Scavengers often get a bad rep – portrayed as conniving, thieving, greedy creatures that feast on the misfortune of other animals. However, many of the scavengers in Africa are keystone species crucial to their environment.
They do the essential work of cleaning up the savannah, preventing the build-up of rotting bodies on the grassland. This “clean up” is especially important during the season of the great wildebeest migration, as thousands of grazers die along the way. Without the scavengers of the savannah, rotting carcasses would spread bacteria and other pathogens to wild animals, livestock and humans.
A Typical Scene of Scavengers Around a Carcass
The marabou stork looked up from the feast in front of it. With its bald head, spotted neck, and legs crusted with its own feces, it isn’t the most celebrated of creatures. Neither are the other animals whose company it keeps.
Around the carcass of the gnu, a fresh lion kill made in the pre-dawn hours, a stunning variety of African scavengers have gathered. At the top of the food chain are the hyenas, who themselves have their hierarchy.
Waiting on the outer ring are the leatherback vultures, jostling out the marabou stork, who stands near the prize but is prevented from dipping into it by the hyenas. Instead, it waits for bits to fly off during the frenzy and catches them as they come.
The only creatures which can be said to have some charm are the petite black-backed jackals, who hunt as a mating pair. Low in stature, crowded out by the hyenas and overshadowed by the birds, they circle the carcass opportunistically, hoping for their moment to drive in and grab a piece.
Evidence of a Healthy Ecosystem
We can easily witness such a scene on the plains of the Masai Mara. Often, it is more likely we see the result of a hunt, rather than the hunt itself. After all, hunts happen in a flash, as most predators on the African savannah rely on surprise rather than endurance to snag prey. Most kills take place within a matter of minutes.
However, consumption of the entire carcass by both predators and scavengers do not take a long time either. Nature is surprisingly efficient, attending to the cycle of life. Out on the Masai Mara, we watched how an assortment of scavengers in Africa stripped down a carcass in under an hour.
Hierarchy of Scavengers in Africa
Observing scavengers consume a carcass completely was a fascinating activity. It revealed how each animal at the banquet table has its niche. It also showed how, in nature, there is always order among chaos.
Hyenas are at the top of the food chain when it comes to consuming fallen prey animals. If there are hyenas in the area of a carcass, you can bet they will be the first ones there. Of the scavengers on the Masai Mara, they are the biggest, meanest, and most aggressive. They are also one of the most important species on the savannah and the great recycle bins of the African grassland.
Their jaws can crunch through bone, which their stomach acids are capable of digesting. We can see evidence of this in their poo – when it’s fresh, it is green, the colour of their digestive juices. Once the excrement dries, it turns white, the result of the high calcium content in their diet due to consuming bone.
After the hyenas usually come the lappet-face vultures, one of the longest winged vultures on the African savannah. Quite often, the vultures get to a carcass before the hyenas. When this happens, it’s usually up to the lappet-faced vulture to tear upon the skin of the dead animal. Only then can the other scavenging birds get to the meat.
Then, there are the Marabou storks. These creatures usually wait on the fringes of the frenzy as the hyenas squabble among themselves and tear apart bone and flesh. While the chaos is ongoing, bits of meat often fly out onto the perimeter of the buffet. The Marabou stork stands in wait on the outer ring, snatching up these scraps as they fly towards them.
Jackals are some of the most opportunistic African scavengers. These animals wait at a distance while the hyenas feed, as entering the tightly packed circle of hyenas can mean injury or death. These animals are incredibly cunning and sly and can take the smallest opportunity to go in for a piece. Usually, they wait till the feeding frenzy has abated, and the tightly packed hyenas start to dissipate.
Scavengers who Are Also Opportunistic Hunters
Scavengers often get a bad rep as the thieves of the African savannah. Television shows often feature hyenas “stealing” the kill from a lion or cheetah. Such a scene paints an unfair portrait of the hyena, as most predators will attempt to steal a kill from another animal, given a chance. After all, it is easier to poach a carcass that is already dead than to hunt one down yourself, using up your energy stores and risking injury from a well-placed kick.
The Hyena, the Hunter
Recent research has shown that most of the prey they consume is the result of their hunting efforts. Hyenas can run up to 50 kilometres per hour and maintain the chase for up to 24 kilometres. Furthermore, their clans can get pretty large – the one we observed had members numbering up to 40. With speed, stamina and numbers on their side, they beat the lion when it comes to the rate of successful kills. One-third of hyena hunts are successful, as opposed to one-forth for lions.
The Sneaky Killer – Africa’s Black-Backed Jackal
In the Masai Mara, we were astonished to see a pair of black-backed jackals suddenly deciding to hunt the baby of an unsuspecting impala. The impalas and the jackals were near each other, with the jackals tending to their one young cub. The impala was alert but did not think the jackals posed much danger. However, all that changed in the blink of an eye. Within thirty seconds, the jackals had successfully hunted the impala’s baby.
Jackals are intelligent creatures, and they can get quite creative when it comes to killing prey. A single lone jackal has been observed biting the testicles of a male impala until he literally keeled over and died.
Importance of Scavengers in Africa’s Ecosystem
Scavengers are a vital part of the food web on the African savannah. This importance is especially true of hyenas and vultures. These animals have incredible immune systems that prevent them from getting sick when they consume pathogens that are in carcasses. If dead bodies on the savannah are not consumed by nature’s primary clean up crew, other less suitable animals will take the role. In India, an accidental poisoning of a large number of vultures by the anti-inflammatory medication, diclofenac, resulted in the explosion of feral dog populations which ended up spreading rabies and costing the country millions of dollars in healthcare.
Threats to Africa’s Scavengers
Scavengers in Africa might have excellent immune systems against bacteria and natural pathogens. However, they are helpless against modern chemicals. Human-wildlife conflict is the main culprit for the wide-scale deaths of hyenas, vultures, and other carnivores that feed on dead livestock. As mentioned, medication has killed countless vultures in India. Fortunately, after this catastrophe, African governments banned diclofenac in veterinary products on the entire continent. However, there may be other medications with adverse long term effects on African scavengers we do not know about.
The biggest threat to the scavengers in Africa is poisoning through the usage of bait. Two groups are responsible for this, livestock farmers and poachers. Livestock farmers consider animals like lion, leopard and hyena pests and seek to kill them with the use of poisoned bait. In this scenario, the farmer poisons a carcass and waits for a predator to eat the poisoned meat, which will weaken, and eventually kill them. Scavengers will, in turn, eat both the body of the poisoned predator and the poisoned carcass as well. This threat is, therefore, a double whammy to scavenger populations in Africa.
Poachers also use this technique to kill vultures en-mass as the birds are used by rangers to discover the dead bodies of elephants or rhinos. Poachers often have to leave their dead elephants out in the open for a few days to rot, before they can remove their tusks from their faces. In this time, their “prize” is vulnerable to exposure by vultures.
The Need for Awareness
Although the scavengers in Africa play such a vital role in the well-being of the ecosystem, they often fall by the wayside when it comes to conservation efforts. This is a great mistake as these scavengers compete with disease vectors like blowfly, rats and feral dogs for the same food source. By “getting there first”, they prevent epidemics that can have devastating consequences.
FAQs for Scavengers in Africa
Some common scavengers in Africa are the hyena, several species of vultures, jackal, marabou stork.
Scavengers are keystone species. They are able to eat rotting meat, keeping the African savannahs clean of dead animals. Furthermore, they are less susceptible to disease – a hyena can eat diseased carrion and it will not get sick, thus it will be less likely to transmit disease.
Some animals that are considered scavengers are hunters. Jackals are opportunistic hunters – they do not plan to hunt, but if the opportunity presents itself, they will seize the moment and hunt prey. Hyenas on the other hand hunt actively and most of their food comes from their own hunting. It is a misconception that hyenas only eat what they can steal or scavenge.