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The Ultimate Carrion Cleaners

19 Sep 2020 | By Author Thornybush | Wildlife

When a couple of the Thornybush guides spotted a huge swirl of vultures descending into the bush veld, they knew they were onto something. After discovering a culinary feast taking place on an elephant carcass, they realised the next few days would produce some great game viewing.

When the young adult male elephant carcass was first located, it had already been fed on quite extensively, so it was hard to determine the exact cause of death. However, through a bit of investigation it was unanimously agreed upon that this animal’s demise was definitely due to natural causes. 

Hyena clans move in

Initially there was a fairly large clan of hyena dominating the carcass, only allowing the odd vultures to come in and feed. But the noise and activity around the area quickly drew the attention of a rival clan and they too decided to join the feast. 

These two opposing clans fought viciously and continuously over the elephant remains, until they all settled down, reaching some sort of understanding. It appeared to be a case of each for themselves, which is fairly typical! 

Hyena play a vital role as scavengers, although they are also extremely proficient hunters. After a carcass has been stripped of the large chunks of flesh the hyena will efficiently start crushing the bones. These rather ugly, but unbelievably interesting animals act as nature’s recyclers, cleaning up all the debris and leftovers from the site of a kill.

Vultures are next 

Once the hyenas had gorged themselves to a point of exploding it was the vultures turn to move in. There must have been over 200 of these scavengers in total: white backed vultures, Cape vultures and even a rare hooded vulture was seen at the site. 

Vultures are far more particular feeders than the hyena, as well as being more efficient and systematic. 

Vultures feed exclusively on dead animals, effectively removing pathogens and toxins from the environment before the carrion can completely decay. The high level of acidity in their stomach means they destroy any harmful substances, and also breakdown all the rotting matter. 

This scavenging activity plays a critical role in the stability of our eco system by removing dead carcasses from our environment. 

So what is left?

Not much! 

After three days there are only a few pieces of vertebrae left and all the scavengers have moved on, in search of the next carrion feast. It is not often that we are lucky enough to find this kind of fascinating, long lasting activity around a carcass of this magnitude, but it is these unexpected surprises that keep us going on safari. Maybe you could just get that lucky break next time you are with us…