Winner of the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013
The Kalahari is a land of extremes: summer temperatures soar whilst winter nights plummet to well below freezing,a parched dusty landscape that can be transformed overnight to a sea of green rolling dunes.
The silence can be deafening for those of us whose lives are consumed byeveryday noise.
For the inhabitants of the Kalahari, life
is a constant struggle; their survival hangs by a single
thread – the arrival of the rains. If they are late this can
seal the fate of those who have struggled through a long
It’s October. For the visitor this is prime viewing time, as
the scarce vegetation and water means animals
congregate close to the man made waterholes. Birders
await the arrival of migrants such as Abdim’s Stork,
Yellow-billed Kite, Booted Eagle and Common Swift
from their long journeys. But the rains are late, the air is
thick with dust and the wind blows sand that bits at the
faces of the ungulates making their way to a nearby
waterhole. As the dust swirls settle down and the wind
drops an eerie sensation descends around the waterhole.
Soon it is apparent why – the place is littered with
carcasses of once magnificent Eland – patches of skin,
horns and pieces of bones from their huge frames lay
At first they circle, in ones and twos, within minutes the
sky is full. Their descent is almost silent, landing on
the beautiful Camel thorns. Their powerful necks move in
arcs as they scan their surroundings. On the ground
they begin hissing and squawking noisily; chaos
ensues as they fight for best feeding position. They climb
over each other, pecking, biting and clawing their way
through the mayhem; fights breaking out as they vie for
dominance at the carcass.
This is the way of the White-backed Vulture.
I reposition myself, it’s close to midday and the light is
harsh – not ideal, but that doesn’t matter I have been
waiting a long time to capture images of these
magnificent raptors these vultures of the Kalahari. In
my minds eye I have the images I want to create. I click
away pausing now and again to get a better angle. In the
view finder I am composing and recomposing over and
over again. Watching and waiting for a particularly
aggressive vulture to attack.
Then he arrives. Walking across my viewfinder he
defines magnificence, he demands respect. He towers
above the white-backs. They part like the Sea of Galilee as
he moves towards the carcass. The Lappet-faced Vulture
has arrived. All action halts. Even the jackals pause to
look at the latest arrival, assesses the situation, then trot
off. The Lappet-face starts chewing and pulling at the
carcass, and the free-for-all starts again, but the Whitebacked
Vulture are careful to keep their distance. Every
now and again the Lappet-faced reminds them with a
hiss or a vicious bite of the pecking order at the carcass.
In truth these two rivals have different preferences at the
carcass the White-backed Vulture favours the softer parts
whilst the Lappet-faced Vulture is inclined to go for the
skin, tendons and ligaments – the parts that most other
vultures are not equipped to deal with.
Skirmishes start breaking out once again amongst the
White-backed scavengers. It is difficult to photograph as
the fighting vultures kick up so much dust. They are
totally engulfed. Now and again I can see a head, a
wing, a claw, as feathers and dirt fly in all directions. I
click away with more hope more than certainty. When
the dust settles the carcass is bare. Some vultures fly to
nearby trees but their takeoff is laboured due to full
crops. Those who have over indulged and are too heavy to
fly simply walk to the shade of the nearest tree.
I sit up and take my eye away from the view finder. I
count over 60 White-backed Vulture, 2 Lappet-faced
Vulture, a pair of Bateleur, Tawny Eagle and even a
Lanner Falcon. The demise of the Eland has become a
bounty for so many of these raptors and it has been a
privilege to witness and record this interaction.
Written by Peter Delaney