Africa’s Scavengers are Keystone Species in the Food Web

Nature is surprisingly efficient, attending to the cycle of life. Certain species evolved to become the clean-up crew, feeding on animals that die from natural causes or carcasses after a predator is finished. Hyenas, Vultures, Jackals unfairly have a bad name but without these creatures, dead animals would pile up and take a long time to decompose, especially in drier climates where there are fewer decomposers such as fungi. Without the scavengers of the savannah, rotting carcasses would spread bacteria and other pathogens to wild animals, livestock and humans and therefore, play an important role in the savannah ecosystem.

Hyenas are the undisputed top scavengers of the African savannah, with specialised jaws that can crush bones. Hyenas are at the top of the food chain when it comes to consuming fallen prey animals. If there are hyenas in the area of a carcass, you can bet they will be the first ones there. Of the scavengers, they are the biggest, meanest, and most aggressive. They are also one of the most important species on the savannah and the great recycle bins of the African grassland. Their jaws can crunch through bone, which their stomach acids are capable of digesting.

Next are the vultures, the Lappet-Faced Vulture being one of the largest and can strip a carcass clean, leaving no rotting flesh left behind. If vultures get to a carcass before the hyenas, then they have to tear through the skin of the dead animal in order for other scavenging birds get to the meat, including Maribou Storks, who look like the solemn undertakers of the animal world.

Jackals are some of the most opportunistic African scavengers, waiting at a safe distance while larger predators feed. They are incredibly cunning and sly taking any opportunity to go in for a small snack. Usually, they wait till the feeding frenzy has abated, and the other animals start to disperse.

Scavengers are a vital part of the food web on the African savannah, (hyenas, vultures) and decomposers/detritivores (bacteria, fungi, termites) breaking it down to organic matter, making it available to producers and completing the food web. This importance is especially true of hyenas and vultures, who have incredible immune systems that prevent them from getting sick when they consume pathogens that are in carcasses.

Although the scavengers in Africa play such a vital role in the well-being of the ecosystem, they often fall by the wayside when it comes to conservation efforts. This is a great mistake as these scavengers compete with disease vectors like blowfly, rats and feral dogs for the same food source. By ‘getting there first’, they prevent epidemics that can have devastating consequences.