It always amazes the safari goer how fragile and transient life can be in wild Africa. How living, breathing beings are rendered lifeless lumps of protein that seem to disappear before their very eyes. How buffalo becomes carcass, becomes protein and calcium, becomes stomach contents and a smudge on the ground as first lion then hyena and jackal and vulture and finally beetle and moth and fly and bacteria reduce what was once mighty and magnificent to a mere component of the soil…to dust.
Africa’s clean-up crew. Maligned, misunderstood and despised. Many are familiar with the whooping spotted brute that slinks beyond the shadows…giggling hysterically behind some of nature’s fiercest carnassials and the bare headed carrion eating birds that gather from far, cloaked in feathers resembling the apparel worn by last century’s undertaker. The hyena, vulture and marabou need no introduction…neither does the jackal. But what happens after these death denizens have finished their work? What happens to the scapula and the pelvis…the keratinous horn and the skull? There is often thick, desiccated hide and tendon left. These are too much…even for the hyena!
Enter a most incredible group of specialised arthropods. Horn boring moths…their caterpillars consume horn as they prepare to pupate. Carrion beetles…designed to feed on miserable carcass left overs. Dung beetles that arrive on buzzing wings to roll up the stomach contents of the stricken and the eviscerated. There are blow flies and flesh flies…necrophagous specialists that materialise seemingly from nowhere to go about their dark and despicable deeds. Finally bacteria…producing a pinkish sheen on the bone surface…completes the process.
While lying under canvas listening to the soundtrack of the African night and the haunting, blood curdling cacophony emanating from the latest kill. Spare a thought for the unsung members of the savannah waste management brigade. And remember how, in a most disturbingly efficient fashion the great beasts of the field are broken down into Africa’s most plentiful by-product…dust.