Who’s The Boss?

cape buffalo in brush

So, as the story goes, a friend of mine, his PH, and a new cameraman closed with a buffalo herd and my friend was preparing to shoot a big, old bull. Except the cameraman couldn’t figure out which one to focus on. The PH kept saying, “The big boss, man, it’s the big boss.” Eventually the herd spooked, no shots fired. The cameraman could only say, “How am I supposed to know which one was the boss?”

The boss is the thick, helmet-like growth at the base of a Cape buffalo bull’s horns. Most Nile buffalo bulls also have it, but a defined boss becomes less common as you move westward through the savanna buffaloes and on to the dwarf forest buffalo. Water buffalo and the other Asian bovines don’t have it. In the world of wild cattle, it’s more common for the horns to grow separately on each side of the skull. The boss is thus a unique feature that almost defines a southern Cape buffalo bull.

On the one hand, maybe we make too much of the boss. It is only one feature, speaking nothing of width, length and curl of horn. On the other hand, with a Cape buffalo bull, the boss is critical because it is the instant truth-teller of maturity. Width, length and shape are achieved fairly early, but the boss doesn’t completely develop into fully hard horn until a bull is about nine or ten years old. This is important because in the wild, this age often coincides with a bull’s ability to compete for breeding rights and become the herd bull and thus pass along his genes.

So, it matters greatly that the bosses be completely developed into hard horn. Exactly what the bosses look like isn’t important and they vary. It is not true that at maturity, the bosses will almost grow together. Some bulls have bosses that are almost completely closed, other bulls have a visible strip of skin between the horn bases, possibly as much as four inches wide. The sheer size of the bosses is a different subject. Many bulls have flat bosses, a few have bosses that look like two football helmets atop the skull.

For our SCI measuring system, we take the width of each boss back to front, hard horn to hard horn, at right angles to the horns. Honestly and perhaps unfortunately, these measurements are not nearly as important as overall length to our SCI score. Our minimum is 100, which is a very fine buffalo and even huge bosses are unlikely to contribute a third to this total. However, bosses are an important feature of a buffalo bull, not only defining maturity, but giving him character. Big bosses are cool and extremely attractive, but really big bosses are rare.

The way we measure bosses gives a pretty good yardstick. I’ve seen fully mature bulls with wide spread and beautifully curving horns that had skimpy little bosses of just 11 inches. Average boss measurement is probably 13 inches and every inch above that increasingly defines the “big boss.” There is no upper limit. Our SCI record book shows that bosses in excess of 20 inches exist, but I’ve never seen a buffalo like that!

Again, the boss is just one aspect of a buffalo’s horns. Most of us think of African buffaloes in terms of spread, but the greatest length comes from horns that drop down below the jaw and then curve back up and around. The big buffalo that has it all in equal proportion probably hasn’t been calved, but if he has been then he’s the new world record in waiting! Bosses of 16 inches and more are noticeably huge, and the eye will quickly be drawn to them. However, the few buffaloes I’ve seen with those noticeably huge bosses haven’t been very wide. I could theorize that they put their horn growth into the bosses rather than length.

Most of us don’t walk around the convention stating that we want a buffalo with 16-inch bosses, do we? No. Nor do I recommend that course of action. For the record, I’ve never taken a buffalo with such bosses. We’re more likely to say we’d like a “40-inch bull,” meaning extreme spread.

That, too, is just one measurement. Focusing on spread alone is tricky because a buffalo bull is likely to achieve extreme spread long before his bosses are fully hard. In good buffalo country every big herd will usually contain wide bulls that are too young and must be passed. This does not suggest that a young, soft-bossed bull with wide horns will have big helmet-like bosses when he reaches maturity. Hardly.

Like spread, shape and thickness of horn, whether a bull’s bosses are narrow, wide or huge is determined long before maturity (and probably at birth). However, as the bull matures and that soft, hair-covered material between the horns and around the leading edges hardens the boss does increase in width and mass. But a seven-year-old bull with normal but very soft 13-inch bosses will never have 16-inch bosses!

Boddington and hunter with buffalo

Boddington and Joseph Von Benedikt with Joseph’s old, heavy-bossed buffalo taken in Mozambique’s Coutada 11. Such large bosses are unusual and, to Boddington, highly desirable!

As with any game animal, perfection is elusive, but we’re allowed to have preferences. With Cape buffalo spread is the most common criterion, but shape is important. I think buffalo horns with a lot of drop and curl are far more attractive than “flat” horns with wide spread but not much else. However, even though I’ve never shot such a bull I admire exceptional bosses.

So, a few weeks ago, PH Garth Robinson, fellow writer Joseph Von Benedikt and I were looking over a nice herd on the edge of a papyrus channel in Mozambique’s Coutada 11. After a lot of crawling, we got in on them within 100 yards, just as they were lying down, so we had lots of time to sort through them. It wasn’t a huge herd, 200 or so, but there were a lot of bulls. Almost unavoidably, there were at least two gorgeous youngsters, pushing mid-40s, with lots of curl—but just too young. And there were a couple more mature bulls that weren’t impressive.

You have to be patient, and so long as the wind doesn’t change you can be. Just when you think you’ve seen all the bulls, a couple of cows shift around and there’s a bull you haven’t seen. Now, this was to be Joseph’s buffalo, so my job was to bite my lip and keep my mouth shut. We’d been on them for over an hour, just thinking there was nothing interesting in this herd when a few got up and an unseen bull stood on the far side of the herd. Not terribly wide, but good shape and he had huge football-helmet bosses. Joseph asked what I thought. What I thought was: “Get out of my way so I can shoot.” I bit my lip harder.

Width was 36, maybe 37, the hunt was young and we could definitely do better. Except, you have to appreciate how uncommon exceptionally large bosses really are. To have that appreciation you have to look at a whole bunch of buffaloes. We dithered and then the bull lay down again, invisible behind other buffaloes. I was dying, certain we’d blown it. A reprieve came two hours later when the herd finally got up and Joseph got his “big boss.” For the record, I measured the bosses at 16 ½ inches. Yep, there are bulls with bigger bosses—but not in any herd I’ve seen!–Craig Boddington

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