When rangers at South Africa's Londolozi Private Game Reserve recently stumbled across the remains of a young elephant, they anticipated that the sizeable carcass would keep the reserve's scavengers busy for some time. "I imagined we were in for a good four or five days of exciting viewing," photographic guide, James Tyrrell wrote on the Londolozi blog. "I couldn’t have been more wrong." In just 36 hours, hyenas and vultures had reduced the hefty carcass to little more than skin and bones. Tyrrell documented some of the action as "nature's clean-up crew" went to town on the pachyderm.

On the first morning that Tyrrell arrived on the scene, hyenas had already polished off a large portion of the carcass. Image © James Tyrrell/Londolozi
Although hyenas have a reputation as vicious scavengers, they are typically less aggressive than lions when on a kill, Tyrrell points out. Scraps do sometimes break out over choice pieces of meat, however. Image © James Tyrrell/Londolozi
"I wouldn’t go as far as to say that hyenas are beautiful ... but in the golden light just after sunrise, there was certainly something a lot more captivating about them." Image © James Tyrrell/Londolozi
Once the hyenas had gorged themselves on the abundance of meat, it was the turn of vultures. "There were probably upwards of 200 of them: white-backed, hooded, lappet-faced, white-headed and even a Cape vulture." While the hyenas had taken to tearing off large chunks of meat, the vultures were more efficient – systematically pecking off every morsel of protein. Image © James Tyrrell/Londolozi
A slow shutter speed helps capture the flurry of activity as the vultures feast. Image © James Tyrrell/Londolozi
Vultures take flight as one of the hyenas returns to the carcass. Image © James Tyrrell/Londolozi
By the following morning, a skull, a ribcage and some scraps were all that were left of the carcass. This photo was captured less than 36 hours after the first image in this article. "Most of the removable bones had been carried off by individual hyenas," Tyrrell explains. "Although a few members of the local clan still lingered to make the most of the offering. The individual pictured was gnawing on the ball joint of a femur." Image © James Tyrrell/Londolozi

So what prematurely ended this young elephant's life? Lions do sometimes try their luck with super-sized prey, but it seems that this particular elephant's fate was sealed as a result of the advances of an overzealous bull. The cause of death only became evident after the carcass had been stripped to the bone by hyenas and vultures: a broken pelvis. Tyrrell, points out that it's likely the elephant sustained this injury when a large bull tried to mate with her. Unable to walk, she succumbed to malnutrition.

It's a tragic end for the young pachyderm, but a blessing for the reserve's opportunistic carnivores.

Header image: James Tyrrell/Londolozi