Those who saw yesterday’s Week in Pictures would have seen the second and third photos of a whole lot of vultures feeding on an elephant carcass.
The elephant was a young one – by no means a 6-ton bull – yet a carcass of that size would still take a while to be fully consumed. At least one would have thought. I know when a large buffalo is taken down by a pride of lions, they will sometimes take days to finish it off. Of course this is also dependent on the size of the pride. But with this elephant, I imagined we were in for a good four or five days of exciting viewing. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Within 36 hours there was barely a scrap left on the carcass, and only bones betrayed the fact that an elephant had even died there in the first place. We only arrived on the scene the morning after the elephant had died, which had given the local hyena population time to start feeding, but the efficiency with which Londolozi’s primary scavengers – namely hyenas and vultures – polished off that carcass was impressive.
We’ll run through it image by image:
On the first morning we arrived, there was a single hyena prowling around about 100 metres from the carcass. Moving closer to the dead elephant itself, and seeing how the other hyenas (there are thirteen in this picture if one looks closely), we soon realised that the lone individual must have been an interloper from another clan. It was subsequently chased off by a foray from the feeding clan. The Hyenas here had already polished off a significant portion of the elephant, and this was only after night one.
Despite all essentially competing for the same food source, hyenas are far less aggressive than lions on a kill, although when one individual seems to have grabbed a choice morsel, there will sometimes be an altercation over it, as can be seen here by the lunging jaws of the one in the middle.
As the sun came up in the chilly dawn, two of the clan stood side by side watching the interloper move past in the distance. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that hyenas are beautiful (feel free to shout me down on that one), but in the golden light just after sunrise, there was certainly something a lot more captivating about them.
That same afternoon, the local clan had either moved off to sleep or back to their den sites, their bellies full of elephant meat, and it was the turn of the local vulture population to feed. There were probably upwards of 200 of them; white-backed, hooded, lappet-faced, white headed and even a Cape Vulture. We had seen the hyenas wolfing down great chunks of elephant meat, but the vultures’ assault was more a mass pecking of smaller bits, which was almost as efficient, if not more so, at getting rid of every last morsel.
A slow shutter speed accentuates the carnage around the carcass as the light began to fail.
The first hyena returning to the elephant that evening came running in, scattering the vultures into flight. One can see how little meat is left on the bones here, and this was only about 10 hours after watching the hyenas feeding that morning.
When the first hyenas were seen feeding, it was predicted that at some point the local lion population – most likely in the form of the Birmingham coalition and Ntsevu pride – would eventually discover the carcass. However, by the time they did so it appears as though it was to late; they were found first thing in the morning moving away from the scene with empty bellies. It seems that too little meat was left to interest them, and they simply walked away.
The next evening. The skull and tusks and an empty ribcage were the only reminders that an elephant had perished here. This photo was taken less than 36 hours of the first one in the post. Most of the removable bones had been carried off by individual hyenas, although a few members of the local clan still lingered to make the most of the offering. The individual pictured was gnawing on the ball joint of a femur.
As the weeks and month pass, the elephant bones will bleach in the sun. The fibres still clinging to the ribs will be removed, and even some of the remaining ribs themselves will be cracked off by hungry hyenas. The flattened grass – now little more than a dustbowl littered with feathers – where 200 vultures squabbled and squawked will regrow when the rains come, and in ten years time, a new Londolozi ranger may well be out on foot with a senior tracker, and happen to come across the elephant skull.
He or she may well be able to picture the scene as the tracker may describe it. And although the wildlife viewing over the 36 hours that there was meat on the carcass was simply spectacular, the scavengers themselves were simply fulfilling the roles that nature designed them to perform. They may not be the most glamorous creatures of the African bush, but they play just an important part out here as any other, and if one can only get past the misconceptions of hyenas and vultures as dirty and lowly creatures, one can begin to truly appreciate how intricate a web nature has weaved for herself, and be in awe of it.