Lions, hyenas, and dogs, oh my
Corinne Kendall— 1 March 2010 — in East Africa Project Share
The sky is speaking. It grumbles and rumbles and crackles, squealing with rage like a toddler unable to get its way. Then finally it breaks like the thunder that accompanies it, the rain crashed to earth and splatters the floor. Luckily, I am done for the day. For some reason, it has been raining mainly in the afternoons. This is good news for me since the rain virtually shuts down vulture activity. As is I have time for my carcass experiments and transects in the morning and seem to get done just as the sky is threatening to fall. It is a hard rain and I sit outside under canvas surrounded by the droplets. Within seconds pools of mud form and I can only wonder what the roads will be like tomorrow. Oh my God, it is hailing!! I can’t believe it. At first, it looked like little frogs were jumping around magically erupting from the soil (which they are, one just joined me under the tent), but that was actually hail. I just got up and grabbed a piece to confirm and indeed, ice just fell from the sky in Africa. Be amazed! But now it is just raining again.
So back to the wildlife. The Mara is filled with carnivores – hungry carnivores. To the extent that I am actually seeing changes in the carcass experiments. I put out small pieces of meat every morning (just a head, organs, and leg) to look at differences in foraging behavior between vulture species depending on the habitat. Last summer I had the occasional lions, jackals, and hyena, even a feral dog or two, but this season every carcass (and I have done three so far) has been finished off by a greedy mammalian scavenger. My first carcass worked like clockwork – Bateleur eagle finds the carcass, followed by a Tawny eagle who steals the carcass, followed by a variety of vultures – in this particular case the African white-backed vulture and some Hooded vultures, then before I know it comes a jackal, which isn’t too surprising, but the jackal is followed by not one but two starving lions. One is limping. So her pride mate makes it to the meat first and quickly devours the head. Later in the day, I follow some Lappet-faced vultures to another kill, which turned out to be a baby gazelle. I wasn’t the only one that followed – again the carcass was over-run by a jackal and soon the limping lion was racing her way in too. She grabbed a leg and growling at the lioness behind her, chomped away. After the lions have finished off what little remained, a hyena dropped by sullenly looking for a few tidbits, but the lions had taken care of that.
The next day we had a long wait for the birds, but they finally arrived and in number. We had 2 Tawny eagles, 3 Lappet-faced vultures, 21 African white-backed vultures, a handsome male White-headed vulture, and last but not least a tiny Hooded vulture, with beautiful blue-eyes. I had just started to take in all the vulture action, when the mammals crashed the party. A jackal raced in stealing a piece from the Lappet-faced vultures, then a hyena dropped by and grabbed the head. Most surprisingly of all, a fluffy Bengi-looking dog ran up and searched for a piece. He hung around for a while, but didn’t get much and was soon barking at the hyena. The hyena didn’t seem scared in the least and walked towards the dog in protest. Soon the dog was racing towards us sticking close to the car as it looked over its shoulder at the unfamiliar beast.
This morning’s carcass was short a sweet. Just as it was getting warm enough for the birds, four jackals crept in and each grabbed its own piece (the goat leg nearly bigger than its carrier) and ran off. So much for vulture behavioral observations! We made a day of it by scoping out our next area to place a carcass. This meant a drive through the nearby community area of Siana. The day was filled with naked bathing children, colorfully clad Masai women asking for a ride to the market (they seemed very confused that we didn’t even really know where we were going just looking we explained. Genuinely we are just looking around for a few good carcass placement spots). Then we found the strangest thing of all. Right on the road was a Leopard tortoise – small and adorable. I hoped out of the car to pick him up and move him to safety. He didn’t seem to find. Then I noticed something odd. The tortoise was covered in ticks, but not on his legs or neck as one might expect – on his shell! There they were five huge striped yellow ticks camouflaging into the tortoise’s carapace. My immediate reaction (having many years of zoo and wildlife clinic work experience, which is not always best suited for the bush) was to pull off the ticks. One by one, I ripped them from the shell, expecting to find some huge gapping wound underneath. Instead beneath each tick was a small pinprick hole – about the size of the tick’s mouthparts – drilled delicately into the shell. Did the ticks really eat their way through? I stopped myself before pulling off the last one to take a quick photo of the tick on shell action. Then as I pulled off the remaining tick, the tortoise thanked me for my troubles by urinating all over my hand. I guess enough was enough. I set him down and he walked away.
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