An African elephant can weigh up to seven tons and can live for 70 years. When one of these behemoths dies, it is mourned. Worn paths radiating like the spokes of a wheel often surround a dead elephant, created by other pachyderms traveling to visit the remains over the course of days, weeks, or even years.
But in a circle of life writ extra-large, the natural death of an elephant also means survival for many others, including some currently threatened and endangered species. A horde of hungry animals quickly descends to reduce the carcass to bones, gulping down millions of calories in just a few days.
Recently, a film crew with Safari Live, which is produced by WildEarth Media for National Geographic, captured a remarkable scene of supersize scavenging in action in South Africa. A male elephant had been gored in a fight with another male and later died of his injuries. After filming elephants grieving at his side, the crew decided to stick around to see what happened next.
What they got is a gory tableau, with roiling piles of vultures plunging into innards and fighting for choice scraps. But if you watch for a while, the carnage is a surprisingly orderly affair. Everyone has a job to do, and to some extent, they wait their turn to do it.
Vultures often spot a dead animal within minutes or hours of death, but even their strong beaks can’t tear through elephant hide, so many will circle aloft while they wait for the sharp teeth of lions or hyenas to “open” the carcass and spill the innards, says Joyce Poole, an elephant expert who codirects the conservation group ElephantVoices.
In the case of the bull captured on video, several spotted hyenas opened the carcass to a flock of white-backed vultures, which quickly covered the elephant in a mass of tugging, flapping birds.
Hundreds of vultures can descend on an elephant carcass at once and reduce it to a skeleton in a matter of days, says National Geographic grantee and vulture expert Munir Virani of The Peregrine Fund, who has witnessed the grim spectacle a few times in the flesh.
“It’s just incredible—the noise, the cacophony—they jostle and they jump and they fight and pull one another’s wings,” Virani says.
In Death, Pulses of Life
These feasts can be crucial for vultures, whose populations have plummeted as humans have changed their habitats and poisoned them. When a large animal dies, vultures stuff their crops with as much meat as they can hold to take back to their nests. They’re rearing chicks for about half the year, Virani says, so they need to find as many big meals as possible.
While dead elephants are far from an everyday feast—especially since their numbers have plummeted in Africa from millions to a few hundred thousand—Virani points out that scavengers such as vultures evolved alongside big migrating herd animals like elephants and wildebeest and depend on their numbers.
Elephant carcasses also feed a full community of decomposers, which will move in to chow down on anything the bigger scavengers don’t get to quickly enough.
“The maggots take over at some point, and the whole carcass is just seething with maggots,” says Poole.
What’s more, a carcass site becomes soaked with blood and fluids released during decomposition, creating a fertile patch of ground where microbes release nutrients into the soil. And all those visiting elephants leave piles of poop that host several species of dung beetle and countless other small creatures, Poole adds.
Scientists look for these decomposition sites to better understand the number of elephants living, and dying, in a population. Elephant expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton developed what’s known as the “carcass ratio,” or the percentage of dead elephants found in a census. It’s a rather grisly sounding tool, but an effective one.
For instance, Botswana had a relatively low carcass ratio of just seven percent in the recent Great Elephant Census, compared with 32 percent in Mozambique. Fewer dead elephants usually means less poaching activity, which is why conservation groups were shocked this week when surveys in Botswana counted up at least 87 recent elephant carcasses, minus their tusks.
Now, we’re losing elephants at an alarming rate, and the effects of their rapid decline will trickle down on the environment and on other animals.
The feast an elephant provides after a natural death may be a fleeting pulse, “but that dynamic is what’s so important in ecosystems,” Poole says. “To remain diverse and alive, they need to change. They need to have these pulses in the system.”