Okay, call me crazy, but I really love scavengers. These consumers of death are truly the unsung heroes of the world. Without their tireless efforts to clean up the carrion that amasses in a landscape, an ecosystem would quickly become overridden with disease, not to mention horrible smells. But they thrive on death and rotting meat – two things that make most people’s toes curl. It’s certainly not the most glamorous ecological niche to fill, but we should all be thankful that they do.
Scavengers come in many different forms, from wriggling maggots to thick-necked hyenas. My personal favorites are the vultures though. They’re surprisingly regal with their broad wings and slow, soaring flight. On first glance, the only real hint of their macabre lifestyle is their wrinkly, featherless heads – perfectly designed for easy cleaning after going shoulder deep into a ribcage.
When you’re out on a game drive, the sight of circling vultures always elicits excitement. They act like a long distance beacon, alerting the guides to the location of a new kill. Predators on a kill is a quintessential safari sighting, but there’s still no guarantee that you’ll get to see it. Using vultures as a biological indicator is a classic trick of any safari guide – it’s using animal behavior to read the landscape and maximize their guests’ experience.
While enjoying an early morning coffee break in the Mashatu Game Reserve, we spotted a few vultures circling upward, gliding on the rising air thermals. They were a ways off, at least a mile, so we hurriedly finished our coffee before setting off in hopes of seeing some predator action. As we bounced across the rocky grasslands, the number of circling vultures quintupled.
“Must be a big kill!” our guide said excitedly. No matter how many days they’ve spent exploring the same lands, I’ve never met a guide who didn’t greet each game drive with the same enthusiasm as their first day on the job. The old adage goes ‘if you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life’. No one embodies this more so than safari guides.
As we approached the site of the kill, it wasn’t a pride of lions or a lone leopard that greeted us, but instead the biggest flock of vultures any of us had ever seen. Dozens upon dozens of them crowded around a kudu carcass, fighting for a prime spot along its flanks. The only reason we could even tell it was a kudu was by the distinctive spiraled horn sticking up from the tangle of wings.
Despite the fact that most of them were white-backed, the party only got started because of the massive lappet-faced vulture at the center of the pack. White-backed vultures aren’t strong enough to break through the tough outer skin of a mammal, so they rely on the larger, stronger lappet-faced vultures to rip open the hide. Once opened, it’s a complete free for all.
The scene was the definition of chaos, with vultures tunneling under each other’s wings, or dropping in from above, talons first. They jumped on each other’s backs, vying for a better position, and defended their spots by fencing each other out with their powerful wings. The tensions were definitely running high.
You could tell which ones had fed by the sheen of thick, red blood covering their heads. As they skirmished with each other, the blood smeared across their wings and chests, the very epitome of war paint. A lone vulture perched on top of the kudu horn, waiting for the perfect moment to dive in, but his window was lost when another lappet-faced swooped in. In the land of vultures, size matters.
“This kudu was not killed by a predator. It was more likely disease,” mused our guide.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Well, we arrived right at the start of the feeding frenzy, but the body was still whole. If predators had fed, there would be less left,” he explained.
“There is also another young male kudu watching just back there,” he said, pointing up the hill next to us. “They probably stayed together until this one died from the disease,” he said, nodding his head at the remains of the kudu.
It was a rather dark thought – watching your friend get consumed. But such is nature. Without these vultures swooping in to immediately clean up the mess, the disease that killed the young kudu could have spread throughout the rest of the population, causing the ecosystem to fall out of balance. Unfortunately, vulture populations across the globe are in decline. Their unsavory lifestyle leaves their reputations a bit lacking in our hearts. They feed on meat that has been intentionally poisoned, or tainted from lead bullets. If we don’t act soon to conserve them, our planet will be in serious trouble. The entire world depends on the good, if somewhat grisly, deeds that scavengers perform every day. Three big cheers for the vultures.