Cleaning up the carcass

Watching scavengers consume the remains of a rhino

Not long ago, one of our mature rhino bulls injured a young female rhino to such an extent that she died of her injuries the next day. It was a very sad event, more so because the poaching of rhino in South Africa for their horns is an ongoing and escalating problem, despite authorities’
best efforts. Sad as it is, this is not an uncommon occurrence – mature rhino bulls sometimes underestimate their strength and cause massive injuries to other younger and less aggressive individuals.

Bull rhino visits the carcass
The carcass was moved to a quiet spot on the reserve and our ecology team removed its horns to keep it from attracting unwanted attention. Since we seldom have entire rhino carcasses at out disposal on the reserve, I decided to put up a trail camera nearby to record any interesting interaction and to record the whole breakdown of the carcass. I was not disappointed, and I am delighted to share what I captured throughout the consumption stages.

Day 1
Vultures appears at carcassIt did not take the keen-eyed vultures long to realise that a feast was waiting. Within twenty minutes there were white-backed vultures perched all over the vicinity, making sure there were no predators around before digging in.

White-backed vultures are the most common in the area, but in the five days it took for the carcass to be cleaned up we were lucky enough to see four other species as well. It was interesting to see how late some vultures fed into the night.

Hyena appears at carcass


A Spotted Hyena made an appearance at nightfall, which was expected, but two unexpected visitors showed up in the night too – the bull that injured her and another young rhino.

Day 2

The vultures were there early and a tagged white-backed vulture also joined in on the feast – his yellow tags are clearly visible on the photo. These marker tags help researchers tracking vulture numbers and movements all over South Africa and into our neighbouring countries.

With the carcass still very much intact, it wasn’t strange for one of the giants of the vulture world to make an appearance: the lappet-faced vulture. It was nice to see that there are still a few around. A serious tug of war for scraps took place between an vulture and a black-backed jackal, with the jackal realising quickly that it wasn’t a battle he was likely to win. That evening was marked by not one but two spotted hyenas coming for dinner.


Day 3
This was by far the busiest day around the carcass. It was in an advanced state of decay and easily accessible for any scavengers who wanted an easy meal. Hooded vultures were present alongside the more common white-backed vultures and Cape griffins, and all of them tucked in gustily. Unfortunately, the lappet-faced vulture didn’t show up again.

In the evening, the carcass was once again visited by a single hyena – probably the same female that frequented the carcass the previous evenings as well.

Day 4White headed vulture
The carcass was still a hub of activity, but the number of vultures had decreased. I was delighted to find a white-headed vulture on some of the photos as they are among the rarer and endangered vultures.

With not much meat remaining, only a few hooded and white-backed vultures remained until sunset, and that night the same hyena arrived to dine alone on what she could find.

Day 5

This morning I found only three vultures hanging around the leftovers, and I got the feeling that it was all over. I’ve decided to leave to camera for another 24 hours, but I am not getting my hopes high for much more activity. What is left is pretty much dead skin stretched across an empty skeleton, and except for a couple of smaller scavengers who may come to scatter the bones, the bulk of the work is done.

Watching the gradual breakdown of such a large animal has made me realise again what a massively important part scavengers, and especially vultures, play in the natural environment. By getting rid of decaying meat they ensure that there is no spread of diseases and by cleaning up in and around dead carcasses they play a vital role in keeping the environment healthy. It was sad to see only one lappet-faced and one white-headed vulture come around, as I remember a time not too long ago where you would find at least three or four of these endangered species of around a carcass. Due to ongoing conservation efforts by a myriad of wildlife organisations and safe areas like Kapama Game Reserve, I am hopeful that we can get these vulture numbers to steadily increase over time.

It was indeed sad to lose a rhino, but very interesting to witness what goes on after such an event. Luckily in this case it died of natural causes – a privilege fewer and fewer rhinos will get because of man’s arrogance, ignorance, and insatiable greediness.

Written by: Johan Esterhuizen
Kapama Souther Camp

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