A winter almost never passes at Londolozi without a hippo bull succumbing to injuries sustained in a territorial fight. These gargantuan herbivores are armed with enormous and lethal teeth, and towards the end of the dry season, when space is at a premium and the grazing is scarce, the sound of males fighting provides an almost constant ambience in the night air.

Having a male killed in the summer months is slightly less common, as the rains have usually fallen and there’s more space available in the water bodies, generally meaning less aggression between males. Even so, fights do break out, and a recent altercation in the waterhole near Pioneer camp was, we believe, the cause of the the latest casualty.

His carcass was lying near a waterhole to the north of the Londolozi camps, out in the open, and it wasn’t long before the vultures began to descend. The scent of the carcass was rank on the air, and by nightfall the second wave of scavengers began to arrive in the form of the local hyena population, who drifted in in drips and drabs.

With the main access to the carcass being at the slightly softer underbelly, the hyenas and vultures were forced to line up side-by-side to be able to feed.

Squabbles still broke out, although at this early stage with so much meat left, there was still plenty to go around, and aggression was at a low. The vulture out of focus in the foreground with a slightly blue-looking neck and head is a Cape Vulture, very rare for these parts.

Hyenas would come and go, eating as much as they could and then moving off to digest what they had already consumed.

All told, over 100 vultures were at the scene on the first morning after the carcass was first viewed.

24 hours later and virtually every consumable scrap was gone. Only the bare ribs of the hippo and its leathery skin were left. Despite full bellies and crops, the scavengers were still trying to wring full advantage out of the opportunity, with the hyenas cracking apart the smaller bones and the vultures squabbling over small slithers of meat still attached to the larger pelvic girdle and femurs.

Bare earth surrounded the skeleton where only the day before, green grass had grown. Littered with vulture feathers, it looked like the sandy floor of the Colosseum after the gladiators were done. Ok that might be stretching it a little, but it was still incredible to see how all the vegetation had been scuffed away over 24 hours of conflict between the two iconic scavengers of Africa.

As the remaining meat was harder to get to, the hyenas grew more irascible, scattering the vultures every few seconds.

As the heat of the second morning descended, activity began to die down.

Vultures were dotted like Christmas decorations in all the dead trees for up to a kilometre in each direction, patiently digesting the hippo meat they had consumed.

Only the bones of the hippo bull now remain, ironically not even 100 metres from where another hippo bull died in 2013 and was consumed by the Mhangeni pride. With summer properly upon us, the Sand River is steadily filling, as are the major waterholes around Londolozi, and it is likely that the hippo bulls will be given a respite from their territorial concerns, at least until next winter.

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

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on How Long Does it Take to Eat a Hippo?

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Marinda Drake

Love the video. It is fascinating to watch vultures on a dead animal. The squabbling, the screeching, the terrible smell, the feathers everywhere. The hyenas, jackals and even a lion or two. Gruesome but part of the natural cycle.

Darlene Knott

Wow, those vultures and hyena are something else! It is amazing to watch them ‘at work’! Thanks for the story and photos, James!

Callum Evans

Incredible sighting and photos, would love to see something like that someday! I’m surprised that no lions or jackals showed up.

Denise Vouri

Wow- great photos and commentary. Your guests must have been both shocked and excited to see such a sight, although the smell is very off-putting. A few years ago in Botswana we came upon a deceased bull elephant and the smell prior to arriving at the scene was so nauseating- thank goodness for neckerchiefs to block some of the odor. Many vultures were feeding, but no hyenas. Perhaps the word hadn’t reached them.
Thank you for continued good reporting.

Wendy Hawkins

Thank you James. It is hilarious how the hyenas with distended bellies still had the cheek to chase the vultures 🙂 Amazing that there were no lions, or did they come in the dark of night?

Joanne Wadsworth

James, I can’t tell how much I was interested in your article and the accompanying excellent video! I felt as if I was actually sitting in the rover watching this all unfold before my eyes. The bush needs all it’s scavengers and watching your 24 hour cycle, via your video and images, demonstrated the shared dominance between these two. Just fascinating! Exceptional all around piece, James. I may need to watch and read a few more times!!

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