National Geographic : 2016 Jan
76 A t sunset the wildebeest seems doomed: Sick or injured, it’s wan- dering miles from its herd on the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania. By sunrise the loner is dead, draped in a roiling scrum of vultures, 40 or so birds searching for a way to invade its earthly re- mains. Some of the scavengers wait patiently, with a Nixonian hunch, eyes on their prize. But most are engaged in gladiatorial battle. Talons straining, they rear and rake, joust and feint. One pounces atop another, then bronco rides its bucking and rearing victim. The crowd parts and surges in a black-and-brown wave of undulat- ing necks, stabbing beaks, and thrashing wings. From overhead, a constant stream of new diners swoops in, heads low, bouncing and tumbling in their haste to join the mob. Why the fuss over a carcass so large? Why the unseemly greed? Because the wildebeest is tough-skinned and wasn’t killed by carnivores, it lacks an opening wide enough for general ad- mission. And so the boldest birds compete furi- ously for access. As the crowd cackles and caws, a white-backed vulture snakes its head deep into the wildebeest’s eye socket and hurriedly slurps, By Elizabeth Royte Photographs by Charlie Hamilton James Blood drips from a Rüppell’s vulture’s beak as it pauses mid-meal. The neck and head of Rüppell’s are sparsely feathered, the better to keep gore, guts, and fecal matter from clinging after a deep carcass dive.