Africa’s Black Death

These buffs probably can't see us but they can smell us. Photos by David Lansing.

It was a Cape buffalo, of course, that ended the short happy life of Francis Macomber in Ernest Hemingway’s classic short story of the same name.

“(They saw) the bull coming, nose out, mouth tight closed, blood dripping, massive head straight out, coming in a charge, his little pig eyes bloodshot as he looked at them. Wilson, who was ahead was kneeling shooting, and Macomber, as he fired, unhearing his shot in the roaring of Wilson’s gun, saw fragments like slate burst from the huge boss of the horns, and the head jerked, he shot again at the wide nostrils and saw the horns jolt again and fragments fly, and he did not see Wilson now and, aiming carefully, shot again with the buffalo’s huge bulk almost on him and his rifle almost level with the on-coming head, nose out, and he could see the little wicked eyes and the head started to lower and he felt a sudden white-hot, blinding flash explode inside his head and that was all he ever felt.”

That is all he ever felt because his wife, sitting in the safari vehicle behind him, had shot him. On purpose? Accidentally? Accidentally on purpose? That’s a question lit majors have been pondering for more than 50 years. What’s never been in question is just how dangerous Cape buffalos can be. Particularly when they’re wounded, as the one in Hemingway’s story was. Wound a rhino or a lion and they’ll go off into the brush or high grass and lay in wait for you. But wound a buff and it might very well circle back around you and begin to stalk the hunter, taking them from behind. Which is why in Africa, where they regularly kill over 200 people a year, they are known as “Black Death.”

After we left the cheetahs, we drove up a slight rise and across a grassy plain inhabited by zebras and wildebeests with the odd Thomsons gazelle mixed in as well. The dry grass was waist-high making it difficult for Calvin to know where to go so Hardy climbed up on the roof and gave him directions to avoid wart-hog holes and hidden boulders. Still, every once in awhile, the bottom of the Land Cruiser would scrape over an unseen hazard and Calvin would curse under his breath.

Calvin stopped the car and studied the grass around us, pointing at it and saying, “There.” I couldn’t see what he was pointing at. It just looked like more dry grass and a couple of smallish termite mounds to me. Calvin got his field glasses and studied the slope in front of us.

Buffalos trying to get our scent to see if we're dangerous or not.

I asked him what he was seeing. He put down the field glasses and looked at the grass again. “You see how it’s shorter?” he said. And now that he’d pointed it out, I could. The grass we’d driven through was at least three feet high and the area he was pointing at was a foot high at most. But I didn’t know what that meant.

“There’s a relationship all of these animals have with one another,” he said. “Buffalos graze on tall, coarse grass—like what we’ve been driving through. But they don’t eat it down to the ground. They leave a foot or so of the grass for the grazers who come behind them—dik-dik, oryx, impala. So look here,” he said, pointing at the clipped grass, “and follow the path with your eyes.” Then he nodded towards a green patch of acacia trees down a sloping hill maybe a hundred yards away. “The buffs are in there.”

And they were. About fifty or so. Mostly females and their off-spring (the bulls tend to form their own sub-herds around the cows). Buffalos can’t see worth a damn and their hearing is poor but they can smell a lion—or a human—at a great distance. And spook easily. Which makes it extremely difficult to sneak up on them. Calvin got us as close as he thought possible and then stopped the vehicle and we just sat looking at each other, the herd of buffs and us. Calvin said from this distance they couldn’t make us out. We were just a dark boxy shape to them. So they weren’t quite sure if we were dangerous or not. Which is why they had their heads up and were sniffing the air. Trying to get our scent. This lasted for three or four minutes. And then they decided, for whatever reason, that they’d had enough of us. And thundered off, their thousand-pound bodies rushing through the high grass like a fullback trying to pick up a first down, while the Land Cruiser gently shook as if from a small earthquake.



  1. Jeff Wilson’s avatar

    So wait a minute here… you had hardy on top of the land cruiser navigating thru wart hog holes and boulders? you might as well have had mr. magoo up there. no wonder calvin was cursing under his breath.

  2. hardy’s avatar

    Best navigation since Magellon made it all the way around!

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