Scavenging | Botswana Wildlife Guide

Vultures on a giraffe carcass. Michael Poliza
The English dictionary describes the term scavenger as an animal or other organism that feeds on dead organic matter. It also describes the word as a person who searches through and collects items from discarded material. An example of this idea would be a street cleaner.

By Leigh Kemp

Scavenging: The birth of an idea

In the African wilderness scavenging is a term used to describe the acquiring of food by means other than hunting. There is a debate as to whether one predator stealing a kill from another predator is scavenging or whether it can still be termed hunting due to the risks involved. The majority of carnivorous animals will scavenge when conditions deem it necessary.

Labels in the wilderness

Many animals have been stuck with labels due to misunderstandings in the past of their behaviour. Historically Hyenas have been looked upon as the ultimate scavenger and there is the classic African image of the Hyena waiting for the king of the beasts to finish his meal before moving in to fight over the scraps.It is true that Hyenas do scavenge but in many areas in Africa they hunt more than they scavenge. They are opportunistic and will feed on the most accessible food. Their penchant for hanging around waste dumps and breaking into kitchens adds to their reputation.What is not generally known, or it is not romantic to think it, is that Lions scavenge more than Hyenas do in many areas of Africa. Hollywood movies such as The Lion King portray a view of the African wilderness that is not quite correct and this adds to the confusion.

Hyenas and male lions

Hyenas can, and often do, chase Lions off a kill. A few scenarios can occur in the relationship. The Hyenas will be in majority, or if not then the clan would have stolen a kill from the same pride previously making the Lions edgy.

When there are male Lions present the Hyenas will very seldom make any move toward stealing the kill. Often male Lions will go out of their way to harm Hyenas that get too close.

Hyena takeover in Savuti

I came across the last four of Naomis pride feeding on a young Elephant at the bottom end of the Savuti Marsh late one afternoon. The kill must have happened that morning as it still looked fresh. Surrounding the Lions on the kill I counted 21 Hyenas and eight Jackals. We watched for a while and I wondered why the Hyenas had not moved in yet.The odds were very much against the Lions. They were in a bad condition and the numbers odds were stacked heavily against them. We had to leave to return to camp and I explained to the guests that something would happen during the night and by morning there would be very little sign of the carcass.The next morning, presuming that nothing would be left of the scene, I decided to drive the top end of the marsh and head slowly south to check out what was left. We arrived at the sight in mid-morning to a scene of great tension.

The Lions were still at the carcass and the Hyenas were very restless. I was very surprised that the Lions had held off the hyenas so long. Not long after we arrived the noise built to a crescendo and the Hyenas charged in.

Lions feeding on a rotting carcass

A brief moment of retaliation from the Lions did not achieve anything and they slowly moved away toward the shade of the bushes. Seeming chaos erupted with Hyenas and Jackal vying for a share of the spoils. Within minutes it was over. Hyenas and Jackal scattered in many directions pursued by others wanting a share.

ions' scavenging prowess was demonstrated in Savuti when they stayed and fed off an Elephant carcass for eight days. The carcass was in a state of serious decomposition yet the lions stayed put at the scene for more than a week.

Hyena hunters

Hyenas are considered of the best hunters in the African wilderness. In fact in most wilderness areas the hyenas have a far greater success rate than lions do. The perception of them as scavengers can be a little misleading and it stems from the behaviour of Hyenas, slouching around as they do at night.
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