The Decomposition of a Carcass

By 5 years ago
Categories Limpopo and KZN

 The last few weeks on Karongwe have been swarming with activity. With amazing lion and cheetah sightings everywhere we knew that when a carcass was discovered on the reserve that a fresh carcass means predators! a.k.a. more sightings!  Andreas Fox set out a few camera traps initially and we tried to get some sleep, all anxiously awaiting morning drive, like little kids on Christmas eve, to see what might show up.  Kaggie Orrick was first on the scene and to her dismay nothing much was happening.  I was taking the long way to the carcass and had a quick visual of a young male leopard (Panthera pardus), most likely the one we call ‘Tula’ scent marking and vocalizing.  Leopard number one….check.

Then, as we approached the carcass Kaggie called in over the radio visual of a large male leopard, Tsavo, had made his presence known!  We hurried toward the carcass but by the time we approached he had slinked off into the bushes so we waited patiently, hoping he would return.  Our patience paid off and after about 30 minutes he sauntered back toward the kill, approaching cautiously.  This was only the second occasion that I had seen this large male but the stories of how relaxed he is are certainly true.  Sitting only about 20 metres from the carcass we watched in silence as he began to feed on the carcass, the sounds of bones crunching and tearing meat was like music to my ears!

We watched and photographed this beautiful cat for nearly 30 minutes before he slowly walked off, scent marking along the way.  We sat and waited for the next two hours to see if he would return but no luck.  Though he did not return we knew he was still in the area as we could hear him vocalizing every few minutes the entyre time.  Leopard two….check.  

After a short lunch break we returned to the carcass hoping again that Tsavo would be hungry and return.  This time though we were greeted by two hyenas (Crocuta crocuta)!  They approached and pulled apart the rib cage, dragging it away and feasting on it.  Even as they ate we could still hear Tsavo vocalizing, nothing quite like having two large predators only a 100m away while you sit in an open game viewer watching and photographing!

The hyenas had their fill and we decided to go for a coffee break, the stink of carcass and early morning began to take its toll!!  We came back one more time after an hour or so later and this time something completely different….hundreds and hundreds of vultures (Gyps spp.)!!  As we drove up to the familiar spot the vultures were feasting on the carcass and this was the first time I seen something like this so close!  They surrounded the carcass in the trees, waiting their turn in the hierarchy before descending with massive wing-spans and landing awkwardly next to the carcass.  Then the feeding frenzy truly begins.  

It was amazing to see how quickly and efficiently the vultures dealt with the carcass.  Even more incredible to watch a carcass from a few days after death transform as the decomposition process and animals, big and small, play their role.  Nature always amazes me and I can only be grateful for the things I have been able to see here. 

Benjamin Tupper, SANParks Coordinator