The first black-backed jackal makes his appearance less than ten minutes after nature conservation officials have pulled a dead giraffe bull from the man-made waterhole. Since this little predator cannot bite through the giraffe’s thick skin, it goes for the tongue of the dead animal and pulls at it vigorously. Two minutes later another two jackals have turned up. Soon afterwards they are joined by a first spotted hyena that is attracted by the stench of the carcass. As the sun sinks below the horizon, four more hyenas emerge from between the green mopane trees. 

It is not known when exactly the giraffe fell into the waterhole and drowned. Many animals – such as other giraffe, black-faced impala, Burchell’s zebra, elephant, rhino and Tawny Eagle – initially eyed the lifeless body with suspicion but then proceeded to quench their thirst.

Sunrise the next morning sees 23 spotted hyenas at the giraffe carcass. They opened the abdominal wall during the night and devoured the entrails. With their powerful jaws they also bit through the skin on one of the hind legs and on the head. Now the muscle tissue is exposed. Elephants are drinking from the waterhole a few metres behind the feeding site. Ears flapping, trumpeting loudly and swinging his trunk in their direction, a young bull repeatedly tries to drive the hyenas away, but the spotted predators are not impressed and won’t budge. The elephants are nervous because they have several small calves with them. Another herd of pachyderms arrives and also threaten the hyenas, trying to keep them at a distance.

The sun rises higher into the sky, it gets hotter and suddenly the elephants are gone. Now zebras and impalas dare to take their turn at the waterhole. A warthog tusker has come for a drink, too. The presence of the spotted hyenas makes the other animals jittery. A big eland bull of more than a ton walks over to the carcass and takes a closer look together with an oryx. The hyenas aren’t interested in the antelope, because their bellies are full and there is still enough food left. One after the other they slink off to take a digestive nap somewhere in the shade.

Giraffe
An eland bull (right) and an oryx inquisitively eyed the hyenas at the carcass. When they realized that the carnivores posed no danger, they proceeded to drink.

Around noon the first White-backed Vultures circle in the sky above the waterhole. After an advance party of the scavengers has landed, more and more of them descend from their lofty heights with each passing minute. Two Lappet-faced Vultures and a White-headed Vulture also settle down nearby. The White-backed Vultures pounce on the carcass. They jostle for the best spots on and inside the dead giraffe. Senior birds are sitting on top and threaten others with their wings spread wide. Low-ranking young vultures stand a few metres away, waiting for their chance to gulp down a few pieces of meat. A black rhino appears on the scene but the large birds aren’t ruffled one bit and a herd of elephants doesn’t seem to bother them either.

Giraffe
The zebras and the black rhino didn’t mind the scavengers at the giraffe carcass.

The vultures start to retreat to their sleeping places when late in the afternoon some of the hyenas and black-backed jackals reappear. Slowly but surely the nightshift clocks in.

The following day shows that the hyenas have made short work of the carcass with their powerful jaws. Apart from stuffing themselves again and reducing the size of the carcass by several kilos of meat, tendons and bones, they also opened the thick skin in other places, allowing jackals and vultures to get their share. As the carcass is diminishing, activity at the waterhole is increasing again. The other animals are thirsty and can hardly be bothered with the scavengers and the stench of death. They are only wary of the hyenas which like to cool off in the shallow water of the waterhole, as they did the previous day.

Hardly anything is left of the big giraffe bull four days after it was hauled from its watery grave. As a conspecific walks past, two spotted hyenas gnaw on the last remains of a front and a hind leg. The death of one animal has provided many other animals with food for several days – and presented tourists with a chance to observe a special scene which one doesn’t come across every day. The spotted hyenas helped other scavengers to feed on the carcass, because only they are able get through the thick skin of a giraffe bull.

Author: Dirk Heinrich

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