Africa buffalo are social and congregate in herds ranging from a few individuals to over a thousand. They form two types of herds: large, mixed-sex and mixed-age herds, sometimes called “breeding herds,” and small, all-male “bachelor herds” of about 20 to 1500 individuals.
Most herds do not migrate, especially herds that would face difficulty migrating naturally due to habitat fragmentation, fences, or other barriers. Migrations of over 80 km have been recorded, with African buffalo exhibiting different ranges for the two seasons.
They are not strictly diurnal, but exhibit activity throughout the 24 hours of a day, usually with rest periods of low activity in the early morning and late afternoon. Mixed herds are mostly composed of adult females with their young and sub-adults (3 to 5 years old), and a few transient adult males. Adults make up 72% of the population, sub-adults 22%, and young approximately 6%.
Dominance is most likely based on the body condition difference between the two interacting males, though it has also been speculated that a component of this hierarchy is endocrinal in nature. Males may spar to determine dominance. Frequency of sparring appears to be different among populations. Sparring is initiated when one male approaches and presents his horns to another male, who responds similarly. They lock horns and twist them from side to side. In adult bulls, the average is seven bouts of this behavior, lasting 10 seconds each per sparring session. After sparring, males typically return to grazing, as sparring almost never escalates beyond what appears to be mild competition.
Dominance interactions are rare and typically include threat displays. Occasionally males fight by colliding once head-on against the boss of their horns. The winner is immediately decided by speed and weight and the loser is often chased a short distance. More serious fights are extremely rare and can end in death of one or both of the combatants.
Herds seem to exhibit communal decision making when it comes to choosing where to travel. During the morning and afternoon rest periods, when the herd is mostly lying on the ground, a few adult cows will sequentially stand up and gaze off into the same direction. Later, when the herd is rousing, the first individuals to start moving all travel in that direction towards their new grazing location. Others follow their lead.
Decisions about where to graze seem to be determined by the females, because if the males in the front stop to graze before their predetermined destination has been reached, the females behind simply continue without them.
An interesting behavior observed in African buffaloes is seemingly altruistic partnerships. In one case, a partnership between two old males expressed itself as the healthier of the two assisting his blind and ailing companion. The more able bull would signal to the other when and in what direction to move and when to stop.