Can you make friends with a Cape Buffalo?

Dangerous Liaisons

In an article about buffaloes, I shared some facts about buffaloes. Most stories about buffaloes concern hunting: the close escapes (or death and injury) of hunters, buffaloes charging humans, and buffaloes protecting calves, or each other, against predators.

There are however, some positive stories about the human / Cape Buffalo interaction, where humans have gone out of their way to gain the trust of these animals, and were rewarded beyond expectation.

Unique friendship with buffaloes

Luke has spent months in close proximity with these buffaloes to gain their trust
Luke has spent months in close proximity with these buffaloes to gain their trust

Luke Michaelides

When I first start looking for good news buffalo stories on the Internet, I found this story, from 2008, of Luke Michaelides, a 13 year old boy from Limpopo, South Africa, who befriended two buffalo.

A female buffalo, who hurt her leg during and interaction with a male, were kept on their farm to heal. They called her "Hop-a-long". Eleven months later, her calve "Skip-a-long" were born. Luke played with the two buffalo, kissed them, washed them and spent a lot of time with them.

He said that "They looked so lonely in the camp all by themselves so I decided to go and keep them company." According to Luke his relationship with the animals has been built upon a slow process of trust and communication. He approached them a little closer each day, gave them food and stood at a distance so that they would get used to him. He would also talk to them calmly. One day he decided that he will try touching them. After that, he spent time with them every day to take them food and water, scrubbing them with a brush, lying down with them, taking his books with him to study there. He has even spent a night with them to see how they behave and to build trust.

At 13 he has started to write down all he learns about them: "Everyday I am here I write about them in a special book.... describing what they are doing, how they are feeling and their emotions and how I am feeling about them.

" love them and I have a passion for what I am doing and it's given me the chance to do something that's unique."

The story of Luke Michaelides and his friendship with two buffaloes

Luke's friendship with two buffalo

Luke has gained the trust of two Cape Buffalo
Luke has gained the trust of two Cape Buffalo
Lindsay Hunt says we should stop thinking of the Cape Buffalo as aggressive
Lindsay Hunt says we should stop thinking of the Cape Buffalo as aggressive

Lindsay Hunt: from Black Death to Black Gold

Lindsay Hunt was a South African hunter who had a passion for hunting since an early age. In his twenties he was already a professional hunter who took out clients on buffalo hunts. Then after one successful hunt, seeing a massive buffalo bull die, he had an experience of how wasteful this is, how magnificent this animal was. This experience started him on a different journey.

Lindsay became a conservationist who played an influential role in a project to produce Cape Buffalo stock, who were free of bovine tuberculosis and foot-and-mouth disease.

The disease free buffalo are valuable stock and fetch high prices in the South African game farm market, and the term "Black Gold" has been used in this context.

Buffalo Bovine Tuberculosis

Buffalo with Bovine Tuberculosis
Buffalo with Bovine Tuberculosis | Source

Bovine diseases

Buffalo bovine tuberculosis was discovered in 1990 and is an airborne bacterial disease. An infected buffalo can live quite long but eventually become emaciated and fall prey to predators. This disease crosses the species barrier and not only affects the buffalo herds, but also predators and scavengers, and other herbivores, including baboons, kudu, bongo, oryx, eland, sable antelope and waterbuck. It is thought that Bovine tuberculosis arrived with European settlers and their livestock. It was first reported in South Africa in 1880 in domestic cattle and spread to wildlife in 1928, in the Eastern Cape.

Although buffaloes are not on the endangered species list, the gene pool of buffaloes are not large. The most varied gene pool is in the Kruger National Park, and this is where the incidence of buffalo bovine tuberculosis is high

Buffaloes also get foot-and-mouth-disease and Corridor disease and is an inter species carrier for these diseases.

Corridor disease is "an acute, usually fatal disease of cattle resembling East Coast fever and is caused by infection with buffalo-derived Theileria parva strains transmitted by ticks from African buffaloes (Syncerus caffer)"(www.ais.up.ac.za/vet/tlo/vtd/coetzer2004/lawrence468.pdf)

Lindsay Hunt: Buffalo Warrior

Breeding disease-free buffalo

The South African National Parks Board thought that the only practical solution to this epidemic, was to breed disease-free buffalo. Lindsay Hunt decided to put his weight into this project, and got his first buffalo breeding stock from the gene pool of the Kruger Park.

Lindsay Hunt experimented with various different processes to understand the breeding of buffalo, the needs of calves, and the way the disease spreads. He also had to deal with foot-and-mouth disease, since the term "disease free" did not only refer to the buffalo bovine tuberculosis only.

It has been shown through his and other research (e.g Kruger Park led research by Dr Lin-Mari de Klerk- Lorist), that stress plays a role in the outbreak of some diseases. An animal may test disease free, but will be tested positive for the disease after stress or trauma. Lindsay Hunt has invested time into building personal relationships with the buffalo on his breeding farm, to minimise the need for darting and other traumatic methods of controlling the animals.

This project has resulted in the establishing of disease-free herds in all nine provinces of South Africa, away from the TB-ravaged areas of the Kruger National Park.

Lindsay Hunt believes that building trust with buffaloes is the key to a stress-free breeding environment
Lindsay Hunt believes that building trust with buffaloes is the key to a stress-free breeding environment

Is it possible to make friends with a Cape Buffalo?

According to Lindsay Hunt, buffalo have been misunderstood by hunters and authors. They are intelligent, tactile, affectionate and social animals with exceptional senses of sight, hearing and smell. They also possess exceptional powers of recognition and memory. When wounded, threatened or ill treated, they retaliate.

How to make friends with a Cape Buffalo

  1. Remember that the Cape Buffalo see humans as predators and will naturally distrust man
  2. Both Luke and Lindsay remained aware of the fact that a buffalo could kill them any time.
  3. You will have to have extreme patience, dedication and passion for what you are doing
  4. Building trust is key.
  5. Spend time close to the buffaloes. Just be around. Luke slept with them, while Lindsay slept on the other side of the fence, right next to the buffalo (Big Cow) whose trust he wanted to earn. This is the most important aspect and can take time. Lindsay even joined them in a mud wallow. Luke took his books to study close to them.
  6. Talk to them in a friendly, reassuring way. What you say is not important but the way you say it.
  7. Care for them by giving food, scratch them, brush them, wash them. According to Lindsay they love it when you scratch their tails, since they cant do that themselves
  8. Understand their body language and emulate some of that. They love pressure, so you can lean against them (they do that with each other, e.g. when they lie down they will rest their heads on another's rump)
  9. NEVER touch the horns, says Lindsay
  10. Lower yourself to their level, to show that you are not a threat
  11. Work on the energetic level
  12. Very important: Buffaloes do not all have the same temperament - you can make friends with some individuals, but not with others
  13. Buffaloes remember individuals - they may not transfer their trust from one human to another

The answer is a tentative YES, but as with all wild animals, this is not a "pet" that you have "tamed". You have entered into a relationship of mutual trust, which is no guarantee that your friend might not turn against you.

As it is for human friendships too?

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2 comments

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 5 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

In all the nature shows I've seen on TV, I've never seen any kind of amicable human interactions with cape buffaloes. What a special experience! But I must say, seeing those horns in the picture of Lindsay Hunt, I'm not sure it's an experience I'd want to have.


elnavann profile image

elnavann 5 months ago from South Africa Author

@RonElFran. Yes that is true, and as I was writing this hub, a game ranger from the Kruger Park on routine patrol was again injured by a buffalo. Not an animal to take lightly.

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