Rumble in the Jungle
Corinne Kendall— 12 April 2010 — in East Africa Project Share
Large carcasses are scarce this time of year. With the tall grass, the herbivores have plenty to eat and the big cats and hyenas have a hard time catching their prey, who have freedom to roam wherever they please. The cheetahs seem to be the only ones having any great success, perhaps because they rely more on speed than stealth. There also aren’t a lot of animals dying this time of year, precisely because there is so much lush food and water to go around. There are still calves being born, some of whom won’t make it and the occasional diseased or injured animal that might keel over. Needless to say, the vultures have to work hard to find their food and when they do discover something, they work even harder to ensure they get a bit.
Yesterday we came across a large carcass – we of course followed the vultures to find it. The dead animal was covered in birds with only the black tufts of fur around the ankles exposed enough for me to identify the unfortunate individual as an impala. A few Tawny eagles, a pair of White-headed vultures, and a small squadron of Lappet-faced vultures lined the outer rim of feasting African white-backed vultures. From my studies, I imagine these early arrivers had each had a go at the carcass before the mass of small struggling white-backs took over. Perhaps the Tawny eagles had found it and enjoyed a piece of liver in the nearby tree after the Lappet-faced vultures had quickly opened up the animal. The White-headed vultures might have gotten a few bites from the limbs as the Lappets pulled away at the skin. Now these birds would have to wait – the African white-backed vultures had arrived. Like rugby players before a match, these relatively small vultures huddled together in a circle, shouldered wing to shouldered wing, crowding out their opponents. Unlike the rugby players, even the center of the circle was filled as new birds landed in the middle often stepping on their neighbors bloodied heads to get to the center of the carcass. In less than ten minutes, over hundred white-backed vultures had come and gone. In all the struggle only a few had eaten their fill, but those that were full now beared the weight of a huge crop, which sagged below their necks. As the number of white-backed vultures died off, the larger Lappet-faced vultures reclaimed dominance of the carcass fighting and jumping on the smaller vultures until they moved off. The Lappets now grappled with the tough bits of meat left behind – the ligaments on the legs, the head (minus the eyes of course which are usually first to go when the white-backs arrive, a sort of delicacy in the vulture world), and the skin. Hooded vultures and a Marabou stork gathered around grabbing whatever small pieces they could – a scrap of stomach lining or a vertebrae, which the Marabou storks can swallow whole, that had been ripped off in the fray. With the hoard of white-backed vultures gone, the other species tried to glean whatever small pieces they could, but with so little left none of them would leave with a full crop sagging, like some of the white-backs had. Amazingly no hyenas or jackals found the carcass. Perhaps because of the dense vegetation that surrounded it, which would have impeded our drive to see the birds had it not been near an old road. No this natural mortality, which never required the tooth and claw of a predator was the prize of the birds alone.
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