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  • Writer's pictureBushwise Trainer

Animal scavengers and the ecological role they play

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

This article about animal scavengers is by Bushwise Trainer Wayne Lubbe. Based at our Mahlahla campus, Wayne is a highly qualified guide with NQF4, Trails Guide, ARF, Level 2 Wilderness First Aid, and additional specialties.

Which animals are scavengers?

Multiple species of vultures and even a marabou stork can be found at a carcass. Vultures are perhaps the most commonly known animal scavengers. 

A scavenger is an organism that primarily consumes other organisms that have either died of natural causes or have been killed by a carnivore (meat-eating organism). It’s important to note that not all scavengers are the same and some scavengers are more than adequate and successful hunters.

The spotted hyena, for example, hunts 50-75% of their food. A clan of hyenas will work together to hunt antelope much larger than themselves – and they do this with a surprisingly high success rate, much higher than compared to a pride of lions. 

A spotted hyena, one of the more common animal scavengers in the African savannah.

Spotted hyenas are opportunists that will eat carrion, when possible. Their digestive systems have been adapted to process bones, hooves and skin – rightfully earning them the title of “cleaners of the bushveld”. 

Vultures are well-known scavengers

An example of a true scavenger would be vultures, as they feed almost exclusively on carrion (dead animals). When it comes to feeding, each species of vulture has evolved into a niche system. 

A large collection of vultures (also known as a committee of vultures) perched near a carcass. 

Large vultures, such as the lappet-faced vulture, have large well-developed beaks capable of tackling tough skin, tendons and ligaments too tough for other vultures. One of the more commonly seen vultures are white-backed vultures. These vultures focus on eating the softer pieces of carrion, such as flesh, organs and eyes. 

Lastly, you would find the hooded vulture. Smaller than the other vultures, they focus on picking off maggots and other insects associated with the carrion. Their beak shape and size resembles a pair of tweezers, which they use to pick off pieces of meat around bones and in areas where the larger beaked vultures aren’t able to reach.  

A tawny eagle sits perched in a tree. This eagle plays an important role in the ecosystem.

There are many different bird of prey species you can encounter around a dead animal, including the vultures mentioned above and eagles such as the tawny eagle and the bateleur eagle. Mammals like brown and spotted hyenas, leopards, large and small spotted genets, civets, omnivorous warthogs and even the “king of the jungle” the lion will scavenge when an opportunity comes around.

What role do animal scavengers play in the ecosystem?

A spotted hyena sniffs the air, possibly looking for food. Hyenas are well-known animal scavengers, but are also very capable of hunting on their own.

Scavengers play an important role as they keep the ecosystem free of the bodies of dead animals and they speed up the process of nutrient recycling. Imagine an ecosystem without any scavengers – there would be an accumulation of rotting dead carrion and an explosion in the numbers of parasites, pests and diseases caused by rotting waste piling up. 

Bacteria and other diseases would spread within the local environment and infect other animals, including livestock and humans. There would be a decline in healthy soil and plants caused by the waste accumulation, which in turn would influence the plant-eating herbivores. The meat-eating carnivores would have fewer and fewer herbivores to feed on and after a duration of time the fine balance of the food web would start to collapse. 

What lessons can we take from animal scavengers?

Even the impressive lion could be considered an animal scavenger – they will readily take advantage of a free meal if it presents itself!

The lesson we can learn from this is that nature is a well-maintained, self-sustaining organism that interacts with living and nonliving organisms in a harmonious way – which makes up the ebb and flow of life on Earth. 

We as humans have a huge direct influence on the planet and life around us and should be considered the custodians of our wonderful planet. Each organism, no matter how large or small, serves a special role in the ecosystem. When removed from that role it has a devastating negative effect on the natural environment and eventually on humans in a direct or indirect way.

as the light fades from view, a stork sits in a dead tree with a glowing orange sky behind it.

All things big and small are connected in a thriving ecosystem. Animal scavengers, while often looked down upon, play an essential role in maintaining a healthy planet. 

Are you interested in learning more about how different animal species, including animal scavengers, interact in the Lowveld of South Africa? Apply today to join the next Bushwise Professional Field Guide course. You could be learning all this and more!


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