Wildlife Photography on a Southern African Safari – Photographing Buffalo

Buffalo in Kruger Park
Buffalo near Punda Maria camp in Kruger Park

The Cape Buffalo has the reputation of being the most dangerous animal in Africa as they have apparently killed more people than any other animal. The buffalo is a placid animal but if cornered or wounded its first instinct is to attack. Buffalo are common throughout the Kruger Park, are a very rare sighting in the Pilanesberg and are not found in Etosha or the Kgalagadi. The biggest herd we saw was at the Mlondozi dam from the picnic site. This herd was huge and numbered at least 2000. We watched them coming down to drink and they just kept coming – the whole area was covered with black dots that looked like ants.

They are exclusively grazers and like to feed on the tall coarse grass, this way they open up grassland for the animals that prefer to eat the shorter grass. Buffalo can often be seen between the mopani trees as they move around grazing. This can make great photographs in autumn when the leaves of the mopani tree change colour and you get the great contrast of the dark buffalo against the colorful trees.

Oxpeckers love buffalo and tend to choose one and then run over its body and head, checking out the ears, nose and eyes for parasites after which it flies to the next buffalo. This can make for great photographs – a buffalo with an oxpecker sitting on its boss or hanging off its ear adds interest to the photograph.

Buffalo with oxpecker bird on its head
Oxpecker on boss of buffalo

Buffalo need to drink daily, so you will encounter them either on their way to or leaving a water hole or river. Buffalo like to go into the water to cool off when they drink and it looks like they are bathing. Like the Elephant, Buffalo love mud wallows and you will often find them lying in mud, which helps to cool them down and it also helps with ticks.

Older bulls will leave the breeding herd and form bachelor groups of 3 or more individuals. These guys are often found along river beds as they lie around on the sand bank of rivers and you will also see them or hear them as they walk through the long reeds on the river banks. We have spotted many of the old bulls just lying around like they don’t have a care in the world.

Buffalo bull lying in mud
Buffalo in mud wallow in Kruger Park

Buffalo sometimes have headgear – mud-capped heads or branches sticking out from under their horns, this is so funny to watch and you can get some great photographs of individuals displaying their different ‘headgear’. You may also get some great action shots of them trying to get rid of the headgear as they move their head back and forth.

Buffalos are wary of other objects and they tend to stand behind thick bushes watching cars as they travel past them – the buffalo hiding behind bushes with just one horn sticking out and an eye makes for an interesting photograph.

Buffalo hiding behind bush in Kruger Park
Buffalo watching us from behind shrubs

Buffalo mothers, like many other animals, are very protective but the herd also gets involved and they will gather round the calves so lions or any other danger cannot get to them. There are a number of times where people have videoed or photographed a scene when the herd has come forward to protect a calf or even adult buffalo in the herd. They have been known to attack and even kill lions to protect a member of their herd.

We have spent a great deal of time sitting with a herd and photographing the different faces, even giving them names – this is when you get to see the different personalities in a heard.

Old buffalo in Kruger Park
Old buffalo with broken horns

Look for unusual horns, facial markings and comical faces. Other behavior to look out for is when they are sniffing the air, chewing grass and sticking their tongue into their nostrils.

Buffalo are very photogenic, but getting the correct exposure is not easy because they are dark and if your subject fills most of the frame your photo could be overexposed. You can rectify this in post-processing with Photoshop or you could meter off a middle-tone subject such as grass that is in the same light as the buffalo and then dial in about + half a stop of light or alternatively, meter off the buffalo and then dial in about -1 stop of compensation. Try photographing buffalo in early morning or late afternoon light as this is the best time to get even tones and details of the animal.