Scavengers have a reputation for being lazy moochers, but a life of chasing leftovers has its share of challenges. For Africa's vultures, landing a meal often means fiercely defending your spoils.

This carcass clash (bonus points for the perfectly timed "Lion King" soundtrack!) was filmed recently by Joelene Schoenmakers in South Africa's Kruger National Park. Initially, the lone jackal seemed to be in control of its lucky find, but as more avian adversaries joined the fray, the skirmish morphed into an epic face-off.  

"Jackals are both predators and scavengers," vulture expert Dr Kerri Wolter told local media outlet Lowvelder after seeing the footage. "Once their turn comes, it is all about dominance and numbers, meaning, the more jackals there are, the less likely vultures will be able to scavenge. The more vultures there are compared to jackals, the greater the likelihood of the vultures dominating the carcass and consuming it."

For the untrained eye, differentiating vultures can be tricky, but we're actually looking at three different species here: white-backed (Gyps africanus), hooded (Necrosyrtes monachus) and lappet-faced (Torgos tracheliotos).

Competition for access to a kill might be high, but vultures are good at partitioning resources: each species specialises in scarfing particular body parts, and that actually reduces the tug-of-war over food.

"The necks [of African white-backed vultures] are long and bare, as they feed inside carcasses," says Wolter. "They use their long necks to reach into 'hard to reach' places, which other non-long-necked vultures can't get to." This also explains their "shaved" look: sticky feathers are no fun.

Lappet-faced vultures, on the other hand, prefer to munch tough skin and hard tissues. To wrap things up, hooded vultures feed on the leftovers of leftovers – small bits of meat that have been ripped up and dropped by other birds. "They help clean the carcass completely once the larger vultures have had their fill." 

While this band of birds made life tough for our jackal (who eventually decided the battle wasn't worth the energy), vultures are essential to local ecosystems – which is why their decline is so worrying. All three of the species in the clip are considered endangered – with the hooded and white-backed vultures recently up-listed to critically endangered status. These animals have long been persecuted and poisoned. 

For Wolter, seeing all three species together was a treat. Along with her partner Walter Neser and the team at non-profit conservation initiative VulPro, she's working tirelessly to help save yet another one of Africa's threatened vultures: the Cape griffon.

Mass poisoning, electrocution by power lines and diminishing food stocks are just some of the threats facing these misunderstood birds. Learn more and tag along for one of Wolter's rescues in this great clip from GoPro:

Top header image: Alan Harper/Flickr