After following the tracks of the Mhangeni pride zigzag back and forth in the open grasslands of the south-western part of the reserve for most of the morning, we were finally rewarded when expert tracker, Jerry Hambana, called me on the radio and informed me that he had found the pride on foot. It hadn’t been the easiest of track-and-finds so when we drove up to find three of the females hunched over the last remains of a wildebeest kill I was excited that our work had paid off.
One of the females in particular was dominating the carcass, growling deeply and even swiping at the other two lionesses when they came too close, which provided an interesting insight into the dynamics of a lion pride when feeding.
By this time the sun had climbed its way quite high on its arc across the sky and the temperature was hot and still rising. With all but scraps of the wildebeest gone, the pride moved off seeking much needed shade. We hadn’t been with the lions for long so usually I would have followed them to potentially see them grooming one another and then settle down for the day, but within seconds of the last lioness padding away a shadow swept in front of us. I looked up to see a juvenile Bateleur swooping down. Within a minute the sky overhead was dotted with vultures as they dropped their altitude to land and finish off the carcass. It was a real spectacle to watch these large birds land right next to us (quite ungraciously I might add) and to hear the wind whistling through their feathers as they banked sharply above us. Without the usual noise and fuss around a large carcass, a combination of White-backed and Hooded Vultures devoured the scraps strewn around the area so efficiently. We watched quietly as their crops filled and the white of the bones started to show.
An inquisitive or seemingly annoyed lioness came back to the carcass causing the vultures to leap into the air making a racket as they squawked and flapped their wings frantically to take off. Seeing that there was nothing left, the lioness turned back to the pride. We looked on at the clean skeleton lying in front of us. Apart from the bare bones, horns and a few pieces of fur and skin, everything had been eaten. This made me think of the microscopic world and how soon, even the meagre leftovers would be consumed. Maggots would pick the bones and horn moths (Ceratophaga vastella) would breakdown the keratin of the wildebeest’s horns returning anything exposed back into the earth through their excrement. And when all that is left are bones – giraffe, tortoises or hyenas will chew on them to supplement their diet with calcium.
It was amazing to think that perhaps not even twelve hours before we had witnessed this awesome sighting, the wildebeest had been alive. Now it had provided for and was still going to provide for a whole array of different species for some time to come. By just witnessing a part of the continuous flow of energy in the nutrient cycle it was clear to me how resourceful nature is in that everything is utilised and nothing goes to waste.