Today was a little different. Rather than the usual sheep’s head and transect routine, we spent the whole day at a lion kill. On past safaris, I have often wondered what happens after those 15 minutes that you spend watching – are there epic battles among the lions, who else comes to visit the kill, will the hyenas turn up before night falls as the kitties sleep? Well today was my chance to find out. It was also an important set of observations for the vulture work. There is a little debate among scientists about the importance of predator kills for scavengers like vultures. As you might know, hyenas used to get a lot of bad rap for just stealing from the lions, but now we know better and studies have shown that the stealing is often in the opposite direction with lions not only stealing from but also killing hyena cubs. With vultures, the debate is over whether they use and obtain a substantial amount of their meat from predator kills (and are thus reliant on them) or whether they are simply using their incredible eyesight to find sick and dying animals that the predators never even notice. The vulture scientists and minimal existing literature say predator kills mean squat to vultures. To complicate things they admits that vultures do go to predator kills, but that they don’t get much food there. All the reliable data on this comes from some studies by a guy named Houston in the 1970s and most were done in the Serengeti. So people argue it was just a fluke of the Serengeti vultures. Being in the Mara, I am looking at the same vultures (more or less), yet still people contend that they rely on predator kills here. So in any case, today would represent data point two (I also saw a cheetah kill) on the predator kill debate.
When we arrived at the dead buffalo scene, there were marabous, vultures, jackals, and of course some circling Tawny Eagles everywhere. The lions were mainly sleeping, but a few were still eating keeping all the scavengers at bay. We waited for the scavenger wars to begin, but the lions just kept on eating. They took turns ripping pieces of meat off and fighting about it. Eventually a young male with a burgeoning mane (like those first few hairs on a teenage boy) wandered over and had his fill. Finally the big male came out and along with two females dragged the huge carcass with considerable effort closer to the trees. Then they fought over the shade. As the day waned on, the majestic animals went to use the royal john, squatting in anguish to rid themselves of a small fraction of the buffalo that had just consumed. Before long, 1 PM had rolled around and all the scavengers had given up. After some sunning, the vultures had finally taken off and the jackals were nowhere to be found. Then finally, two hooded vultures came on the scene. Because the lions had dragged the carcass over several feet, there were a few scraps several feet away from the pride of 11. In their typical nonchalant manner, the hooded vultures began picking through the dirt where the carcass had previously been. They even went so far as to sort through the stomach contents (which are generally avoided by everyone except the dung beetles) for the last few remaining scraps. By 4 PM, that had been the extent of the vulture action and I felt greater belief in the standing vulture expert dogma that predator kills just aren’t that important for the birds.