How do African buffalo defend themselves from lions?

Lion: 1, Buffalo: 0 See more pictures of African animals.
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­Lions are nature's most formidable hunters on land. Over the course of a hunt,­ they work together, communicate and change strategies, positions and roles when neede­d. Armed with large, sharp teeth and claws and able to cover 100 yards (91.4 meters) in about six seconds, lions on the prowl for a meal most often end the hunt with a full stomach [source: San Diego Zoo].


There's plenty of good eating to be had if the pride can bag a 1,500-pound (680-kilogram) African buffalo. During long, dry African summers, lions get the opportunity to kill these mammoth beasts by waiting near scarce, life-sustaining pockets of water that buffalo must approach each day.

Female lions do the majority of the hunting, choosing a tactic depending on conditions. For instance, some lions flush out or separate buffalo from the herd, while others go in for the attack. These roles can switch from day to day, depending on which lions are going on the hunt, how large and fast each member of the hunting party is, and the number, size and strength of the herd they will attack.

­­Lions often wait out in the open near the water for buffalo to approach, but they also hide in the sierra's tall grasses to ambush the herd. Younger, smaller lions will often chase the herd to a central "kill zone," where larger, more experienced lions position themselves for the attack. They trip up buffalo by attacking the hind side or rear legs, and once the buffalo goes down, the others move in for the kill. While the buffalo is held down, one lion will place its entire mouth over the buffalo's snout to suffocate it. Another lion may also attempt to break the buffalo's neck or crush its windpipe. Before the buffalo is dead, the lions will have begun nibbling and tenderizing it, trying to work their way through the thick hide. A favorite point of entry is the anus, which they will graciously clean before ripping it open. Sometimes, young cubs, once they arrive on the scene, will crawl into the buffalo and eat it from the inside out.

In this article, we'll learn how an African buffalo defends itself from the lion. First, we'll learn a little more about these two combatants, either of which can turn from predator to prey, or vice versa, in the blink of an eye.


Introducing Our Combatants: Lion vs. Buffalo

The pride takes a water break at Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, South Africa
J. Sneesby/B. Wilkins/Stone/Getty Images

There are only about 26,000 lions on the planet, and most of them live in Africa, south of the Sahara desert [source: National Geographic]. As with many species, the male lion is typically larger than its female counterpart. While a lioness is usually about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and around 400 pounds (181.4 kilograms), males can be as long as 8 feet (2.4 meters) and tip the scales at 550 pounds (249.5 kilograms).

The world's most social cats, lions live in groups called prides. Between three and 30 lions make a pride, which is comprised almost entirely of related females. This tightly knit group of lionesses will stick together for life -- it's quite difficult for an unrelated lone female to be accepted by the group.


The males, on the other hand, generally move on after reaching adulthood -- nature's way of stirring the genetic pot. A pride may have up to two unrelated adult male lions, and these males are under near-constant assault from other males trying to move in on their territory. A male may hold its top spot in the pride for several years, but eventually he will be killed or run off by a younger or stronger outsider. If he isn't killed in the process, the usurped male must leave and become a loner, doing his best to survive alone or looking for another pride with a male he can conquer.

It's good to be king, however. Lionesses do more than 90 percent of the hunting, while the male shows up after the kill, demanding and receiving first dibs on the meat. While the lionesses hunt, the males stay back to defend the territory, protect the cubs and keep watch for overly ambitious lone males who know a good situation when they see it.

Lionesses are lighter, faster and more agile than males, and these traits make them deadly hunters. These killers hunt in packs to limit injury, often between dusk and dawn.

An African buffalo covered in mud
Winfried Wisniewski/The Image Bank/­Getty Images

The African buffalo hunts little more than grass, but you wouldn't want to bump into one in a dark alley. At 6 feet (1.83 meters) tall and 1,500 pounds (680.4 kilograms), this abundant and unpredictable creature is in no mood for monkey business (or lion or leopard business). Strong, powerful and wielding a set of horns that can measure 4 feet (1.22 meters) from tip to tip, the African buffalo isn't the kind of creature you want to startle. Many people consider them more dangerous than lions, and for good reason -- on average, more people are killed by African buffalo every year than by these big cats [source: National Geographic].

What they lack in speed, they make up for in stamina, and, like the lion, African buffalo are quite sociable with their own kind, often traveling in herds that range from 350 up to several thousand buffalo. As in prides, these herds consist overwhelmingly of females, and males use their giant horns to jostle for dominance. Male calves, which can walk at birth but are dependent on their mothers in the first year of life, must leave the herd once fully grown. Dominant male buffalo, which physically peak at about 10 years of age, must also leave once they've been conquered and replaced [source: AWF]. These solo males, once the defenders of the entire herd, are now easy prey for lions in need of a big meal.

So how does the herd protect itself when a well-organized assassination squad of lionesses is on the prowl?


African Buffalo Defense

These lions at Chobe National Park in Botswana aren't quite sure if they feel lucky.
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The breath of a lion isn't what you want to experience in the last moments of your life, especially when that lion is suffocating you with its mouth. Here's how the African buffalo tries to prevent death by lion:

  • Stay awake. Compared to the 20-plus daily hours of sleep a lion gets, African buffalo sleep minutes at a time, for a daily total of around two hours. This helps prevent rude awakenings.
  • The nose knows. African buffalo have an excellent sense of smell, and a whiff of lion will put them on high alert. Their sense of sight and hearing aren't as keen, but it helps that a lion's roar can be heard up to 5 miles (8 kilometers) away [source: Smithsonian].
  • When possible, travel by water. Lions are reluctant to get in the water, and buffaloes take advantage of this by traveling that way as often as possible. In isolated areas like an island in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, lions have conquered this fear to catch their prey, and moving regularly through the water has made these muscular lions some of the largest seen in Africa [source: National Geographic]. For the most part, however, water equals safety (from lions, that is -- crocodiles are entirely another matter).
  • Stick together. Most African buffalo casualties are older lone males who have been forced out of the herd due to aggressive behavior that is no longer welcomed by their younger replacements and the females who love them.
  • Stand by your man. When the herd travels, the smaller, younger and weaker buffalo stay in the middle, and the stronger males lead and form the protective outer ring of the herd.
  • Offense is the best defense. African buffalo will often sneak up on sleeping lions, charging through and scattering the surprised lions, trampling the heavier sleepers and then hunting down cubs.
  • Retreat! The herd's first instinct when faced with a lion attack is to turn tail and run. This is a good strategy for the vast majority of the herd, but stragglers will be picked off and killed. However, a buffalo on the run can be as dangerous as a buffalo on the attack --at 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall and 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms), a buffalo's sharp hooves can be driven deep into anything unlucky enough to find itself underfoot.
  • Call upon your jungle friends. White birds called oxpeckers roost upon the buffalo, feeding on ticks and fleas found throughout the hide. In return, the birds serve as an early warning system for the buffalo, alerting them to the presence of lions by hissing.
  • Face your fears. Lions attack a buffalo's rear quarters for good reason -- the giant, sharp horns of a buffalo can be used to gouge, throw and hammer away at a lion, and such wounds are often fatal to the would-be attacker. Buffalo, even when retreating, may suddenly stop, turn and attempt to gore a pursuer before turning to flee again.
  • Shrug it off. The sheer size of a buffalo makes it quite difficult to stop mid-run. They are often able to simply shrug off lions that attempt to hang on for dear life. Many buffalo carry the scars of unsuccessful lion attacks.
  • Hang on until help arrives. Even when lions bring down a buffalo, it can take upwards of a half hour to finally kill it, due to its extremely thick hide. The buffalo herd will often return en masse to settle the score and retrieve its fallen comrade.

All of these defensive tactics make buffalo a dangerous dinner for a pride of lions. For more articles on animal behavior, click on the the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

­­ ­Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • African Wildlife Foundation. "Buffalo." (Nov. 9, 2008)
  • BBC. "Mammals Up-close: African Buffalo." (Nov. 9, 2008)
  • Bennitt, Emily. "Okavango Buffalo Research: The Ecology of the African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) in­ ­the Okavango Delta, Botswana." (Nov. 9, 2008)­
  • Guthrie, Russell Dale. "Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe." University of Chicago Press, 1990.ISBN 0226311236, 9780226311234. Pgs. 81-110.­lpg=PA101&dq=defenses+of+african+buffalo&source=web&ots=L0Ycc94FsN& amp;sig=5sWOBj ­4VNSiwET5Lyzs45sLVLxk#PPA101,M1
  • Myhrvold, Nathan, PhD. ­"Lions: Africa's Magnificent Predators." Aug. 1, 2007. (Nov. 9, 2008)
  • National Geographic. "Dance of Death in Okavango." (Nov. 9, 2008)
  • Nature. "Intimate Enemies: Lions and Buffalo." (Nov. 9, 2008) ­­
  • San Diego Zoo. "Mammals: Lion." (Nov. 9, 2008)
  • Smithers, R.H.N.; Skinner, J.D.; Chimimba, Christian T. "The Mammals of the Southern African Sub-region." Cambridge University Press, 2005ISBN 0521844185, 9780521844185. Pgs. 395-396.
  • Smithsonian National Zoological Park. "Great Cats: Lion Facts." (Nov. 9, 2008)