Scavengers Of The Sky

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Driving along a bumpy road, scanning from left to right, hoping to spot a big cat in the sea of grass can be tiring work. After an hour or two, you start to feel hopeless and wonder if it was worth getting up before the sunrise. I typically have to do a lot of persuading, as most people dont get up before 7 am. As all these thoughts ran through my mind, I noticed a tail flickering in the distance! Bakari, was our guide at Olmara Camp, saw the same thing. We both exclaimed and pointed in the direction of the cats.

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At first, we assumed lions but as we drove a little closer; and used our binoculars, we could see the black and white bands on the tail. The Kruger family was so excited as we had not seen a cheetah yet. Two male cheetahs had successfully brought down a Thompsons gazelle, and they wasted no time devouring it. It was a young “tommie” that meant the meal wasn’t going to last very long. The two cats played a short game of tug of war before settling back down to feast on the carcass.We had the sighting all to ourselves for some time; it was great to hear the crunching of small bones and the odd growl from the cheetahs. We then heard a “whooshing” sound come from above; my smile widened as I knew what was about to happen.

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One after the other, vultures darted down from above, landing a short distance away from the cheetahs. At this point, very little was left of the meal, the pressure from the vultures started to build; the two boys moved off to rest on a termite mound, just a few strides away. I suggested we stay and watch the commotion at the carcass; once the predators move off. We watched the other vehicles drive after the cheetah, and once again, we were left all alone to enjoy one of nature’s most fascinating interactions. I counted four species of vultures, Rüppell’s, white-backed, hooded, as well as a pair of lappet-faced vultures. They all seemed hesitant to approach the carcass until a brave hooded vulture moved in a grabbed a piece of flesh; the others then bombarded what was left of the Thompsons gazelle. I dont know what words to use to describe the vocalizations of vultures; they hiss, squawk and produce noises that I have only heard while watching Jurassic Park. I think Steven Spielberg was on to something! Vultures are one of the most animated birds; the intimidationmethods used are far more comical as they arch their wings and lower their necks, charging each other. If that isn’t enough to send the opponent scattering, they peck aggressively and use a series of jujitsu moves on each other. Although, this lasts for only a moment before the frenzy starts again. 

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As entertaining as vultures are, they, of-course, play a vital role in the ecosystem as they devour the leftovers of carcasses; they contribute as decomposers and stop the spread of deadly diseases. The pH level found in the gastric enzymes of vultures digestive systems is so strong it can digest bones; some species of vultures have a pH level of 7, in humans it is as low as 1.5-2. An army of microbes protects the gut, as these single-celled organisms live rent-free and another contributing factor to their ability to avoid falling ill- is due to genetics. Their immune and respiratory systems evolved differently from other birds of prey, allowing them to live a life as scavengers.

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The Kruger family was delighted to learn so much about vultures and watch the birds in action and a safari tip to anyone who has not seen vultures devour a carcass is- be patient; you can catch up with the cats later!

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