Despite their docile demeanour, buffalo are known as one of Africa's most dangerous creatures. An old, injured or threatened buffalo may often charge with no provocation.
Unlike elephant or lion, buffalo do not mock-charge - a characteristic many Kruger National Park (KNP) rangers can attest to from firsthand experience. In February this year, Kruger rangers based in the northern regions of the park reported two separate incidents that seem to confirm this fearsome reputation.
Thomas Hlungwane, damage causing animal control (DCA) officer with the Limpopo environment, development and tourism department (Ledet), called in KNP help with a buffalo cow and juvenile. The animals were reportedly roaming a populated area on the western boundary of Kruger between Hlangapulala and the small Ndombodzane spruit.
Shangoni section ranger, Marius Renke, and sergeant Isaac Hlungwane met Thomas early on the morning of February 6 to pursue the animals on foot. They flushed the buffalo from a thicket without catching a glimpse of them. "We heard them running away," says Marius. "They were then scared off by community members who were chopping wood and moved in a northerly direction crossing a small path that leads to Magone village."
The buffalo moved to the boundary fence and bumped into field rangers waiting on the road. This made them turn back into the thick bush. Two trackers had joined the follow-up group and the five men pursued in a line, "with a spacing of five to 10 metres between us with the wind in our favour."
Without warning, the cow emerged from behind a bush and charged Marius from about nine metres; the distance was paced afterwards. She came from his left and he only saw her when she was on top of him at full charge. "She picked me up on her horns, breaking my rifle in two in the process." She dumped him and would probably have gored Marius had Isaac not fired two shots that scared her off. Marius was taken to the hospital in Tzaneen. "I sustained only a few bruises which is a miracle by itself," says Marius.
The search team followed the buffalo and destroyed the young animal. The cow, which was probably wounded, entered the park at the Phugwame River that night. The team tracked and eventually destroyed the cow.
On February 19, lance corporal Joseph Maluleke and field ranger (FR) Samuel Milane were on a routine foot patrol in the northern sector of the Dzombo block in the Mooiplas section.
"About 09h30 a buffalo bull stood up from the shade of a small mopane tree and within seconds charged the rangers," says Johann Oelofse, Mooiplaas section ranger. According to Samuel, they tried to run away from the animal which was charging from their left. Although Samuel was nearest the animal, it passed behind him towards Joseph.
As Joseph shouted, Samuel turned around to see the buffalo horns hooking into Joseph's thigh and tossing him into the air. The buffalo turned and charged again. Joseph yelled at the animal and at Samuel to shoot, which he did. At first the bullets hitting the animal's side appeared to have no effect, and it kept going at Joseph.
Samuel persisted with his fire and finally the animal collapsed and died. Samuel radioed Johann about the attack and informed him that the injured Joseph was losing a lot of blood and needed urgent help.
"The poor radio signal and Samuel's distress made it impossible to establish the full extent of the injury." Johann realised they were too far into the bush for Samuel to carry Joseph out.
He telephoned and requested an emergency air evacuation, but the SANParks helicopter was not available. While head of the SANparks criminal investigative services, Ken Maggs, tried to locate the pilot, Johann also pursued other avenues. He contacted Manie Kriel, a well known Phalaborwa businessman who has often offered to arrange for the helicopter services of a friend in emergency situations.
This chopper was also unavailable, but Manie phoned around and Big Game Heli Services offered their assistance. The pilot picked Dr de Jager up in Phalaborwa and Johann at Mopani from where they met Samuel who was waiting at the vehicle. "Samuel gave the doctor a brief description of the nature of the wounds and that the buffalo's horn went in Joseph's right thigh and out the other side," says Johann. Johann was dropped off to make room for Samuel who guided them to where Joseph lay at the scene of the incident. Dr de Jager stabilised Joseph who was taken to Phalaborwa and ambulanced to the hospital in Tzaneen. "Joseph responded very well to the treatment and was discharged on February 25. He is recuperating at home," says Johann.