In the morning sun, reflecting the soft light of shinning dew covered grass, an elephant cow and her tiny calf block our way.
She was however starring in the opposite direction, the wind is kind to us, bringing her scent to us, and then throwing our scent back into the woodland.
Thomas whispers “Drop back seven paces…seven….before she gets our scent and rushes at us….quietly now…lets go “ Without much sound, we back away, there is no movement of her frame, no flapping of ears, lifting of trunk or heaving chest.
The baggy skin hangs loosely over her massive body. Her calf leans trusting against its mother’s protective right leg.
We reverse into the green gloom of the woodland, I take a last peek at her, she remains standing still, awaiting. I concluded she was starring at her herd, which was not far away.
Our footsteps in the soft sand of the game tracks make no sound. A robin chat begun to sing.
Then a pair of Tropical boubou’s called to each other in their haunting belling calls. The unmistaken splendid liquid notes of a Nicator rose from a line of entangled shurbs.
It was a Palm thrush’s explosive song that seemed to launch an avalanche of other bird songs – barbets, chats, weavers, parrots, doves, starlings and hoopoes all raised their voices in unison as if to awaken the dawn.
In the sky above raptors are patrolling, drifting silhouettes of hooded and white- backed vultures.
Tawny eagles, martial eagles, African hawk eagles all shared in the vultures, aerial vigil patrols, driven to the skies by the demanding pangs of hunger.
A lone Bateleur, seemed unconcerned about the worries of the other raptors. It sailed on its outstretched wings, rocking to the rhythm of the wind – adjusting without a fuss to the shift and bumps of the wind with accurate precision.
However as we skirt on the edge of a shrubby island amid a sea of grass, our eyes see vultures beginning to plummet from the sky, their tattered looking appearance gave them a resemblance of disabled aircraft shot up in an aerial dog fight, hurtling to the ground.
At the rate that the vultures were falling from the sky, it’s obvious they have located a kill…we hurry towards the scene.
Could be lion kill, poachers butchering a carcass or just an animal that has died naturally.
Breaking into a run at first, we slow to a trot then a stalk as we neared the scene. There is the sound of large wings flogging the air, giving off a loud dullish thud.
It’s a massive Lappet-faced vulture, largest of the tribes of African savannah dwelling vultures, lifted off the ground. As we emerge, we disturbed hordes of vultures – they leap, run and hop as they took to the sky.
With effortless grace they attached themselves to the thermals, are soon circling above us patiently waiting for us to be through with our task.
Only a handful of the colourful white-headed vultures, sat perched on the ground at a respectful distance, quietly watching the activity, these are the most colourful of the African vultures
The vultures had been feeding on a buffalo carcass. The vegetation around it was smashed, in its struggles to free itself, from its struggles with a pride of lions.
It had failed miserably, they killed it, and ate their fill then moved off. They were lying off their meal somewhere, leaving the vultures to clean up the remains.
The hyenas were yet to come to carry off the bones, to crunch them at their own discretion.
The tiny bits of meat, fur and skin that fall from the beaks of vultures and even the larger predators are picked off by ants, beetles and other carrion feeding insects.
The blood and other bile juices from the intestines and so forth enrich the soil. What bones are left by the hyenas are gnawed by the porcupines for calcium.
The death of one means the nourishment of many others. Even the dung is not left to just decay to the effects of wind, sun and rain.
The grass and leaves are eaten by grazers and browsers, in return their dung replenishes the soil.
While their flesh nourishes the lions, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs. In rime when these predators die, their carcasses disintegrate into the soil and re-enter the network of the plant life as nutrient for the plants.
Lots of dung is rifled through by the dung beetles and other insects that glen some nutrients from the pile of wet undigested and unwanted parts of the vegetation – they are able to pick out just what they need. Dung beetles are a myriad of colours, they trundle away balls of manure, many times their own size and bury the dung balls in underground chambers. These become food for their grubs when they hatch.
Breaking down the dung as dung beetle grubs do, speeds up the distribution of nutrients into the soil.
Butterflies drive their long tube like mouths parts, into wet herbivorous dung to suck up nutrients in liquid form, Elephant dung is a much sought after source of food for baboons, who break it up to look for dung beetles and other insects.
When drier, guinea fowls, break it up further for the grass seeds
In the water, hippo spread their dung by the vigorous vibration of their short muscular stump of a tail.
The dung is a much sought after food source for many fish species- among them is the Tilapia or bream – a very important commercial fresh water fish.
Other fish also benefit from the hippos dung apart from the bream, they also pay the hippo in kind by cleaning its cavernous mouth when the great beats lies asleep with its mouth open under water with only its nostrils above water allowing the fish to clean oar the mouth of loose skin, plaque and so forth
Yes, in nature ones dung is another’s foods source.
Such is the meticulous economy of nature. Nothing is wasted, nothing is killed out of sheer joy or fun.
And so the cycle is an endless roller coaster of life and death. All creatures are engaged, what at times appears to us as a macabre cycle of survival. Each one so dependent on the other, that they seem unaware of it. But that’s the rules of the game on the savanna.
If it weren’t for the vultures, hyenas and other carrion eaters, devouring the lifeless carcasses – the stench of rotting animal’s bodies would be all over the land.
In the water the crocodiles see to the dismantling of drowned carcasses, all in all whatever is made of flesh, bone and blood winds up in the belly of scavengers.
If it were not for the dung beetles and other insects that feed on dung, it would be stacked high.
Hyenas are known to pick out undigested fragments of bone, skin and fur from the semi – dry droppings of lion and leopard.
Leaving the remains of the carcass to the vultures we push on, even as we depart, vultures are already returning to the remains to pick up from where they had left.
Our silent patrol is disturbed somewhat by the sudden appearance of six hyena, racing towards the carcass.
They have seen the landing vultures, which meant the lions were done feeding. Tails erect, they howled as they ran – rocking effortless through the grass. Ignoring us altogether.
To them it was the prospect of eating that was on their minds. A determined hungry hyena is a dangerous creature, nothing seems to dissuade it from its mission.
Pity the creature that is found alone and defenseless, surrounded by a pack of these hungry predators
There is nothing made of flesh and bone that they cannot devour, they are ruthless and efficient predators, make far more successful kills than do lion.
Few meters ahead there is a loud growl, a leopard leaps down from a fig tree.
Hits the ground just a few meters from Thomas, whirls off in a yellow blur into the thickets.
A single leopard can attack several men before it melts away into cover. Other animals that can achieve such feats that I know of are lioness, caracal, male baboon and black mamba.
As small as the caracal is it canbe pretty fierce when it means to put up a defense. All we can do is stare at the entangled chaos of branches into which the leopard has vanished.
While we deliberate on which way to go, as there is a thick wall of shrubs, we hear the sharp loud alarm bark of a baboon joined by the coughing like calls of the Vervet monkeys.
These signify that they have seen the leopard, it is moving eastwards away from us.
We turn in the opposite direction following a well-worn game trail, dimpled with hoof prints of kudu, bushbuck, duiker, impala, grysbok and porcupine. The baboons continue to bark.