No One Survives A Cape Buffalo Attack

Graham Currin

© Copyright 2005 by Graham Currin

Photo of a cape buffalo in tall grass

 The creature seemed harmless enough, as it was just waking up from a nap in the muggy afternoon sun. Doug and Tom inched closer as Rick stood up from the safety of the brush to take a picture. Suddenly Rick dropped his camera. He couldn’t even get the words out, but he didn’t have to. The speed with which Rick tore down the path said it clearer than any catch-phrase from a Mel Gibson movie. It was time to get the hell out of there. “No One Survives a Cape Buffalo Attack” is the true story of three men’s encounter with a little known animal that is responsible for most of the animal deaths in many African countries. Once the buffalo charges, it’s every man for himself.

They knew they were already in a lot of danger, but they just had to get a closer look at the beast. After all, you can’t come all the way to Africa and not have some adventure. The creature seemed harmless enough, as it was just waking up from a nap in the muggy afternoon sun. Doug and Tom inched closer as Rick stood up from the safety of the brush to take a picture. Maybe it was a shift in the wind. Perhaps the click of the camera. Whatever it was, it was enough to send all 1,500 pounds of cape buffalo into a frenzy.

Rick dropped his camera. His eyes were wide with panic. He couldn’t even get the words out, but he didn’t have to. The speed with which Rick tore down the path said it clearer than any catch-phrase from a Mel Gibson movie. It was time to get the hell out of there.

 “That was enough for me,” says Doug Morton. “I just ran as fast as I could. I didn’t even see it charge. ”

 Unfortunately, Doug also never saw the tree that knocked him out cold. When he came to seconds later, he could feel the ground pounding rhythmically all around him. The sound of thunderous hooves was growing. The buffalo, with its curved horns lowered, was almost upon him. Just before impact, Doug remembered what he had heard about this animal. He remembered that no one survives a cape buffalo attack.

In March of 1997 a group studying abroad from Cincinnati Country Day School, a private high school in Ohio, cool their heels after a long trek. The weather is about what you would expect in Africa: hot and arid. But there is a surprising amount of rich vegetation covering the gentle slope that meets a nearby lake.

The group has just come through the Masa Mari, the Kenyan part of the Serengeti. Located in Tanzania, the Serengeti is one of the world’s largest animal sanctuaries. Every July millions of large grazing animals, like elephants and wildebeests, escape their dry climate by traveling through the Masa Mari.

While most of the group are content to rest in the shade, Rick finds that Tom and Doug are ready to do some exploring. With Rick as their chaperone, the trio start down a hard dirt path flanked on both sides by grass that is five feet tall and limits their view of any person or creature that may be lying in wait just a few feet away. The path is hard because large animals plod along it frequently.

Rick Wakeman is one of the adults leading the school trip. He is a husky man in his forties. People describe him as the larger-than-life type and the consumate practical joker. On more than one occasion Rick has bare-handed elephant droppings and lobbed them grenade-style at the boys. He even boasts that he plans to take one elephant cake home in a trash bag as a souvenir. Rick is in charge.

It is not long before the amateur trekkers happen upon a wire fence blocking their way. A Kenyan wire fence being a couple of stakes every couple meters with a single wire wrapped through a notch at the top.

What could that possibly keep out, they say jokingly.

 It’s then that Rick and the boys spot the cape buffalo. No flimsy wire could keep a charging cape buffalo out, but maybe it would have been enough to deter it.

Rick and the boys are more alert now, but not scared. Rick turns to the boys and explains the situation. They have heard the locals talk about this lethal brute. Rick tells the boys that there is no way to outrun the buffalo should it decide to attack so the plan is to jump off of the path.

Rick turns and walks only a few yards closer to the buffalo and that’s when it charges.

He froze for a second and then he dropped the camera, looked back at Tom and me and his face was just absolutely filled with fear,” says Doug.

Rick was not joking now. No one survives a cape buffalo attack.

 Cape buffalo are among the nastiest creatures in the wilds of Africa. They have the build of a cow, but the disposition and power of a perpetually ticked off bull. Even the king of the jungle bows down to the cape buffalo and only attacks young or infirmed ones. Its thick black hide is so tough that would-be predators slide right off. But any animal foolish enough to pounce on the cape buffalo has to deal with the dark grey horns that sprout from its head and measure nearly three feet across. These horns curve down and then up forming a U-shape topped with a sharp point on each side. Couple that with massive tree-trunk legs and the cape buffalo is perfectly equipped to crush or gore anyone in its way. But locals say the beast is so fiercely territorial that it would probably kill you twice just to make certain.

They have been known to chase people up trees and then stay there for days eating around the tree waiting for them to come down,” says native Kenyan Mlengu Mwachofi. “They are also known to urinate on their tails and flick it into the tree to make you itch and scratch until you fall out.”

You do not always hear about them in the same breath as lions or crocodiles, but many say that cape buffalo are responsible for more human deaths than any other African animal. They are rumored to have killed more big game hunters than any other creature. Hunters using guns with lots of stopping power are not gauranteed to bring down a cape buffalo with a single shot. Those hunting with smaller ammunition never do.

 This cape buffalo only looks like a blur of black and thrashing horns. With weeds whipping by them and scratching their faces as they run, there is no way for the boys to see how close the killer is, let alone any detailed features.

As the boys begin the only foot race that has ever really mattered, Rick promptly takes his own advice and jumps off the path. Tom and Doug are on their own.

I started running down the path just as fast as I could to try to get away from him and as I looked back I saw Tom,” says Doug. “I will never forgive myself, but my first thought was: if I can just outrun Tom I will stay alive.”

 However, the next time Doug looks back he does not get the same insidious assurance. Tom is gone. No one survives a cape buffalo attack.

Regardless of Tom’s fate, Doug can feel the buffalo closing on him as it rumbles through the foilage. It’s gaining. Arms and legs pumping, Doug remembers Rick’s advice. He has to get off of the path.

 However, the same tall grass that allows Rick to escape also obscures a tree to the left of Doug and robs him of his consciousness.

When Doug awakes, blood is streaming from a deep cut on his left eyebrow. Adding insult to injury, Doug is still in the path.

Scrambling to his feet, Doug bolts down the packed dirt trail. This time he can clearly see his hunter behind him and a fork in the road ahead.

I remembered thinking to myself just in a split second: He’s big, he’s fast, he might not be able to corner as well as me, but I was really wrong.”

High school freshman Doug Morton is being chased by a bully that puts all others to shame. Doug is nearly six feet tall, most of it in the legs, and able to haul down the trail. He makes a cut down the side path like a J. V. football player running a short pass route, but the buffalo is on the varsity team. You would not think it looking at the lumbering animal, but cape buffalo can reach speeds of 37 mph.

Doug can feel the buffalo is about to hit him so he side-jumps off the path. Again he is denied the safety of the brush, but this time not by a tree.

I was just about horizontal in the air and then the buffalo just lowered his head and smacked into my legs and hit me so hard that I blacked out again,” says Doug.

Again Doug wakes up to a nightmare. At first he can only see his feet and the sky shaking violently. The buffalo has speared his left horn through the crotch of Doug’s tan Docker shorts and is bucking wildly to get him off.

It was about two inches off the mark or I’d be going home as my sister,” says Doug. “I had no control over any of my movements, I mean its like you’re on a roller coaster. You don’t have a choice. You just go there and you go there forcefully.”

Doug’s back and head are being dragged along the ground while his legs are flailing over the cape buffalo’s horns. The beast bucks from side to side, forcing Doug on his side. Now Doug’s right leg is pulled under immense stomping legs. The buffalo tries to crush Doug’s leg with fierce staccato steps. One blow catches Doug’s right shin, sending pangs up and down his leg. There is really no way he can dodge any of it. With every stomp the monster is pulling Doug further and further under its crushing hooves.

 “I started thinking to myself, he’s going make it up to my chest soon and then he’s gonna kill me,” says Doug. “I reached behind me and I wrapped my arm around a trunk of a tree and with my left arm grabbed a clump of grass and he pulled me so hard that I literally pulled the clump of grass out by its roots. I just closed my eyes and screamed. Screamed as hard and as loud as I could and just tensed up every muscle and clenched my teeth just fighting to try and get through this, then I hear this tear.”

 As Doug braces himself against the tree and whatever else he can hold onto, the buffalo bucks his head once more and rips Doug’s shorts off, leaving him only a jagged waistband and tattered boxers. With his head finally free, the cape buffalo takes a step back and then charges down the path away from Doug.

As quickly as the attack began, it is over.

I didn’t really understand the weight of what just happened, but I could hear Rick and Tom calling for me,” says Doug. “They picked me up and I said, ‘I love you fucking guys,’ just like a Budweiser commercial.”

It is only after the attack that Doug learns how Tom escaped. In one giant surge of adrenaline, Tom jumped off the path and bear-hugged a tree. He actually had a perfect view of Doug’s battle with the buffalo from the safety of his perch.

Rick and Tom help Doug walk back up the path, but they again have to deal with their nemisis. After freeing itself, the cape buffalo ran in the direction of the camp effectively cutting off their return route. Over the next hour and a half, the trio tactfully dance a wide semi-circle around the buffalo. Every now and then they hear things coming down the path and all of them get the hell off it.

When Doug finally limps back to camp he is nearly naked from the waist down. Cupping his skewered boxer shorts and the waist band of his Dockers, Doug does his best to cover himself up.

He cleans his wounds and manages to clot the worst ones with what amounts to band aides. He has tiny paper cuts all over from the grass he stormed through, a permanent scar over his eye, and a knot the size of a softball on his right shin which will remain for three years. Not only is Doug alive, all things considered he is in fantastic shape and able to continue on the trip with everyone else.

Doug says it was not until he was riding with a local guide the following day that he fully understood how close he had come to death.

I leaned forward to talk to the driver and asked him if anyone had ever survived a cape buffalo attack that he had heard of and he looked at Tom and me and just started laughing like I had made a joke,” says Doug. “He looked back at me and said that never happens.” Doug still has the tattered remains of the clothes he was wearing the day of the attack.

Hell, it survived,” he says. “Why would I get rid of it?”

 He keeps what amounts to the belt loops of his Dockers shorts and the rust colored boxers with the giant hole in the crotch partly as a souvenir, but more as a reminder. Thanks to mom, the blood stains are all out of the white Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville t-shirt that he was wearing the day of the attack. Doug wears it like the shirt is no different from any other.

 But Doug has changed. He says the experience kicked his thrill-seeking side into high gear. He now enjoys scuba diving and parachuting. But like most who survive animal attacks, Doug has new found respect for the power of creatures like the one that attacked him.

Some of Kenyans have changed too. Now they say no one survives a cape buffalo attack. And keeps his pants.

Graham Currin writes and narrates electronic courseware for the Army in Hampton, Va. A graduate of Virginia Tech with degrees in Communications and Political Science, he spends his free time writing fiction and performing standup comedy. In the spring of 2006, he will begin work on his MFA at Old Dominion University in hopes of teaching college.

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