Epic stand-off between lone jackal and three species of vultures

African white-backed vulture. Photo: Andre Botha

SKUKUZA – A few days ago a visitor to the Kruger National Park, Joelene Schoenmakers from the Netherlands, had a good sighting of a jackal trying to take over a carcass but the vultures kept coming. As more and more vultures arrived, it become increasingly difficult for the jackal to remain in control.

He bravely kept trying to take control of the carcass but was eventually outnumbered by the number of white-backed vultures which then took over and consumed the carcass.

Lowvelder asked Dr. Kerri Wolter, a vulture expert and Vulpro’s Cape Vulture Task Force coordinator, if this behaviour is normal.

“Naturally predators will make a kill and the scavengers will wait until the predators have had their full. Jackals are both predators and scavengers. This means, once a kill has been made, vultures and jackals will wait their turn. Once their turn comes, it is all about dominance and numbers, meaning, the more jackals there are, the less likely vultures will be able to scavenge. The more vultures there are compared to jackals, the greater the likelihood of the vultures dominating the carcass and consuming it.”

Three species of vultures were involved including African white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus), hooded vultures (Necrosyrtes monachus)
and lappet-faced vultures (Torgos tracheliotos).

African white-backed vulture. Photo: Andre Botha

She explained that African white-backed vultures are the commonest vulture species in Africa. However, they have recently been uplisted to critically endangered due to the rate of their decline across the African continent. They weigh on average around 5-6kgs and have a wing span of 2,2 metres.

“They are what we term ‘bulk’ feeders meaning they gorge themselves and consume as much food as possible within the shortest possible time. Their necks are long and bare as they feed inside carcasses meaning they use their long necks to reach into ‘hard to reach’ places which other non long-necked vultures can’t get to and their necks are bare to prevent bits of carcasses sticking to feathers. In this way they keep themselves clean from rotten meat and dried up blood,” said Wolter.

Hooded vultures Photo: Andrew Deacon

Hooded vultures have also recently been uplisted to critically endangered and they are much smaller than the Gyps species such as the African white-backed vultures.

“They feed on the outskirts of carcasses picking up smaller pieces of meat that have been ripped off the carcass and would otherwise be wasted. They also help clean the carcass completely once the larger vultures have had their full and have consumed as much of the carcass as possible.”

According to Wolter lappet-faced vultures are uplisted to endangered. They are also known as the ‘King’ vultures, with a wing span of 2,8 metres. They  are Africa’s largest vulture species but not the heaviest. They can weigh up to maximum 9kgs.

It is also the Bird of the Year 2017. Click here and read about the urgent steps that should be taken to protect vultures like these.

“These birds dominate carcasses by their sheer size and by ripping open carcasses which other vulture species are not able to do. In addition, they eat skin and hard tissue due to the force and strength of their beaks which the other species are not able to do. Often jaw bones, ears, lips from carcasses are consumed by these vultures.”

READ: Vultures is a vital link in the circle of life

Andre Botha,  overarching coordinator of the Multi-species Action Plan to conserve African-Eurasian Vultures (Vulture MsAP) and co-chair: IUCN SSC Vulture Specialist Group said that there is normally quite a bit of competition between scavengers at such a feeding event and the jackal is vying for possession of the carcass with a fair number of vultures.

“It dashes in and chases them off after which it hurriedly tries to feed and get as much of the carcass ingested before the birds close in and push him off the carcass. At one stage, you can see that it is looking around for support from possibly other jackal which does not materialise and the sheer number of vultures present at the carcass eventually is too much for him and he moves away, leaving them to squabble among each other for the spoils. The amount of energy required for a single jackal to keep so many birds off a carcass eventually outweighs the benefit of the little feeding that it is able to and it relented,” explained Botha.



Elize Parker
Environmental Journalist Lowvelder

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