In late October and early November, I led a group on five days of safari at Madikwe Private Game Reserve. It was not the weather we were expecting. A cold front had brought near-record-low temperatures. At least it was sunny. We downed our preferred caffeine drink in the morning and loaded into a safari vehicle for another bush drive. Our driver and guide, Ryan, clearly had a target in mind. We went off-road for about ½-mile when our tracker pointed out a spotted hyena eyeing us suspiciously. Suddenly, there were two more. We saw why. An African Elephant had met its demise, and the rotting carcass was an open invitation to all scavengers. In total, there were six hyenas working on the elephant. There was also a black-backed jackal waiting its turn in the background.
Not a single vulture was on a nearby tree, eying the carcass. Thirty years ago, vultures would have surrounded us. But Egyptian and the Lappet-faced Vultures are now endangered species. It’s even worse for Hooded, White-headed, Rüppell’s, and white-backed vultures, which are all critically endangered. Scavengers like the hyena, jackal, and vulture are vital in keeping the African bush healthy. Their powerful stomach acid allows them to safely digest meat no other predator would touch. By eliminating rotten meat, scavengers help prevent the spread of diseases. Careless farmers poisoned carcasses to eradicate vast numbers of vultures. Their approach proved very effective at sending vulture populations to the brink of extinction.