Three Cape Buffalo in brown grass

I thought bringing my mother to Kenya would help us grow our relationship and friendship, and improve our mother-daughter bonding. I was right, but it was in a way I didn’t really plan… because really, life is never how you plan.

l had been working with Soysambu Conservancy for a few years. Our relationship started three years ago, when I went on a exploratory trip to make sure the program would be ethical, justice-focused, and have a high standard of animal welfare. I was also going to make sure it would be safe. As a founder of a conservation company and a person who can read her moral compass, I make it a priority to visit all programs before we make them full partners. I want to not only understand where we are sending clients, but to be fully be engaged in the community and feel like a stakeholder. I also want to make sure every detail I tell volunteers is from my own eyes, not just a guidebook.

So there I was, back in Kenya, back in a conservancy, the main goal of which is the protection and conservation of the Rothschild giraffe. And I was with my mum.

Sometimes traveling is hard. I see some of the most endangered animals on earth, the most scenic vistas, the most welcoming people, and I do it solo. This was an amazing opportunity to bring a loved one with me.

The program was simple. I was leading a group of three women in a conservation expedition. We would be monitoring wildlife, picking up snares left by poachers, and taking part in maintenance of some hides (blinds) that are also used by biologists for monitoring.

The most dangerous animal in East Africa, Cape buffalo can be up to 800kgs of pure anger. Most of the time they are in a group and totally fine, but when disoriented, threatened, separated, or protecting their young, they are nothing to shrug off.

One of the hides was quite remote and even getting to it was a struggle. The day’s task was to make a road out to the hide. We would be using machetes to cut bamboo and other grasses, clearing boulders, and working up a sweat in the beautiful conservancy.

I had warned the volunteers–and my mother–about the dangers of the area we would be working in. There were snakes and lions and cheeky monkeys, but there were also Cape buffalo. The most dangerous animal in the conservancy and in East Africa, Cape buffalo can be up to 800kgs of pure anger. Most of the time they are in a group and totally fine, but when disoriented, threatened, separated, or protecting their young, they are nothing to shrug off. Many people have been killed by the wide, solid horns on their massive skulls. We knew there were buffalo in the area but we had no reason to believe we were in too much danger, as all the buffalo we had seen were in groups, and the young were old enough that they could run away. Therefore, their mothers were less protective and aggressive.

We got to work and started moving boulders, cutting grass by hand and using pulaskis (axe-like tools used in wildland firefighting and brush clearing) to dig up large plants and trees that would be in the way of our road. The sun was hot, but we were keen to work. Every 100m, one of our ranger guides would move our 4×4 (a Maruti) closer to where we were working. This way, it would be easier to get water, and it would be safer in case the unthinkable happened and a lion came to check us out.

One of our ranger guides was in front of us, in the long grasses that hide all sorts of animals. He was making sure that no snakes, leopards, lions, or other scary things were waiting for us, and he was also clearing a small area so we knew in which way to keep working.

I heard the noise first, without knowing what it was. It was a crashing and thumping more than anything else. Broken branches and moving grass made me look up. Then I heard yelling. “RUN” was the only word I could make out through the panic.

I looked up and saw a Cape buffalo charging toward us, all horns and eyes. It looked like it was running in slow motion, or maybe that is just what my brain remembers from the sheer terror I felt–and still feel from that memory. My mother saw it at the same time and yelled “Run!” I screamed too: “Buffalo, run, run, everyone run!” I threw the tool I was working with in the direction of the buffalo. I ran toward my mother, grabbed her arm, and took off toward the 4×4.

Normally, you are meant to lie down. That is how people usually survive when charged by a buffalo, as the buffalo isn’t able to gore them or pick them up with their horns. Yet, with almost 1000kg of animal running at you, I assure you that lying down is the last thing you think about.

I ran, we all ran.

Maybe my mother ran slower, because I was no longer running with her, I was carrying her. It isn’t that my mum isn’t strong or fit or able to run on her own. It’s just that superhuman adrenaline gave me the strength to almost fly to the 4×4, carrying my mother with me. I pushed her toward the vehicle and she tried to jump on the hood, thinking that scrambling to the top would give her more protection than the side panels would on the small truck. Maybe it would have worked if we’d had time to climb, but I saw that we didn’t. I grabbed my mother’s arm and threw her to the ground. Before she hit the ground, the buffalo made its first impact: she (we found out later it was a female buffalo) rammed the 4×4 head on, breaking the headlights, crushing the radiator, and leaving severe dents in the bumper. The whole 4×4 moved back with the brutal force of angry Cape buffalo.

The two other volunteers got into the 4×4. The door was locked on one side but the window was rolled down so one person could get in before the first collision. The second got in through the rear door. As she slammed the door, the buffalo made her second strike.

After the first strike, I can only imagine that the buffalo angrily and quickly stepped back, trying to figure out how to hit the vehicle again. The ranger guide was in the driver’s seat, and he opened the door so my mother could get in. I dragged her while she crawled on the ground to get to the door. I did this backwards, as I knew I would be stronger pulling her this way, and I wanted to keep my eyes on the buffalo. I could hear the buffalo breathing and I knew my mum could too, so I told her that she would be okay. I yelled at her (to drown out the buffalo snorts and thundering hooves) “You’re okay, I promise! I promise, you are okay! You are safe, I promise you, you are safe!” I recognize that screaming in someone’s face that they are safe isn’t necessarily the best way to explain this, but sometimes there is no alternative. I lifted my mother up and pushed her into the vehicle. As the driver moved forward, I threw my mother like a rag doll, and pushed her feet and arms in and slammed the door.

It looked like it was running in slow motion, or maybe that is just what my brain remembers from the sheer terror I felt–and still feel from that memory.

I saw the buffalo ram the 4×4 again, this time on the broad side, right where our volunteer had just slammed the door. By the time the buffalo rammed for the third time, I was crawling under the 4×4. There wasn’t enough room to jump in. I watched the buffalo run to the front of the 4×4 and take aim for her fourth and final strike. She rammed the 4×4 in the center of the hood again.

As quickly as she had appeared, she disappeared into the tall grass. I jumped up from the ground to launch into the vehicle and make sure that everyone was only shaken, not hurt.

While we sat in the car, the ranger guide who first alerted us to the buffalo came running out from the tall grasses. He told us that he had jumped into a cactus and laid on the ground.

Amazingly, a small cut on the head of the ranger who had been in the driver’s seat was the extent of the injuries sustained. I may have even done it to him by accident, as I pushed my mother into the vehicle. Not one broken bone, puncture, or cardiac arrest. We had met the most dangerous animal in East Africa, and we all lived to tell our friends and family.

Photo credit: Stig Nygaard via Visualhunt / CC BY

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About The Author

Nora Livingstone's picture

Nora Livingstone is the Co-Founder and CEO of Animal Experience International, a B Corp that matches animal lovers with beneficial and adventurous volunteer experiences around the world. She has volunteered with animals in more than 25 countries, including Croatia, Mongolia, Sierra Leone, and Guatemala. Nora holds a double major from Trent University in Environmental Studies and Cultural Anthropology and holds internationally recognized certifications for guiding, leadership, crisis intervention, and deployment during natural disasters. She carries a tiny plastic horse and stuffed mouse with her every time she travels.

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