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.
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.
It 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Edited by Keri Harvey
As rangers, we encounter Africa’s most feared animals – known as the Big Five – on a daily basis. Game drives are all about experiencing wildlife from a vehicle. The excitement, fear, anxiety and respect exceed the expectations of guests, regardless of their country of origin – but this, in turn, is superseded by tracking one of the Big Five on foot. Saying it’s exciting is a huge understatement.
The first rule of the bush walk is never to run. This doesn’t sound like much, until reality strikes. I recently went on a bush walk with eager guests who wanted to experience wildlife at ground level. As a trail guide, nothing gives me more pleasure than to share this excitement with guests. We left Buffalo Camp just after breakfast, and took a short drive to where we would start our walk.
About 20 minutes into the drive, I saw very fresh tracks of one of the bush’s giants – a fully grown white rhino. We stopped to look, and after checking the wind direction we decided to follow these tracks.
I repeated the safety guidelines for the walk before we started following the rhino tracks. Walking through the savannah/woodland, the guests realised it was not all that easy, with many thorn trees and tiny pepper ticks to scratch and irritate the legs. After 20 minutes of tracking the giant animal, we found a fresh rhino midden. Everybody felt even more excited and anxious, and were determined to continue.
White rhinos are aggressive when they feel cornered, but they are relaxed when they have an escape route and don’t see or smell intruders. We proceeded cautiously and carefully, without speaking or stepping noisily. Suddenly, I signalled for everyone to stop, and whispered: “Sleeping rhino.” The massive animal was about 20 metres (60 feet) away from us, sleeping under a tree.
With the breeze in our favour, the animal didn’t smell us. We took plenty of photos of the majestic beast, until the wind shifted and the rhino smelled us. From total relaxation and sleep, he was instantly alert and on his feet in a split second. We immediately got up and circled around to have the wind back in our favour, and the animal settled down again.
We spent about 30 minutes appreciating the majesty and wonder of this enormous animal before deciding it was time to move on. As we left, the wind shifted again and the rhino was back on his feet and fully alert. Sometimes, the expressions on guests’ faces while on a bush walk remain in my memory forever. That day was one such time.
Rhino are very curious, and will advance upon intruders because their eyesight is extremely poor. They simply want to understand what the intruder is and whether it presents a threat. We stood up silently and backed away from the rhino before continuing on our bush walk – I believe you shouldn’t disturb wildlife, and should rather appreciate them and leave them as you found them.
Written by Joe van Rensburg, ranger at Buffalo Camp
We knew they were around. For a week or two, we’d seen their tracks on a couple of occasions, but at such a young age their mothers are extremely protective and like to keep their bouncing newborns secreted away in areas of cover. Rhino calves are something very special to see in the wild.
Now, between two and three months old, the little rhino calves are gaining confidence and becoming inquisitive – much like any other toddler. While still keeping a very close eye on their youngsters, their moms, too, are starting to let them explore more of their new world.
On game drives, we rangers always keep a good distance from young calves and any newborns in the bush. This allows them to comfortably habituate with our presence, rather than feel harassed or threatened by humans on a vehicle being near them.
With silent awe, I – along with my guests – watch as the curious young rhinos start edging away from the safety of their mother, and slowly move closer to our game viewing vehicle. Then suddenly the young ones realise how far they have ventured from mom, quickly bounce around and bound back to her for protection. It is a memorable sighting for everyone.
With the continued threat to South Africa’s rhino populations, I always try to impress upon my guests how fortunate we are to have any rhino sightings at all, and that I often fear that my future children may not be able to enjoy this privileged experience in the wild – unless some drastic changes occur.
In 2013, South Africa lost 1 004 rhinos through poaching, and by the end of May 2014 over 400 rhinos have already been killed for their horns. In the face of such alarming tragedy, it is particularly special to witness the miracle of two hopeful little rhinos curiously exploring and navigating the challenges of the first phase of their lives. With their continued drive to survive, and with the ongoing protection of their vigilant mothers and the countless people who fight on their behalf, maybe there is still some hope for the future of these prehistoric animals. Rhinos have walked the earth for over 60 million years.
Story by Kevin Samuels, ranger: Kapama River Lodge
Edited by Keri Harvey