Scavenger hunt

Whether Cotswolds or Kenya, the Great Cycle of Life goes on.

Although we may recoil, scavengers are a really important part of our ecosystem. Without them, carcasses would lie and rot, and, quite apart from the unpleasantness, nutrients would  take much longer to return to the system for re-use.

Hyenas are frequently the first to arrive after a lion kill. This is the Spotted Hyena, with a short snout like a pitbull’s.

Spotted Hyena

They are in fact predators as well as scavengers, frequently hunting wildebeest, zebra, and Thompson’s Gazelles, like this one.

Thompson's Gazelle

Lemeria told me that hyenas are the main scourge of the local Maasai cattle. If they get inside the protective boma at night they kill indiscriminately, far more than they can possibly eat, whereas lions apparently kill efficiently, just what they need for dinner.

Hyenas have extremely powerful jaws and teeth. They can crunch through large bones, and can also digest the bones, so their scat is largely a white powder. This plastic bottle has been chewed by a hyena, who use them like kids chew gum. They always chew the end that people have drunk out of, because of the human scent. (This was the only piece of litter I saw in the entire Mara Conservancy, and I did wonder if my guide had planted it!)


Vultures are the iconic scavengers, coming along after the lions and hyenas have done, if anything is still left. But even they have family lives.  This mother White-backed Vulture is sitting on her eggs, and giving us a beady eye.

White-backed Vulture on nest

After everything nutritious seems finished, some remnants still remain. These buffalo horns have now become home for a species of moth that bores holes in the horns, and lays its eggs in them. The larvae feed on the keratin of which the horns are made, and the muddy tubes are their larval cases, made out of their own cemented excreta.

A sort of fly builds these mud tubes for its larvae on dead horns

From these cases emerge the adult Horn Moths, Ceratophaga vastella, members of the clothes moth family.

A sort of fly builds these mud tubes for its larvae on dead horns

It is hardly surprising that their close relatives make short work of a soft cashmere sweater.

PS: In a reversal of the roles we are familiar with, lions are also known to scavenge the hyenas’ kills, and since they are much larger than the hyena they can drive them off the kill. Hyenas only prevail if they outnumber the lions at least 4 to 1.

PPS: I did look for a poem about the Horn Moth, but oddly without success!


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