Into Africa: The Scavengers and the Predators

On to the scavengers. First, the birds. There were several large birds of note, the ugliest of which must be the Marabou stork. This specimen wasn’t as bad as the others of its kind we saw. Its bald pink head was at least smooth and naked, unlike others which had tufts of wispy feathers attached, as if attacked by some wasting disease. While they generally behave as scavengers, they are also known to pluck swallows right out of the air!

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Then there was the Secretary Bird, a really badass bird that eats cobras. Its long scaly legs protect it from the snakes it eats and it gets its name from its black and white colouring that looks like the black robes secretaries apparently used to wear in colonial times.

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And if these two birds didn’t seem a great deal like predators, surely the vultures made us feel like prey. When they spotted us stopping for lunch in a plain away from other predators hiding in the bushes, they immediately wheeled round, landing close by in hopes of a good catch.

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Luckily, they weren’t actually going to eat us, but were more opportunistic in going after the crumbs we left behind. While waiting, they sunned themselves languidly, watching to make sure we weren’t getting away.

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And here I am nervously sitting on the edge of the picnic rug, trying make sure that I had the picnic boxes in close proximity lest undeserving beasts get hold of them!

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And yet another scavenger is the warthog. While they don’t actually hunt other animals, they are known to eat carrion. I guess that’s how pigs got started on their “eat anything” diet.

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And now we start talking! Finally we get to a proper predator, the cheetah. We were very excited to see a few of them together resting in the evening light and were sad not to get a closer glimpse.

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But not to worry, it turned out that cheetahs aren’t very hard to spot at all. The very next day we came up very close to this handsome fella. Francis our guide pointed out the characteristic way of sitting up very straight and staring all round to scan the territory. Seemed like it was on to something.

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Then it got up. I thought it was just walking away, but it suddenly broke into a run and before I realised anything, let alone set my camera to video mode, it had spotted and hunted down, in a quick burst of speed so fast that my eyes could hardly follow, a baby Thomson’s gazelle. It was then that I felt the contradiction and the almost horrific reality of being on safari. At first I rooted for the cheetah, chanting “go go go!” in my head. Then I realised that the baby gazelle was dead and felt guilty for wishing its death. Such is the circle of life: one dies to sustain the life of another.

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Our cheetah didn’t immediately gobble up its kill. It sat in the long grass resting for a few minutes, then hurriedly gnawed at the tenderest part of the gazelle, its rump. Then it sat panting, waiting for itself to recover before continuing with the rest of its meal. Cheetahs spend so much energy on the chase that it often runs out of energy to eat. Many times, it gets chased away from its kill by other animals. Being rather weak at fighting animal to animal, the cheetah normally slinks away when other carnivores arrive.

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A good example being the hyena. Hyenas are much stronger than cheetahs and even leopards, if in big packs often walking straight up to the kill and chasing the original hunters off.

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And they end up scavenging most of their food in this way. Much later, we chanced upon this hyena elsewhere eating what looked the remnants of a baby wildebeest. Poor wildebeest and lucky hyena.

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