Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Talek West Tragedy

We’ve been living a nightmare these past several days. Someone poisoned a carcass in Talek West territory, and we’ve lost four hyenas that we know of so far, which are in addition to Honey, Idi, and Endor, who were poisoned last week outside the reserve. This second poisoning happened relatively close to the den, but we never found the carcass itself.

Blanket was the first casualty. Hadley and Benson found him dead at the end of morning obs. He had a sticky pink substance coming out of his anus, and was bleeding from his mouth, nose and eyes. When they brought his body back to camp, it looked like he was crying blood. The necropsy was fascinating in a very awful way; whatever they used to poison him was a disturbingly potent substance. The flies that landed on Blanket began to die, littering the ground around him with their twitching bodies. His internal organs, especially the liver, were discolored, and had a blotchy, irritated look to them. The inside of his stomach contained the remains of a calf that looked like it had been doused in a pink substance the color of pepto bismol.

Then, while we were still reeling from Blanket’s death, we got a call that there were more dead hyenas. I had been hoping we might get a day or so before other bodies turned up, or that maybe the calf in Blanket’s stomach was too small to kill many others, but there’s practically no way to kill only one animal with poison. This is because poison is indiscriminant and creates a huge amount of collateral damage. What I have been told is that usually, when a herder poisons a carcass, it kills scores of hyenas, a few lions, lots of jackals and vultures, and even domestic dogs. What is even more concerning is that the flies that died around Blanket clearly demonstrate that this poison remains deadly even after it is consumed, which means that it can spread secondarily to an even broader swath of the ecosystem. To add another level of concern, when an animal is poisoned, it seeks out water to drink. This means that they can also spread the poison to an aquatic ecosystem, which in an area where most people get their drinking water from rivers could actually end up harming humans as well. The probable and potential effects of a poisoning event are extremely serious and disturbingly wide reaching. So we knew after Blanket that there would be others, but we were still dreading what we would see.

As we drove towards the area where Hadley and Benson found Blanket, we saw a strange shape in a tree, a tangle of cream-colored wings sticking out at odd angles from the branches. As we drove up, we saw it was a dead tawny eagle hanging off its perch. Above it, there was another eagle that was panting and struggling to fly away. We managed to get the dead one out and when we looked at it, we saw pink goo oozing from its mouth and the stain of pink on its feet. Tawny eagles are a bit like vultures in that they will also congregate at a kill to eat the meat. In this case, that exposed them to the poison as well.

We had to climb on the car to get the tawny eagle out of the tree, and as we looked across the plain, we realized that there were more small bodies scattered across it, from a variety of species. Even before we got close to each of them, I felt a sense of horror seeing the scale of effect laid out before us.

After a half hour of collecting dead animals, our non-hyena casualty total was three tawny eagles, one vulture, and two jackals. We knew that there were probably many more that we would never find, because there was a dense lugga nearby that most of the dead animals would have sought out as they died.
Hadley photographs a dying Tawny Eagle that was killed secondarily after feeding on this Black-backed Jackal that died from ingesting poison

The first hyena we found that afternoon was Mousetrap. She’s a bossy young female with one of the most distinctive spot patterns of any hyena in the clan. She had just had her first cub, Earl Warren (Ewar for short), who is a rambunctious mischief-maker and is too young to survive without her. When we found Mousetrap, there were two strings of dried blood coming out of her nose, coated in dead flies, and the same telltale pink stains on her fur.
Mousetrap, as we found her

The next hyena was Xenon. She was another beautiful young first time mother. We had just finally confirmed seeing her nurse the night before, and hadn’t even given her cub a name yet. Her cub is also too young to survive without her. Later, when KWS vets were doing a post-mortem on her body, they found signs of internal hemorrhaging. Her lungs were full of blood, and her stomach held the remains of a calf that were stained an otherworldly neon pink and purple.

Wilson mentioned that some of the hyenas might try to get to the den as they were dying, so we made our way towards it. We found another hyena in the creek behind the den, deep in the bushes. It took us a while to get her out of the water, but when we laid her out we saw it was Obama. Obama is yet another first-time mother, and her cub Sycamore Fig is also too young to survive without her.

Finding Obama highlighted just how difficult it will be to know exactly how many animals were killed by this single event. If others also went into water surrounded by bushes, we may never find them.

The KWS vet team conducting their post-mortem on Xenon and the others
Despite the sincere concern expressed by those officials present at the post-mortem for Mousetrap, Xenon, and Obama, we were a little worried that no real action would be taken as a result of the poisoning. We were very wrong about that. The response has been overwhelming. The County Council blocked all livestock grazing in the reserve until the community brings them the person responsible. If nothing else, I hope this sends a strong message that poisonings are not an acceptable reaction to livestock predation and that hyenas are a valuable part of this ecosystem.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Muddy hyenas- the bane of hyena researchers.

Two young subadults playing in the mud. Ditches are a favorite spot for soaking in mud.

The rainy season has started in the Mara, although this is always a good thing for the ecosystem, it certainly makes doing hyena work much more difficult. We do a lot of off-road driving in order to find our hyenas but we have to be extremely careful to not leave tracks with the tires while we’re driving. It only takes about 6mm of rain for off-road driving to be a no-go. Luckily in the Mara Triangle the roads are very well maintained so there are certain parts of all three hyena clan territories that we can usually get to even when its wet. Despite good roads and tracks we’ve already gotten stuck twice now in our furthest territory. (The first time we had to jack up the cruiser and put some rocks underneath the tire and the second time we were able to maneuver the cruiser out).
I had no idea who this hyena was and they looked extremely smug about not contributing data to the research project.

Faces are not exempt from mud baths.

Once we arrive at a hyena den or find a group of hyenas we encounter an entirely different problem that the rainy season brings: muddy hyenas! Since we primarily use spots to ID hyenas the mud can be extremely frustrating. The hyenas love mud and they especially love to obscure the spot patterns that we use. On the hot sunny afternoons between evening rain showers the hyenas all seem to seek out muddy puddles where they can nap. Over the last year I’ve accumulated quite a few photos of unIDed muddy hyenas. If we’re lucky they have ear damage that we can use to identify them, but most of the time we can only guess.
George Costanza with caked mud all over his body. (Only IDable due to his size, he was the only small cub at the den.)

Perfect spot for a nap on a hot sunny day.

This cub was rolling in black-cotton mud. This mud is especially gooey and sticky. (He had a few shoulder spots on his other side so I can tell you this is BRON).

Two fluffy muddy cubs. This age is the hardest to ID because the fluff, even when they're clean, already obscures their spots. These two seemed quite perfectly camouflaged.

This hyena was covered in not just one type of mud, but two! Red murram and black cotton. She also seemed really itchy so I think she'd been trying out different mud holes in order to relieve the itching (from bug bites?)

Another unID. Happy as can be and not a spot in sight.

Buffalo also love the mud on hot sunny days. Surprisingly they are not adverse to sharing the good spots with hyenas. 

Bonus: Cute baby warthogs also like to get really muddy.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Cub demography

Cub pile at South's den.

A major part of a research assistant’s job is keeping up the clan demography. This means keeping track of rank changes and new immigrant males on occasion but mostly means collecting demography information for all the new cubs. Most of the cubs are born around between October and February, but they don't really start to come out of the den until they're one to two months old and they don't get really bold and playful (i. e. start playing underneath the car) until about 3 months. Now that it's March just about every mom has brought her cubs to the communal den of each territory, so we have our hands full! The information we need for each cub includes: who is the mom, if the cub has a sibling, is it subordinate or dominant, what is the cub's sex, and how old is the cub? Additionally, as soon as a cub gets spots we need to get good left and right side photos so we can learn how to ID the cub.

Sport and Citrus investigating the car.

It’s a great excuse to sit at the den and watch cubs play for hours but it can also be very stressful when there are 8 little cubs just starting to get their spots running around and interacting with other hyenas, especially when you have no idea who their moms are. In order to confirm a cub’s mom we have to see it nurse. Sometimes we see this right away and sometimes we have to give a cub a nickname that we’ll use for several weeks until we see it nurse.

Serena's cub board. IRL is short for inter-litter rank, DFS is short for date first seen, and DOB is short for date of birth. 

Yesterday we redid the cub board and removed all the older cubs that were born last year and are no longer living at the communal den. We use this board to keep track of each cub’s information as we collect it. “Citrus” (at the bottom of HZ) is the nickname of the only unIDed cub at Happy Zebra. Since all the mom’s have a specific theme for their cub’s names we can’t give Citrus a real name until we know who his mom is.

This is Higgs-Boson (mom's lineage is subatomic particles) when he was about 4-5 weeks old. At this age they get pale rings around their eyes.

This is Death Star (mom's lineage is space ships) when she was about 7 weeks old. 

Giving a cub a birth date is usually the hardest part. When cubs are between 3 and 9 weeks old aging is usually straightforward based on the amount of white on their face. Between 4 and 5 weeks cubs get pale rings around their eyes which eventually around 5 to 6 weeks turn into white eyebrows. Gradually the white will spread back over their entire face so that at around 11 and 12 weeks their entire head is fairly pale. By 3 months old their black is well on the way out and you can see shoulder spots but the variation at this age starts to broaden.

This is Clever Girl and Shooter (mom's lineage is Jurassic Park quotes) when they were about 3 months old. Notice how the darker fur is just starting to leave their shoulders.

Once a cub starts to get spots the next important thing to do is print photos of it’s spot pattern and learn how to ID her! For each clan we have a book with right and left side photos of every hyena.

Happy Zebra's clan book with ID photos for every hyena. On the front page is the social hierarchy. Offspring are tabbed once underneath their mother.

Right and left spot photos for some of Happy Zebra clan's cubs.

Eleanor nursing her two cubs Hey Jude (in the subordinate position) and Michelle (in the preferred position).

If a mom has two cubs, we also try to identify the dominant and subordinate cub. There are two ways we can do this, the most reliable way is by observing an aggressive interaction between the two cubs and noting which cub was the aggressor and which cub put its ears back and acted submissive. We can also get an idea by which cub is nursing in the preferred position. A mother hyena has only two nipples between her two back legs and all cubs to prefer to nurse parallel to mom, tucked up against her belly. If this position is occupied by the dominant cub the subordinate will nurse between his moms hind legs. This position is less desired because the cub doesn’t get mom’s body heat and can’t be groomed by mom when she’s nursing.

Some cubs, especially smaller ones, often nurse parallel but the cub closer to mom still occupies the "preferred" position. This is Sherman with Astronaut and Rocket Scientist (her lineage is professions).

Cubs also sometimes nurse while their mother is still standing up. We call this nursing "on hoof". This is Teddy Bear nursing from Saur with Gummy Bear off to the right. Saur's lineage is types of bears. 

The next thing we do for a cub, once we know who it is and we can reliably identify it, is try and sex it. Since female hyenas have a pseudo-penis, which we call a phallus, sexing can be difficult. However there are some distinctive morphological differences between male and female phalluses that is detectable even in the cubs. Male phalluses are very pointy, almost spade shaped with a very defined constriction before the head. Female phalluses are either round or blunt at the end and have some to no constriction. These differences can only be seen reliably when the phallus is erect.

This is Blue Band, a female hyena cub.

This is her brother Kachumbari. (Their mom is Clovis, whose lineage is condiments. Blue Band and Kachumbari are both kenyan condiments).

One may think it would be rare to see a hyena cub with an erection but for hyenas the phallus is a tool for social communication. When two hyenas greet each other they typically become erect and will sniff each other’s phalluses. Since all the hyenas love to get to know the new cubs there's usually a lot of social interaction going on at the den and it's not too hard to spot a cub’s phallus. To be on the safe side we always sex a cub three independent times before we can be sure of its sex. On our cub board the black gender symbols indicate the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd sighting. The colored gender symbols indicate a 100% confirmed sex. As you can see we don’t always get it right the first time!

Eremet play-biting Falkor's hind leg (the cub on its back) while Spyro goes for Falkor's ear. (Eremet's cubs are named after dragons).

This is my favorite part of the job because between IDing, aging, and sexing cubs we just get to watch them nurse and play romp!

North cubs debating about whether nor not to go underneath the car.

Sherman's cubs chewing on her radio collar.

UPDATE: Sherman and Hooker both now have really little cubs and don't seem so into fighting Waffles for North's matriarchy. Hence, Waffles is still holding the throne (which some major help from her daughter LogC).

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cubs on the Move

Hi! I am the new Serena research assistant. I have been out in the Mara for a bit over a month now. A few days ago when Julie and I were heading back to camp, we came across these three in the middle of the road.  

Sherman was moving her two cubs, Rocket and Astro, from Schiphol Den to DeGaulle Den. As the cubs meandered across the road and snapped at grass stalks, Sherman patiently waited for them and slowly guided her easily distracted cubs towards their new den. The last few meters proved a little too exciting, and Sherman carefully picked up one cub and deposited him in the den hole. When we left, Sherman was curled up nursing Rocket and Astro.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Hyena talks

Recently we have started giving talks at Mara Serena Safari Lodge on Wednesday nights. This is a great way to teach to the tourists staying at the lodge as well as the employees that work there about hyenas. We spend a lot of time at the lodge (fueling our cars, using their mechanics, getting water etc.) and it feels really good to be able to share some of our work with them and explain why we love hyenas so much and why they are important to study and conserve.

Everyone we have talked to has really enjoyed learning some fun facts about hyenas!

We bring a hyena's skull (left) and a lion's skull (right) to show how their skull morphology differs and how that impacts their bit force! We also show off the hyena's worn down bone crushing teeth. 

So far this has been a really positive experience. We have met a lot of interesting people from around the world and have been able to dispel some very common misconceptions about our favorite social carnivore. Hopefully we are able to continue this

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Waffles, LCS, and Kruuk's Culvert.

Right now the north hyenas “club” is at Kruuk’s culvert, a culvert just about a kilometer north of camp. We use the word “club” to refer to an area where the hyenas seem to prefer to hang out. The club and the den are the two main centers of activity within a territory. Kruuk was one of the first scientists to study spotted hyenas and is also the one who originally termed the word “club” to mean a spot where the hyenas like to hang out. The fact that the north hyena's club is currently at Kruuk's culvert is entirely coincidental but in the last few days we've seen some interesting stories unfolding here that have to do with our favorite hyena friendship, that of Waffles (North clan's matriarch) and LCS (a very low-ranking hyena in North clan named for her ear damage, a slit in the 'c' area of her left ear). 

LCS and Waffles are best buds. 

Two days ago we followed Waffles, North’s matriarch, to Kruuk’s culvert along with Waffles’ daughter LogC, son Torani, and grandson George. They joined up with Tinsel who was nursing her daughter Rama by Kruuk’s culvert. Not long after all the hyenas had seemed to settle down for the day we heard an antelope dying in the thicket not too far away. Immediately all six hyenas were up on their feet loping towards the source of the noise. We arrived to see LogC and Torani holding two halves of an impala calf- they clearly hadn’t killed it but they’d chased off the hyena who had before we arrived. Back towards Kruuk’s Culvert we saw that LCS had joined the group and we thought it might have been her who killed the calf since she was the only new hyena here. However poor LCS, a very low-ranking hyena, was not welcome at this hang out. LogC and Tinsel, with their blood still up, started aggressing on her the moment she got closer, asserting their higher ranks.

LCS also happens to be Waffles’ best friend but Waffles couldn’t do anything about her daughter’s aggression. In fact, in the heat of the moment Waffles actually joined in on a low level aggression we called a point, in which an animal rigidly points its entire body at the subordinate animal, usually with tails and ears erect. Even though this was a very low level aggression LCS had had enough, and she wasn’t going to forgive Waffles for that mishap. As LCS started to lope away Waffles’ demeanor changed from energetic to confused. We followed Waffles as she went loping after her best friend. When LCS disappeared a few hundred meters ahead of us over a low rise Waffles paused to give out four long low whoops, possibly trying to call her friend back. This was the first time I’d ever seen a hyena whoop in order to specifically call another hyena. Usually whoops seem to be reserved for announcing food or lions. However LCS essentially slammed the door in Waffles face when we crested the rise to see her disappear into a dense patch of grass without a single backwards glance.

LCS and Waflfes sharing a natal den.

Sometimes it really seems like Waffles and LCS’ friendship is a little lopsided with Waffles always pursuing and trying to be friendly to LCS, who can be indifferent. It was Waffles who moved her cubs to LCS’ natal den (where she had given birth to her son WAWA) and though LCS seemed perfectly content to share her hole with Waffles’ she really didn’t have any say in the matter. This goes against what the literature says animals of different ranks should behave. In socially complex animal societies lower ranker animals almost always prefer to associate with higher-ranking animals for benefits that such associations can confer. As a very low-ranking hyena LCS should be the one pursuing friendship with Waffles, the matriarch, rather than the other way around!

LCS and Waffles looking alert while their cubs explore the breakfast plains. 

Yesterday, to our relief, it seemed that Waffles and LCS had reconciled their differences and were back to being friends again. Together they took their cubs for one of their first graduation walks. Their destination? No big surprise: Kruuk’s Culvert. Kruuk’s culvert is a little over a kilometer away and this was the furthest from the den I’ve ever seen cubs of only 4 months old. Mrs. Butterworth (MRSB), Aunt Jemima (ANTJ), and Wailing Wall (WAWA pronounced Way-Wah) were all extremely excited to be out in the world. MRSB, ANTJ, and WAWA are all best buds (all boys) and they happily romped through the tall grass with their heads up and tails bristled.

New best buds in the making. MrsB, Wawa, and AntJ. 
It made me worry a little, if Waffles and LCS had bumped into any trouble there weren’t any holes near by for the cubs to take cover in and Waffles and LCS certainly wouldn’t be able to protect them from lions if it came to that. However, late morning is probably one of the safest times to take your cubs for a walk because the lions will hopefully all be asleep in the warm sunlight.

On their way back from Kruuk’s culvert they detoured a little bit over to Muffin den, the natal den where all three cubs had been raised until they were a little over a month old. I imagine the cubs’ paws must have been extremely sore by that point but they were as bouncy as ever while Waffles and LCS were starting to look a little exhausted. Even if Waffles and LCS’ relationship is a little lopsided LCS clearly still trusts Waffles greatly. She decided to sack out (lay down) in the small water hole near Muffin den to rest while her son WAWA went with Waffles and her cubs back to the den.

Very excited bristle-tailed MrsB and AntJ running through grass. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Stillborn giraffes and patient hyenas.

The other day while out on morning observations we saw a giraffe behaving very strangely. We first noticed her from almost a kilometer away, her tall form silhouetted against the rising sun to the east as we drove towards the river in south clan's territory. We thought it was odd to see just one giraffe and it wasn't until we were less than 100m away that we noticed the hyenas. There were 10 adult hyenas all sleeping in a circle around the giraffe. She seemed very distressed but unwilling to leave the ring of hyenas around her and we weren't sure why she didn't just walk off. It wasn't until we were just 25m away that we saw the dead calf at the giraffe's feet. It looked like it had been a stillborn, possibly born the night before. 

It seems that one adult giraffe can be quite formidable to a hyena, or ten. However, I was amazed by our hyenas patience. They knew they couldn't take on the mother giraffe but they were quite content to simply sleep and wait for the mother giraffe to give up on her dead calf. It was touching the way the mother giraffe would lower her head to nudge and sniff at the calf. She was clearly upset about the hyenas presence; it seemed that they made her even more reluctant to leave the calf. Though sad, this calf would provide a free meal for all the hyena moms that were patiently waiting. Four of the ten hyenas there all have little cubs at the den and they need nourishment too. 

We stayed with the giraffe and the hyenas for two hours before it started to get too hot and we left to go back to camp. The next evening there was no sign of the calf at all, since this is the lean time in the Maasai Mara for the hyenas this isn't too surprising. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Teen Moms and Koi's Female Army

Eremet (Pike's daughter) and Pike with their four little black cubs. Chakram and Trebuchet (Pike's cubs) are the front most and back most cubs with the white eyebrows. Spyro and Falkor (Erem's cubs/Pike's grandcubs) are the two smaller black cubs in between Chak and Treb (nursing from Eremet). 
It’s cub season now and all three clans have very active communal dens. Most of the cubs are around 3 months old now and are showing their spots as well as their personalities. This year Koi, Happy Zebra Clan's former alpha, would have been the grandmother to 2-4 new cubs and the great grandmother to 5-7 new cubs if she hadn’t been killed by a lion a few years ago. When Pike took the matriarchy after her mother’s death she started a tradition of teen moms or “babies having babies” as we’ve been calling it. Most female hyenas won’t have cubs until they’re over 3 years old and many not until they’re 4 or 5 (lower ranking hyenas tend to wait longer before having their first cubs). Pike was only 3 years old when she took the matriarchy and she already had two cubs Boomerang and Katana when she was 2 years old.

Arbalet, Boomerang, and Boomerang's two new 3-4 week old cubs RumG and Plank. 
KOI - f (died 02Jun11)
            PIKE (30Oct07) – f
                        TREB (09Dec13) - ?
                        CHAK (09Dec13) - ?
                        CLAY (23Jan13) – f
                        ARBA (26Sep11) – f
                                    TULA (?) - ?
                        EREM (26Sep11) – f
                                    SPYR (22Dec13) - ?
                                    FLKR (22Dec13) - ?
                        BOOM (16Feb10) – f
                                    RUMG (14Nov13) - ?
                                    PLNK (14Nov13) - ?
                                    SWAG (23Oct12) – m
                                    JLYR (23Oct12) – f
                        KATA (16Feb10) – m
            SNAP (30Oct07) – f
                        MOJI (5Nov12) – f
            COEL (31Aug10) – f

Above: The linear hierarchy for Happy Zebra clan (only showing Koi’s descendants). Birthdays are in parentheses followed by sex. Offspring are tabbed once underneath their mothers. 

Boomerang and Plank.
Now, at 6 years old she has already had five cubs, four girls and one boy. Her son Katana (now 4 years old) is in the process of dispersal and we’ve seem him hanging out with both south and north hyenas. Katana’s littermate Boomerang was our second teen mom, giving birth to two cubs when she was 2 years old. This year she’s 3 and already has another two cubs who are growing up big and strong. Boomerang’s younger sisters are also, to our amazement following tradition, teen moms for the first time this year. Eremet has two cubs and Arbalet has one.

Plank, Boomerang's cub, was very explorative from a very young age.
Claymore, Pike’s youngest daughter at 1 year old, seems very confused by the sudden switch from being the baby of the family to almost completely ignored. Her two older sisters Arbalet and Eremet used to be her constant playmates and with Pike as her mother she was the clan’s princess. Now her mother and older sisters all have new babies. Most hyena cubs nurse for over a year, but Pike’s family seems to have no problem getting more than enough to eat and all of them are having new cubs every
year, meaning Clay was actually weaned at a little less than one year old. She doesn’t seem too happy but Clay has plenty to eat, just no more milk.

Boomerang carrying Plank back to the den. 
For comparison to Pike’s “baby making machine” family her take a look at her littermate Snapper and her younger sister Coelacanth. Snapper in this same time period has had only one surviving cub, Mojito. Coel finally had her first two cubs this year but we're not sure they survived. We also think Snapper has new cubs this year but we haven’t seen them yet. If I were to post the entire linear hierarchy for the entire clan you would see that Koi’s descendants make up almost half the clan! Considering their high rate of reproduction in the last 4 years this isn’t surprising.

Boomerang nursing RumG and nuzzling Plank. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Routine and Adventure

A while ago, a balloon pilot friend and I were talking about routine.  We were talking about how most balloon pilots don’t seem big on routine and love adventure.  Then he said that researchers must have a routine, and I replied, “Well, sort of, but it’s never the same.”  How is routine never the same?  I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot since then.

Everyday, our general schedule is wake up to go out on obs at 5:30, observe the hyenas till about 9am, return to camp and eat breakfast, work and do camp chores during the day, go out for evening obs at 5pm, observe the hyenas again until about 8:30, return to camp and eat dinner, and go to bed.  We do this general thing everyday of the week.  It sounds simple, but it rarely is. 

There are surprises that don’t change the routine much if at all.  For instance, I can be sitting at the same seat every morning for breakfast.  You would think you would see the same view every day, but you don’t.  Sometimes we’ll see an elephant crossing the plain in front of camp, dwarf mongooses working up the courage to try to steal some peanut butter, warthogs walking up to us to snort for our leftover vegetables, zebras grazing by my tent, etc.   The following pictures are all taken from our dining table at Serena.

Some of our warthog breakfast companions

Zebra by my tent

Dwarf mongoose eating a banana

Driving down our driveway after obs, we don’t expect to see much of anything besides antelope, but then there are those days when you have a lion or a rhino in the “front yard.” 

Lion at the bottom of our driveway in Serena

But most of the time, none of these things are there.  There are the extremely rare and amazing surprises, like when you’re driving the same path you take everyday, and all the sudden a leopard appears right outside your window!  Those experiences are so unusual, they just take your breath away.

These events don’t actually alter our routine any, but they definitely make it so much more interesting.  Other occurrences can radically change our schedule though.  Usually it’s cars that make us completely drop everything and deal with them, rather than following our usual schedule. 

There are things that we do frequently enough for the cars that should be simple, but because we’re in Kenya, the chores run on their own time or some strange twist occurs.  For instance, you can go get petrol for the cars and be stopped by tourists to take awkward photos shaking hands.  Or, you can go to pick up car parts from the airstrip one day, but they weren’t put on the plane, the next day the plane forgot to unload them, and finally they get sent to the wrong airstrip, but your great Kenyan friends drive out to get them for you…Even car parts have adventures flying around the Mara.  If you have to go into down after a tire puncture on obs, you may have to explain to everyone why there is a fake hyena in the back of the car before they will fix the puncture.

People exclaiming about us having a fake hyena in the back of the car while changing our tire in Talek town.

Cars are so important to us; they’re necessary for us to go out on obs and follow our plan.  They’re so crucial that one of the rules in the Research Assistant Manual is always drive with the windows down so that you can immediately be aware if something breaks.  When (not if) something breaks, we have to drop everything and get the car fixed.  This leads to us spending whole days with the mechanics and not doing our routine work.  There are the rare, awful for us animal-obsessed researchers, occasions when we can’t go out on obs at all because there is something wrong with all of the cars.  Other times, everything is working until you drive into an unseen mud hole you can’t get out of after all the tour cars that can help pull you out have left the park…then your plans change from going home for dinner and bed to spending the night in the car in the middle of the Mara until a balloon tractor can pull you out in the morning.

Tractor to the rescue! You really can't see what we got stuck in...

To me though, the worst change in the routine happens when you find out a hyena is dead.  Sometimes you find it on obs, sometimes you get a call from someone and get a pit in your stomach because you don’t want to know who was found dead; we get to know all of our hyenas really well.  When there is a dead hyena, we have to drop everything, ID it if it is one from one of our study clans, and then perform a necropsy and collect the skull.  All of this is time consuming to say the least, but it’s also emotionally draining but interesting to see something’s insides.

Basically, there is always something that can pop up in our daily routine that is out of the ordinary.  I find myself frequently saying, “Always an adventure,” when I’m out here.  There is so much that can change or happen at any given time whether it’s a hunt, a rare animal, an engine explosion, an unexpected hole, a surprise storm, a shower gone awry, or any other thing you can (or can’t) imagine.  Everyone who has been out here has their own crazy stories.  We come to expect nothing to go as planned; so maybe that is our routine?  Our “routine” always is an adventure.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science