Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A scavenging saga

Who doesn’t like freebies? As we've said, it's a pretty good strategy to get a meal without having to expend any energy hunting or waste any time ambushing. Therefore, many carnivores in the Mara scavenge at least some of the time, and there’s a lot of competition for free meals out here. This morning, we watched a fascinating drama unfold between several scavengers.

We happened upon a freshly-dead male impala that must have succumbed to starvation or disease. A lucky black-blacked jackal had been among the first to find the carcass, and it was hungrily feasting on the impala’s hindquarters when we arrived.

Soon, two species of vulture (White-backed and Rüppell’s Griffon) began to arrive from all directions, and within minutes, over 40 vultures had descended upon the impala. The jackal was clearly outnumbered and was driven away after just a few minutes of feeding. The frenzied vultures mobbed the carcass immediately, fighting like crazy for access to the meat.

There’s a specific hierarchy among vulture species, and here in the Mara, the Lappet-faced Vulture is king. With its large body, short muscular neck, and strong bill, this vulture can dominate the other species. When two of these bullies arrived on the scene, they swooped down and attacked the other vultures, who quickly gave way. The carcass had changed hands again, and the Lappet-faced were now in control.

But the saga wasn’t over yet. Three lions came trotting over the hill towards us, probably attracted by the vultures’ hysterical vocalizations. The largest lioness strode confidently to the carcass, and the vultures scattered. She began to drag the impala away and finally settled down in the tall grass about 80 meters away, in sole possession of the carcass. She ate quietly as the jackal, the vultures, and the two other lions watched from a distance.

What’s the moral of the story? Take whatever you can out here, but eat fast and stay vigilant. That carcass may seem like an easy meal, but there are formidable scavengers everywhere, thinking the very same thing about that very same carcass.

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