For about a week we could do no wrong, with every turn we took and every decision we made seeming to result in some kind of fascinating discovery or wonderful sighting. This evening was no different, even though we were deliberately trying to get away from everything and enjoy a quiet drive in the peace of a bushveld afternoon.
We had stopped to look at a juvenile Bateleur eagle in a dead knobthorn tree when a rustle in the bushes caught our attention, along with the unmistakeable smell of carrion on the breeze. Bateleur eagles frequently scavenge, and it seemed that this one had been attracted by something dead, which, judging by the volume of rustles in the long grass, was already being fed upon by a predator.
Driving in to the thicket, we managed to catch a glimpse of the head of at least one hyena, but it certainly sounded like there were more than that, and as we eventually made it through the tangle of buffalo thorns and Gymnosporia, we found three hyenas feeding on the remains of an impala ram.
I am at a loss for words to describe how horrific the stench of that carcass was. It is probably the closest I have ever come to being physically sick from a smell, yet the hyenas were tucking in with relish. We concluded that the impala must have been killed by a rival male (this incident took place during the rut, when impala males fight for mating rights to the females) as the carcass was already partly decomposed, the eyes had been pecked out by birds, yet not much of the meat had been eaten yet, which it would have been had a large predator such as a lion or leopard killed it.
As the hyenas fed, we noticed one of them beginning to take a somewhat amorous interest in one of the others. Hyenas are notoriously difficult to sex at the best of times, with the females possessing pseudo-male genitalia, but we were pretty sure we were witnessing two males and a large female.
One of the males would repeatedly try to mount the larger female (Hyenas are a matriarchal society; the adult females outweigh the males) but the second male was having none of it, and chased the first one off each time. It even erupted into violence at one point, with both male hyenas scrapping in the bushes.
To say the scene was comical would be an understatement, with the mating hyena’s cheesy grin, the constant cacophony of sounds, and the funny comments being passed around the vehicle. Only the ghastly smell of the decaying meat kept a lid on our laughter.
The wails and laughs of the hyenas filtered through the still evening air to other members of their clan, and before long there were 8 individuals squabbling over the remains of the impala.
It was torn into pieces before too long, and the hyenas dispersed, each with a few scraps to content them.
Written and Filmed by James Tyrrell