The dogs had killed the previous night. What was left – it had been a fine male puku antelope as recently as yesterday evening – was surrounded by vultures. What they were surrounding was bone; a single hooded vulture was looking optimistically for edible scraps in the espalier of ribs.
There were four species of vulture represented, a full count for the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. And there, lording over the rest, were four lappet-faced vultures. The dogs were still occasionally chasing the vultures off, but merely for the look of the thing. They were full, so were the vultures. The only empty thing was the puku.
There’s a kind of ugliness that fascinates, makes you unable to look away. That’s certainly the case with lappets. They are huge: cruising the skies in search of food on wings that are a whisper under ten feet in span. Their heads are massive, equipped with beak like a meat-cleaver. Like most vultures, they are bald-headed: if your job is sticking your head into a corpse, feathers would soon get matted beyond use. But do these naked heads need to be bright red?
They are the most powerful of the vultures in the Valley. They will often find a dead mammal for themselves, one that died without the help of the major carnivores, and they’re so well equipped they can open it up for themselves, making it available for the other vulture species as well – though they all give way to the lappets. (The word, by the way, refers to a flap of skin.)
You can call them ugly if you like, and despise them as scavengers, forgetting that lions and eagles are perfectly capable of scavenging when opportunity presents itself. But here was ugliness so perfect that it achieved a kind of beauty.
- I was co-leading a trip with Wildlife Worldwide https://www.wildlifeworldwide.com/discover/zambia