Written by: Ben Coley
At EcoTraining we spend countless hours pouring over books written by a variety of experts so that we can best explain animal behaviour to prospective field guides. We have a huge wealth of knowledge at our fingertips about some of the most iconic animals in the world. However, despite the plethora of field data garnered from observations, we are sometimes made to look foolish when animals defy our preconceptions.
Last month, a report came through on the radio that a male lion had killed a bush pig. We rushed to the scene of the crime looking forward to watching the ferocious feline demolish his prey, while already deep in explanation as to the feeding habits of Africa’s apex terrestrial predator.
Much to our surprise, when we arrived at the location we found the bushpig completely intact and no lion to be seen. Often predators will kill other predators as a means of eliminating competition, and these victims are usually not consumed as they weren’t killed for food. Be that as it may, in this case there was no viable reason that this cache of meat would have been left alone. It was a gentle reminder from the bush that no matter how long you spend watching the daily lives of its inhabitants, nothing is ever set in stone.
I can offer no satisfactory explanation as to why the lion chose to leave his prize, but nothing is left to waste in the bush. Throughout the afternoon the vultures consumed the carcass; comically flapping around as they argued over feeding rights. We returned to the site at the end of our night drive hoping that the smell of decomposing flesh had wafted over to the resident hyaena clan. However, to the delight of a small group of side-striped jackals, it seemed that the hyaenas had also turned their nose up at the meal.
The side-striped jackal is a diminutive predator that is often overlooked but plays a hugely important role in cleaning up the bush. It is not as gregarious as the more common black-backed jackal, and thus the presence of the group was a welcome sight. The temptation of the meal helped them to overcome their normally nervous disposition, and we watched enthralled as they wrestled with their porky prize.
Side-striped jackals are omnivores that get their water requirements from eating fruit. This enables them to cope well in harsher terrains. They are also efficient hunters of small mammals, birds and even arthropods, but an unattended carcass would have been like hitting the jackpot. We stayed long after dark enjoying their antics as they argued over the choice cuts, which prompted a long discussion about their feeding habits, role in the ecosystem and why the lion chose to leave its kill.
For me the true beauty of working in the bush is the fact that nothing is ever set in stone. For a lion to pass up an opportunity to feed is unusual, but its decision benefited a whole host of less powerful members of the bushveld community. Rules are made to be broken, and trying to fathom the rationale behind these incidents is what makes this vocation so fascinating. Variety is the spice of life, and we bush folk live our lives wondering what awaits us around the next corner. It is this excitement of the unknown that makes a life in the bush so rewarding!