The African Buffalo

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The African Buffalo is NOT a bison, and it is NOT a “water buffalo” (it is not even the same genus as water buffalo). But like these other beasts, it is a kind of cattle.

The scientific name of the African Buffalo, or Cape Buffalo, is Syncerus caffir. Only the most cynical taxonomists would support the continued use of this term. “Caffer” is the same word as “Kaffir” which in modern usage has the same connotation as “Nigger.” The term “caffir” or “kaffir” has been dropped from other species names, but as far as I know, not yet from the Cape Buffalo. I don’t know why.

This particular buffalo is standing tummy-deep in the mud at the base of a fairly large dam on a river in Kruger National Park, South Africa. You can obviously see that the dam (lake) is somewhat dried up. The disturbed surface of the water that you can see off to the right of the Cape Buffalo is caused by very large cat fish who are waiting for rain.


The scientific name of the African Buffalo, or Cape Buffalo, is Syncerus caffir. Only the most cynical taxonomists would support the continued use of this term. “Caffer” is the same word as “Kaffir” which in modern usage has the same connotation as “Nigger.” The term “caffir” or “kaffir” has been dropped from other species names, but as far as I know, not yet from the Cape Buffalo. I don’t know why.

This particular buffalo is standing tummy-deep in the mud at the base of a fairly large dam on a river in Kruger National Park, South Africa. You can obviously see that the dam (lake) is somewhat dried up. The disturbed surface of the water that you can see off to the right of the Cape Buffalo is caused by very large cat fish who are waiting for rain.

In fact, here is an image from space (actually, from Google Earth) of the dam:

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The area of buildings and such is Berg-en-Dal rest camp, in the southern part of Kruger.

Comments

  1. #1 Christopher Taylor
    December 6, 2007

    There are no provisions in the Zoological Code of Nomenclature for changes in name because of unsuitable etymology. Indeed, the code explicitly states that priority stands whether the name is suitable or not*. ‘Kaffir’ may not be used any more in common names, but Syncerus caffer (not “caffir”) stands.

    *There is a recommendation that new names not be offensive, but its a recommendation rather than a rule because “offensive” is in the eye of the beholder and can change with time. Besides, I don’t think it’s relevant here because it’s debatable whether the use of “caffer” (originally a generic term for native Africans, derived from an Arabic term for non-Muslims) for the African buffalo would have been regarded as offensive at the time.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 6, 2007

    As usual, reality and reality are not always exactly the same. There are true ambiguities in naming, and it is not always possible to assign on the basis of priority. Kaffer/Caffir (which means Nigger and has for quite some time) has been dropped even though there is not a rule that allows this.

    The fact that the ZCN does not allow socially, politically, or morally determined changed is good because we don’t want nomenclature to be a battleground but obviously it is bad as well. What if, I ask you, the common Grey squirrel in America was known as Sciurus nigger instead of Sciurus caroliniensis?

    The issue of the earlier use of the word “Kaffir” to be an offensive term is an interesting one. In a certain sense it was always offensive because it was always used during a period of time when someone called a “kaffir” was assumed to be in many ways subhuman. Is the term “subhuman” offensive?

    In other words, there is a kind of offensiveness where a word is essentially a profanity and an insult, and another kind of offensiveness where a word is a mere factual statement (which happens to not be true) and also offensive.

    The same thing could be said of “woman” or “child,” or so one could argue. However, the words “woman” and “child” have not become profanities, but the word Kaffir has.

    The fact is that no one uses the word today unless they are intending to be offensive of if they are simply ignorant. Or both.

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