There is a legend that elephant dispose of their dead in secret burial grounds and that none of them has ever been discovered.
— Beryl Markham in West with the Night
A thin layer of clouds crept over the sun, and I cursed my luck. It was just before the golden hour, and the light, instead of turning a brilliant gold, had turned watery and hellish. But then, as the wind turned, and a stench of rotten flesh hit my nose, I looked around and saw this tree full of vultures. What a moody and atmospheric shot this was, I thought, perhaps just right for the cover of a book on the Mongol invasion of the world, or perhaps the Black Death. But what we saw, as Stephen turned the Landrover upwind towards the source of the stench, was something totally unexpected.
The story of Tarzan of the Apes involves an elephant graveyard and its treasure of ivory. We know today that stories of elephant graveyards were just myths. But even the scale of a single dead elephant boggles the mind if you ever come across it. Every species of scavenging bird we’d seen in the Mara triangle seemed to be here in large numbers. As we watched a large white-backed vulture emerged from under the skin of the cadaver. It was clear that we had arrived very late. The mammal scavengers had already come and gone. The stench told us that bacteria had started breaking down the flesh. After the birds, insects would arrive to clear the little that remained. The elephant had almost completed the cycle of nature, returning its flesh to the rest of the ecosystem.
When you have a game reserve with almost one and a half million wildebeest and nearly a thousand lions, you should expect that some of the antelopes die every day. The cleaning crew will be seen on the grasslands of Maasai Mara fairly often. The featured photo shows a constant member of the work gang: the Marabou stork. I first saw one in Nairobi; a large number of them gather in the neighbourhood of the National Stadium, but I couldn’t get a good photo in the traffic. My next sighting was in Amboseli, but at a distance, through a heat haze which made my photo a little blurred. It was only here that I got my first good photo of the Marabou stork. They are perhaps the only species of birds which completely lack a voice box.
The cleaning crew sat on a berm, and below them in the ditch was the remains of the wildebeest they were cleaning up. How did it die? It could have been chased into this place by a predator, where the high wall on one side did not allow it to escape. It could have been killed elsewhere and dragged here. Or it could have fallen down and broken its neck. The Family speculated that it could also have had a heart attack. It is unlikely that we would ever find out. We wouldn’t even have noticed it if we hadn’t spotted the cleaners sitting there.
The crew contained a few white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus). This was our first view of this critically endangered species. You can tell them from the back by the white wings covering a darker body. The face is uniformly black, and lacks any yellow in the beak. You can see a couple very clearly in the group photo of the cleaning crew. Off on one side, a large vulture examined me as I took its photo. It turned out to be another critically endangered species, the Rüppell’s griffon vulture (Gyps rueppellii), one of the most remarkable fliers among birds. We’d met some earlier in the morning in another part of the reserve.
Stephen took a westward fork in the road and very soon we were climbing, perhaps on to the Oloololo escarpment. In the lovely morning light I was watching the open low land on the other side when The Family pointed at a small wake of vultures ahead. We’d spotted many vultures in the morning, sitting on top of trees, often solitary, sometimes in companionable silence. This wake was noisy.
When we came closer, Stephen pointed out the critically endangered Rüppell’s griffon vulture (also called Rüppell’s vulture, Gyps rueppelli) . They were large and easily recognized by the dark face with a yellow-tipped beak. They had yellow eyes and feathers which gave the appearance of being scaly. I watched as one took off with a long run. It gained height very slowly, probably overloaded with wildebeest meat. It was hard to believe that they are champion flyers, having been spotted flying about 11 kilometers above sea level. There are less than 22,000 individuals left, spread across sub-Saharan Africa, as far south as Tanzania. Since there are several protected areas on their range, they are not likely to disappear immediately. But these immense champions are right there on the slippery slope to extinction. I thought to myself that my youngest niece will probably see them, but maybe not her children.
There was another species at the wake, the immense lappet-faced vulture (also called Nubian vulture, Torgos tracheliotos). This species is easily recognized by its bare red face, with lappets. Although its range encompasses all of Africa except the Sahara and the coast North of it, and central Africa, it is said to be endangered since there are no more than 5,700 adults. Trade in this species is banned internationally, and there are conservation and education efforts on around most of the protected areas in its range. I hope that some of these efforts pay off, but I am not very hopeful.