As Good as it Gets.
Photographs and text by Roger and Pat de la Harpe
There is a place in Mala Mala Game Reserve in South Africa called Buffalo Pans. It is an area of shallow pans and wallows fringed by tall trees and shrubs, which offer marvellous shade during the heat of the day and in summer the animals love it and so did we. On one occasion we arrived to find a large herd of buffalo milling about in quite an agitated state.
No sooner had we wondered what was unsettling them when we saw a young leopard in the undergrowth, eyeing a huge bull that was grazing not far off. Incredibly the cat appeared ready to take on what looked to be an 800 kg animal. It is not unusual for male leopards of about 18 months to have a rather misplaced sense of invincibility and this one was obviously flexing its muscles to prove to itself and the world that its hunting ability was incomparable.
As we manoeuvred cautiously forward, the leopard made its move and darted past our vehicle. In the blink of an eye no fewer than four massive bulls had surrounded the cat, lowering their huge heads in a sort of crazed rugby scrum, their horns and bosses crashing together. Their angry bellows filled the air and we held our breath as they separated, expecting to see the leopard squashed into the dust.
But it was nowhere to be seen.
Miraculously it had slipped out from underneath them and taken refuge in a tree, from where it looked down over the herd, panting. The minutes ticked by and the temperature rose steadily as we waited to see what would happen next. The two buffaloes that had positioned themselves beneath the tree stamped the ground impatiently and began to move off. As if on cue the leopard stirred. It came down the trunk in a flash, dashed between them with great bravado and rushed up another tree, the bulls not as quick to respond this time round. Then, with a self-satisfied air, the cat yawned and stretched, positioned itself more comfortably on a branch and promptly fell asleep.
The buffalo herd however remained restless. It was not until we drove a short distance further on that we understood why. In a small clearing a cow was giving birth, the front legs and nose of her calf already showing. As she strained and pushed several other females hovered close by and one even appeared to want to hurry things along by hooking the calf out with her horns. As we watched time seemed to stand still and then suddenly it was all over and the calf lay in a wet trembling heap at its mother’s feet. It was our first buffalo birth.
Buffalo Pans had produced many good game sightings in the past, but on this occasion it really delivered – in more ways than one.
The African or cape buffalo, one of the most successful grazers in Africa, is a very large and strong animal, widespread in the majority of swamps, floodplains, mopane grasslands and forests of Africa. They prefer thick cover but can also be found in open woodland. A buffalo’s height at the shoulder can vary from about 1 to about 1.8m and they can be as much as 3.5m long, a large male weighing about 900kg! Unusually, the horns of the African buffalo males fuse at their base forming a heavy mound of bone called the “boss” and the spread of the horns can be a metre wide.
Mating and births generally occur only during the rainy season, birthing happening first and then mating peaking late in the season. The gestation period is about 11.5 months and the new born call will be kept hidden in thick undergrowth for the first few weeks of its life. The calves suckle from behind, from between its mother’s hind legs, rather than in front of them like many other species.