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One Impala, Many Mouths

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One Impala, Many Mouths

A recent kill by a cheetah at Nkorho allowed us to watch as the hierarchy of nature unfolded.  The cheetah took down a young impala, dragged it out into the open a bit, and feasted as he kept his wary eyes on the horizon for larger cats or hyenas. A couple of jackals caught the scent and circled with eyes glued to the carcass, but didn't dare take on the wrath of the cat.


The cheetah eventually had his fill and left the rest for the scavengers.  The jackals moved right in and began to pull the remaining meat off the bones. They too kept a look out for animals that could chase them off and keep them from their meal.  Eventually they had eaten what they could get off the bones and they wandered off, giving way to a most fascinating group of scavengers...the vultures. 

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of vultures don’t watch for the typical carcass that has been rotting for days, a myth that most of us have come to believe.  They actually prefer fresh meat and will hone in on the recently killed prey...waiting their turn. Food seems to be their whole life, as they will eat until their crop is full, but if another source of food is found they will continue to gorge their crop.  Vultures are classified as obligate scavengers, meaning they are unable to hunt or kill their own food. The Palmnut vulture is an exception, as he dines on the fruit of oily palm trees and catches fish, crabs and other small marine life.

There are sixteen different species of vultures, with eleven found in Africa.  Flight and the amazingly strong beak are part of what make the vultures so extraordinary.  The Ruppell’s Griffon vulture is the highest flying bird on record, with a written record of 11,700 metres over Western Africa. The African species of vultures are descendants of hawks. Over time they evolved into specialized scavengers with no need to use their energy to hunt for themselves.  Vultures are often seen gliding high in the air where they have found the warmer thermal air that rises from the earths surface They glide in circles expending only the necessary energy to take them back to the top of the thermal air, starting their circular glide once again.

In the attached video, you will notice that the vultures are always aware of each other, with different species having a higher seniority than others.  One familiar species in Africa is the Cape Griffon, with large bodies and the vulture trait of long featherless necks, and heads that look too small for their body. Three other Griffon’s inhabit Africa, the Eurasian, Ruppell’s, and White Backed.  Perhaps the most prevalent in South Africa is the massive Lappet-faced Vulture. The White-headed is the most colorful, and finally the less typical Hooded Vulture, is a much more timid vulture with a slender beak, and sits behind the main feeding frenzy as he waits for all the others to leave allowing him to pick at the last of the meat. 

As with most vultures, you will see in the video the characteristic that gives them the label of “ugly”.  Those nearly featherless necks and heads give them the appearance of being made from leftover parts and pieces, yet their outward looks serve a very purposeful duty.  When a vulture feeds, he will go for the innermost of the carcass first, the organs and intestines, as they are rich in beneficial nutrients. This requires him to delve head first into the carcass, competing with other vultures as well. His long, slender neck and small head works well, helping him to reach further inside the carcass.  The lack of feathers on the neck and head works perfectly for the vulture, allowing less accumulation of matted blood or meat which in itself would create the perfect place for bacteria to grow. Unlike the lion that can lick the remains of a hunt of its fur, the vulture can only preen what he can reach, thus nature has evolved to take care of the unreachable parts, the head and neck.
The bones of the carcass will probably be carried off by hyenas that will eat the last bit of cartilage or other digestible parts off the bones. And so the single impala has fed not only the cheetah, but jackals, vultures and possibly others that snuck in during the night. Bugs will move in for the tiny parts and pieces that are left behind, and the grass that was flattened will flourish once again, hiding any sign that so many lives benefited from one fallen impala.

And so the cycle of life will start again when the next big cat takes down an animal of prey.  Each has its purpose, and each gives life to another when it dies. Nature is amazing and would probably suffer less if man would get out of the way. Even the vultures face a difficult time, as their habitat is being destroyed when man strips their land of trees. Some are killed when they eat the carcass of animals that were poisoned by farmers. And still more are killed and parts of their bodies eaten, with hopes of bringing luck to the diner. Power lines have taken them out of the skies as well, leaving them injured and on the ground unable to defend themselves.

Perhaps the next time you see a vulture soaring in the air, or trying to snag that dead squirrel off the road, you will pause and remember that even though they aren’t the most beautiful in the world of birds, they definitely have their place in the circle of life.