The bushveld clean up crew.

“For a scavenger, patience is the key to the pantry.” Delia Owens, Cry of the Kalahari Visitors to our local reserves are often focused on the predators, there are those animals without which the plains would be littered with rotting carcasses and piles of dung that were left behind as a result of natural causes or successful hunts.





“I love animals, but I can’t stand the behaviour of hyenas. They live off of others’ efforts.” Mitta Xinindlu.




It seems that thanks to Disney, Hyenas have a bad reputation. If you consider that for many international guests the only knowledge that they have of these apex predators is what the 3 cringing individuals in the Lion King portray. But the traits that Shenzi, Banzai and Crazy Ed portray could not be further from the truth. Hyenas, although seen as scavengers will take down prey if given the opportunity.




Hyena can be belligerent at a kill and will often chase lions away to enjoy a ‘free’ meal. However, only the brown hyena and the striped hyena are primarily scavengers. This female giraffe was killed by a single lion that seemed to be really good at keeping all the scavengers at bay!




Spotted hyenas are highly efficient predators, killing 95% of the food that they consume.

In this scenario, the leopard had made the kill the day before and returned to the remains of the carcass only to find that this Spotted Hyena had arrived there first. The leopard, although a large male figured that discretion was the better part of valour and lay and waited until the hyena had helped itself to a leg and moved off with its prize. (The remains of the carcass can be seen in the lower branches of the tree on the left)




At around 1,100psi, Spotted Hyenas have an impressive bite force that easily outstrips that of any other major African predator. By comparison, a lion comes in at 650psi and a leopard 300psi. While a human is a measly 162psi! (BTW, the Jaguar weighs in at 1500psi and a tiger at 1050psi)




With a full tummy, hyenas will often spend time cooling off in the water.




And what of the Vultures? They too have their pecking (pun intended) order as the various species have a specific role to play in how they tackle the remains of a carcass.

Vultures play a vital role in the clean-up of the environments in which they live. Often referred to as ‘Nature’s Clean-Up Crew’, their scavenging ways help to prevent the spread of diseases, such as rabies and tuberculosis through clearing away carcasses. What would happen if vultures became extinct? According to National Geographic, these endangered scavengers are crucial because “without vultures, reeking carcasses would likely linger longer, insect populations would boom, and diseases would spread – to people, livestock, and other wild animals”.




The etiquette at a carcass is determined by the formidability of their beaks, with the Lappet-faced Vulture first in line.




White-backed Vultures are next in line followed by White-headed Vultures who don’t enjoy jostling for food and would rather wait patiently until they can pick off a piece of meat and walk off to eat in peace. And finally, after all of the other vultures have feasted, the critically endangered Hooded Vultures, the smallest and least vigorous of the species will carefully dig out the more tender portions. Their beaks enable them to remove tiny bits of flesh that the others are unable to reach.




Vultures play an essential role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. These misunderstood birds fly in from huge distances to pick decaying carcasses clean, thereby helping to prevent disease outbreaks. A world without vultures would be a foul-smelling place filled with disease and carcasses across our landscape.




Jackals on the other hand are like the hitmen of the bush…they will dart in and grab if given the opportunity and they have been known to harass predators far larger than themselves to obtain a ‘free’ meal, ganging up on a lion pride to distract while they steal. And all this at their peril for predators become fiercely jealous of carcasses and will guard them conscientiously.

Jackals are nocturnal, omnivorous scavengers. With their long legs and curved canine teeth, they are well adapted for hunting. Jackals, normally hunt alone or in pairs but they will gather in larger groups to scavenge at a carcass or to hunt larger prey.




And then there is the dung…a crappy job, but someone has to do it. And that very specific job falls to the almost 800 species found in South Africa. They seem to have a nose for fresh dung and will descend on it in swarms while it is still warm. There are a variety of species in this genre. Some roll dung into round balls and those are used as a food source or breeding chambers. There are tunnelers, who do not roll but bury the dung wherever they find it. And then there are the dwellers, who do nothing except live in the dung! All of them are important for the breakdown and recycling of dung into the soil, enabling the nutrients to cycle through the ecosystem.




Sometimes the scavengers are scavenged!




The choice is in the hands of those who care for our parks and reserves. We can have a vista that is littered with rotting carcasses or we can have a clean, disease-free ecosystem, and we all know who we have to thank for the latter.




Now, if only we could get them the clean up the urban areas as well…






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