Buffalo are large, cattle-like animals. Once widely distributed in Southern Africa, their numbers have been greatly reduced by large-scale hunting and sickness such as rinderpest and foot-and-mouth disease. Now restricted to the eastern regions of South Africa, they are abundant in the MalaMala area and are frequently seen wallowing in muddy pools or grazing in the vicinity of dams in the reserve.
The buffalo is highly gregarious and usually occurs in large herds, with the largest herd recorded on MalaMala Game Reserve estimated to be in the region of 1 200-plus individuals. Bachelor groups and single animals are also often encountered. A dominance hierarchy occurs within buffalo herds. The dominant bull or bulls mate with all receptive cows who each produce a single calf after a gestation period of about 11 months. Although a favourite prey of lions, the large horns and powerful muscles of the buffalo make it a formidable adversary and lions have been known to come off second best in such encounters.
The buffalo is regarded by many as the most dangerous of the Big Five, but this really only pertains to hunting situations. Buffalo kill more hunters than any other member of that group. Left to their own devices and given a comfortable berth they are quite peaceable and will avoid contact with humans, given enough advance notification of their presence. In dense areas such as reed beds, buffalos can react to being suddenly surprised with a fight rather than flight response, with a potentially fatal encounter for the unfortunate albeit unwise human.