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  • Writer's pictureBushwise Student

Animal scavengers in the African bush

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

This blog was written by Bushwise Professional Field Guide student Campbell Baker. As part of their training, each student submits a researched blog based on a topic of their choice. Opinions contained in these blogs are the student’s.

3 min read

What’s a scavenger? 

A scavenger is an animal that feeds on carrion, dead plant material or refuse. Scavengers have always had a bad reputation. Often viewed as the villains of the wild. But by nature all carnivores are opportunistic feeders, ready to eat any meat available, and it’s a stroke of luck to find food where the hard work of hunting has already been done for them. Scavengers have perfected this strategy, and have been able to be successful in their tough world. 

South Africa – and more specifically the Kruger National Park – has many scavenger species, the most famous being hyenas, vultures, jackals and marabou storks. 

I’ve found that hyenas are the most underappreciated and disliked of South Africa’s carnivores. But if you were to look at the perfect evolution and adaptations for a scavenger – a hyena is what you would end up with! Perfect with jaws and neck muscles that make light work of meat and bones. Contrary to popular belief, up to 90% of a hyena’s diet consists of animals that they have hunted themselves.

A valued vulture hierarchy

A committee of vultures, all waiting to get food from a carcass.

Vultures are primarily scavengers and almost never prey on live animals. One of the only times vultures will kill an animal is if the animal is either very sick or wounded. Vultures do not have talons or beaks that have been well adapted for killing prey; their strong beaks have rather been adapted for tearing. The bald head is a common feature of most vultures, and it doesn’t occur by mistake. An absence of feathers on their heads allows vultures to feed and put their heads into carcasses without feathers getting matted by blood.

At abandoned carcasses, there is a known hierarchy. Hyenas are at the front of the queue, followed by other mammalian scavengers – like jackals – and then vultures. Even between vultures and other scavenging birds of prey, there is a hierarchical order. This order is usually based on strength of beak and size. Beak strength is important in the vulture social order as some vultures do not have the beak strength to get through thick animal hides. 

The role of invertebrates in scavenging 

An African giant land snail is also a scavenger in a way as it breaks down organic materials. 

Although vertebrate scavengers are efficient and effective, about 10% of medium to large carcasses are undiscovered or unused by vertebrate scavengers, and an even higher percentage in areas where hunting is prevalent. These carcasses and the remaining matter of other carcasses are consumed by insects and arthropods. The aptly named carrion beetle is the most well-known for this behaviour, but all omnivorous and carnivorous invertebrates feed on carrion and carcasses.

Scavengers are more important to an ecosystem than many think. Not only do they keep the habitat and landscape clean of carcasses and even the bones of animals, but they also break down organic matter and recycle them back into the ecosystem aiding the nutrient cycle.

Without scavengers, the decomposition of animals would be much slower in the wild, and carcasses would become a breeding ground for wildlife diseases. And an increase in wildlife diseases could reduce the  animal population rapidly.

Even scavengers are at risk

A committee of vultures, all waiting to get food from a carcass. 

Even though scavengers are a vital link in the natural world, somewhere between 400–800 vultures are poached each year around the Kruger National Park. Vulture populations cannot deal with these yearly losses. These vultures are often killed by means of poisoning of carcasses, which not only kills vultures but any other scavenger that happens upon the carcass.

I believe scavengers are both beautiful and fascinating. Now more than ever the scavengers of Southern Africa need to be protected and appreciated for their vital role within the ecosystem and the Kruger National Park.

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