, then dropping her head nonchalantly as if to continue feeding—and then instantly snapping her head up to stare again. If you stay frozen long enough, she may eventually go on about her business or she may stir the entire herd into a panicked stampede with most of the buffaloes having no idea what they’re running from. If they get just a small whiff of your scent, it’s game over.
Not every herd will hold the kind of bull you’re looking for, but the real victory lies in seeing all the bulls in the herd. Whether this is possible or not depends both on thickness of cover and size of the herd. In thornbush it can be difficult to properly sort even smaller groups, say less than 50 or 60. On short-grass savanna, as open as a billiard table, you can sort through smaller herds fairly well. Realistically, however, with herds into the hundreds it’s unlikely that you’ll even catch a glimpse of every bull in the herd.
Of course it’s a numbers game. There might or might not be a mature bull with a small mixed herd, but it’s always worth checking. With herds into the hundreds, there will almost always be mature bulls, if not actually with the herd then shadowing close by, but your chances of seeing all the bulls in the packed mass are reduced. The numbers game applies to bachelor groups as well, but in different ways. Unless buffalo are locally so scarce that options are few, most PHs are reluctant to follow one or two bulls. Depending on the ground, it’s hard to hold just a couple of tracks, and if you get on them the chances of broken or badly worn horns are high. Three or four bulls and all odds increase in your favor!
The best part comes when you spot an acceptable bull, whatever that means to you at that time and place so long as he’s fully mature. Maybe it’s a situation where you just have to wait him out, or maybe you must maneuver to get a clear shot. However it happens, the adrenaline flows fast! The shot itself is not anticlimactic, and the follow up certainly isn’t.
Fortunately, there are still lots of buffalo in Africa with options in numerous countries. Some areas aren’t what they were a few years ago, but some areas are getting better. A buffalo safari is costlier than a plains game safari for sure, but the experience is worth it and good buffalo hunts remain affordable in several countries.
The past couple of years I’ve noted that as buffalo numbers increase, prices for buffalo hunts have dropped significantly in South Africa. This is very good. At this stage in my life, there are many animals I won’t hunt again, but I hope I’m a long way from my last buffalo. That’s a selfish view, but it’s good to have options, the more and more affordable the better. Clearly, we have increasing issues with hunting other members of the Big Five, some real and some perceived, but to me the African buffalo offers the very best experience of them all, and the more hunters who are able to taste this classic African adventure the better for both African wildlife and our hunting community.–Craig Boddington