National Geographic : 2016 Jan
78 national geographic • january 2016 with grooved tongue, whatever it can before be- ing ripped from its place at the table. Another white-backed tunnels into a nostril while a Rüp- pell’s vulture starts at the other end; it’s eight inches into the wildebeest’s anus before another bird wrenches it away, then slithers its own head, like an arm into an evening glove, up the intes- tinal tract. And so it goes—40 desperate birds at five golf-ball-size holes. Eventually, two lappet-faced vultures make their move. These spectacular-looking animals stand more than a yard tall, with wingspans of nine feet. (In treetops, they make stick nests as big as king-size beds.) Their faces are pink, their bills large and deeply arched, and their powerful necks festooned with crepey roseate skin and a brown Tudor ruff. While one lappet hammers a hole in the wildebeest’s shoulder, the other excavates behind a sinus, in hopes of finding juicy botfly larvae. Sinews and skin snap. Now a white-backed rams its head down the wildebeest’s throat and yanks out an eight-inch length of trachea, ribbed like a vacuum hose. But before the vulture can enjoy it, the four- foot-tall marabou stork that’s been stiffly lurk- ing snatches the windpipe away, tosses it once for perfect alignment, and swallows it whole. Thanks to the labors of the lappets, which fa- vor sinew over muscle, the wildebeest is now wide open. Heads fling blood and mucus into the air; viscera drip from vulture bills; two birds play tug-of-war with a ten-foot rope of intestine coated in dirt and feces. As the wildebeest shrinks, the circle of sated birds lounging in the short grass expands. With bulging crops, the vultures settle their heads atop folded wings and slide their nictitating membranes shut. No more sound, no more fury. As placid as suburban ducks, they rest, at peace with the world. The vulture may be the most maligned bird on the planet, a living metaphor for greed and rapaciousness. Leviticus and Deuteronomy Vultures are both lovers and fighters. They probably mate for life, which can be 30 years in the wild, and are attentive to their partners. But in a scuffle around a carcass (right), they’re aggressive competitors, with other species and their own kind. Lappet-faced vultures (Torgos tracheliotos, above) are known for being particularly affectionate.