The hooded vulture project currently has 10 nests with camera traps in, which we visit once a month to check on and to change batteries and memory cards. One of our nearest nest sites is located at the bottom of the reserve where both Lindy and I live, which meant that when it was time for our monthly visit we had a lovely late morning start at 8am. One particular day began as any other fieldwork day with us trekking with our large rucksacks strapped to our backs like tortoise shells, and the usual inelegant scrambling across rocks and jumping over streams. That day, however, as we neared the nest, I could smell something – something from my past. Having worked as a small carnivore keeper for nearly 4 years my nose was finely tuned to all sorts of animal smells, the smells of animal scents, fresh bedding, soiled bedding, fresh meat, poo and pee, and the one you never forget – the smell of death. And that’s what I was smelling right then, a carcass.
As we neared the nesting tree we scanned our surroundings, then quickly and quietly attached the climbing ropes. As Lindy ascended I tidied up the excess rope, tied on the memory cord we leave up the tree and quickly checked the ground for any feathers. Once my assistant’s duties were done I eagerly followed my nose to find what had died. I’d never been so excited searching for a dead animal before. What was it? How had it died? How much of it had been munched?
About 100m from our vulture tree I found the source of the smell. It was an adult male waterbuck, freshly dead (there were relatively few flies on the body) and it had only been slightly nibbled around the genitals. I looked around but couldn’t see anything lurking about, but that’s not to say that there wasn’t anything, though. There didn’t seem to be any marks on the body apart from some old sparring scars. With the drought and severe lack of vegetation to eat, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see a starved antelope, but this guy looked in good health. Well, with the exception of being dead, of course. A stark realisation hit us that we may have accidentally scared a leopard off its kill, so we finished up at the nest and scampered back up to our cottages.
The corpse was the perfect opportunity to see who opens carcasses and how the hoodies behaved around other scavengers. So, after a couple of hours we returned with a pair of camera traps and attached them to a tree overlooking the waterbuck. Just above the animal there was a slight gap in the tree canopy, and we hoped it was big enough to allow passing vultures to spot the body. We would have to wait and see.
After two weeks we returned and unfortunately not much had changed. The cameras showed that no other vultures had found the delicious offering, and our hoodies’ poor slender beaks (which are more suited to scraping meat scraps off the bone rather than tearing flesh open) had made no impact on the corpse – although they had pecked out one juicy eyeball. The carcass had also been visited by a nosey genet, a pair of leopards (they didn’t eat anything as cats have standards), an otter and some monster crocodiles. It was these massive reptiles that had managed to enter the carcass via the soft inner thigh. With some body rolling and lifting with their snouts they had had a good munch.
Upon discovering so much of the waterbuck was left I decided to open it up with my knife before it went rancid; I do hate to see food go to waste! The location in which the animal had died wasn’t great. It was in a dip with high banks so the smell, which wasn’t all that strong, could only be picked up within 100 feet or so if you were in the dip. Hopefully, by opening it up all the juicy smells would waft out and attract some more diners.
When we eventually returned for the cameras there was no sign of the carcass, not a bone in sight, barely any fur, only a small stinky patch of earth to show where it had lain. The cameras revealed that another leopard had approached the body but (once again) did not take a bite, an African civet had taken a sniff and a clan of hyenas had had a party. The group seemed small, with only 3 individuals in the frame at any one time, but they took just 2 nights to devour the entire thing. It was no surprise that the hyenas had cleaned up, but it was impressive that they had got to the carcass at all, seeing that it was on an island in the middle of a river. True, the water levels were very low, but they aren’t the most agile of creatures so this was quite a feat.
Due to the fantastic selection of animals that had already shown up on the cameras, I decided to re-position them in different areas overlooking the river to see what else called this place home.