Thursday, February 16, 2017

Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day,
my fellow hyena enthusiasts!

While there may not be chocolates and roses here in the Masai Mara, Valentine's Day certainly was not forgotten. Although Valentine's Day may come at different times of year for buffalo, hyenas, and eagles, everyone celebrates in their own way.

True love: the cloacal kiss of the Martial Eagle
Martial Eagles are truly monogamous, and arguably more faithful than humans. Before each mating bout, the male spends many days seducing his mate with the finest of foods. After performing a courtship ritual midair, the couple consummates their relationship with a cloacal kiss. The male mounts the female and presses his cloaca up to hers, transferring his sperm. His role isn't over yet: he will be a committed father to their chick, bringing food back to the nest.

Photo courtesy of Stratton "Eagle Eyes" Hatfield, explorer extraordinaire.
The open relationship
Buffalo are quite promiscuous; both the males and females. As the breeding season approaches, the breeding herds join forces with the bachelor herds to get some love. An interested male "tends" to a female, following her until she reciprocates his feelings. If, during this time, she catches the eye of a more dominant male, the first male's courtship will all be for naught. If he is successful, there are still no strings attached; there is no lasting social bond between the male and female. In fact, as soon as they are finished, she will welcome another male's advances... and maybe even another.

The rolling stone
Elephants are incredibly social, but only the ladies and their kiddos are welcome to join the party. The bachelors are destined to a life of solitary roaming, but enter the exclusive ladies-only club when they are in musth: a state of high sexuality and aggression.
Rather than watching for a little wink or a flirty smile, bulls have to work a little harder to gauge a female's receptivity. He rubs the end of his trunk against her genitals, inhaling as he goes, and then uses the tip of his trunk to blow the air back into his own mouth. The smell will tell him whether or not his love interest is in estrus.
The fifty-year-old males with the largest trunks tear up the love scene in the herds, while the younger, smaller-trunked males have to bide their time. After a few weeks with his lady and her family, the bachelor is back out roaming the fields.

Two young elephants play-mount, practicing for someday when they'll become parents!
Photo credit to Erin Person, the glue that holds the hyena lab together!
The patriarch
Little is known about the secret love lives of Thomson's gazelles. However, one thing is clear: the males call the shots. Males defend a territory and will actively herd females to keep them on "their property." The males will attempt to mate with many females that he keeps in his territory.

Photo courtesy of Erin Person.
The cute couple
Bat-eared foxes, like Martial Eagles, are quite committed to one another. A territory is defended by a single mated pair. During the day, they sleep cuddled up together in a burrow. During the long nights, they forage together. The two also groom each other, play together, and protect and support each other. The monogamous pair breeds annually and then raises their kits together.

Photo courtesy of Erin Person.
It's complicated
A lion's love affair is a complicated one, rife with romance and fighting. A flirtatious female invites a male over to mate with her and he happily obliges. And then he obliges again, and again, and again. Their relationship runs hot for days as they mate multiple times per an hour. At each dismount, they have a small spat -- the dismount is painful for the female -- but within seconds, she calls him back over, rolling on her back and reaching out to him with a paw.

The mongoose sandwich
Like spotted hyenas, female dwarf mongooses run the show! A matriarch has a single mate within the group, and this couple is the only one to mate. However, this Valentine's Day, it looks the one queen decided to give everyone a go. The four mongooses formed a small train, swapping places with one another every few seconds. They won't be forgetting this Valentine's Day anytime soon.

Was this true mating? Was it just play-mounts? We may never know.

The gentleman
Female hyenas run the show; there's no question about it. This makes courting a nerve-wracking endeavor for interested males. The male and female spend time together -- wandering, resting -- before the male starts to make his move. At the beginning of the courtship, the male has to get up his nerve; he will attempt to approach her again and again, each time losing his nerve and backing off from her. As he gets bolder, he will groom his forelegs (a sure sign of adoration) and even bow for her. What a gentleman.

Katana bows to a beautiful female hyena.
But then again, aren't all hyenas beautiful?

If the female shares his feelings, they will go on a little getaway together. They head to the edge of their territory or, in Stardust's and Onekama's case, into the outskirts of a neighboring clan's territory. This ensures that they will have some much-needed privacy.

Mating requires quite a bit of skill on Onekama's part. He has to insert his phallus into hers! This requires Stardust's full cooperation. But, as you can see, he's got it!

Onekama rests his had on Stardust's back as they mate, just meters away from our car.

After Stardust's first-ever taste of copulation, she wasn't quite done with Onekama yet. She playfully chased him, even as the exhausted guy tried desperately to escape. They ran in circles around our car! Finally, he obliged and off they went again. After they were truly done, Onekama returned to their territory, with a very content Stardust on his heels. Along the way, they stopped at a small pond to swim and playfully splash each other. We named the pond The Honeymoon Suite.

Stratton Hatfield, Martial Eagle Researcher and Explorer Extraordinaire
Animal Diversity Web

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Luckiest Warthog in the Mara

I confess, before today I never found warthogs to be particularly impressive. Of course, this was before I met the champion of all warthogs. His athletic skills when faced with a rambunctious pack of hyper hyenas were beyond compare, as he managed to weave and dodge the whole lot for the better part of five minutes. A credit to his kin and all he stands for, he towers alone as a shining beacon at which a baffled pack of carnivores and this amused researcher can but wonder. Evolution, take notes.
This warthog weaved through these hyenas better than some scrappy wide receiver weaves through his more intimidating opponents to run the football in for the game winning touchdown.

This warthog weaved through these hyenas better than our cruiser weaves through 400 cows during our morning livestock traffic jam.

This warthog weaved through these hyenas better than I weave through a crowd of 10,000 MSU students on my bike when I'm 20 minutes late to class.

This warthog weaved through these hyenas better than your mom weaves through a frantic Kroger the day before Thanksgiving.


This warthog weaved through these hyenas better than Beyonce weaved through a crowd of rabid Grammy fans while 5 months pregnant with twins.

And as if he didn't already earn the title of the Baddest Pig in East Africa, this spectacular warthog proceeds to feast in the middle of the den of his foiled adversaries after besting them in the chase. My hero.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Urban Hyenas in Ethiopia

Hello everyone, I just arrived in Mekelle, Ethiopia two days ago to study the urban hyenas of Ethiopia.

My route of travel from the Maasai Mara on the Tanzanian border, to Nairobi where I flew to Addis Ababa and took a connecting flight to Mekelle in Northern Ethiopia in the Tigray region. (Harar is the little red dot in eastern Ethiopia). 

 Ethiopia is somewhat unique among African countries because the people there believe that hyenas consume bad spirits. Because of this belief hyenas are less persecuted than they are in places like Kenya and has facilitated the rise of the "urban hyena". Almost all large cities in Ethiopia support large populations of hyenas that scavenge from rubbish dumps and domestic animals.

Harar, Ethiopia is the most well known city for seeing these urban hyenas because of the "hyena men" who feed the hyenas nightly as a show for tourists. 

In Mekelle I'm collaborating with a scientist, Dr. Gidey Yirga, who was been studying the urban hyenas of Mekelle. In Mekelle, hyenas congregate around the rubbish dumps on the outskirts of the city and this is where Dr. Gidey has been studying them. Interestingly, the result from a genetic study done by Master's Student Elien Schramme suggests a massive break down of clan structure in Mekelle with little to no genetic structuring despite an extremely high density of hyenas (1.84 individuals/sq km). This density is far higher than any other hyena density on record, the next highest figure is 1.5 individuals/sq km in the Ngorongoro Crater in 1972. 

Though domestic animals almost entirely make up the diet of spotted hyenas, Dr. Gidey has found that the economic loss is minimal. On average hyena depredation of livestock costs households about 0.7% of their annual income (disease in livestock costs 1.6x this much). This is largely because most of the food hyenas obtain is through scavenging at waste dumps, rather than active hunting of domestic animals. The exception to this rule is during the Christian fasting period when hyenas make up the largest part of their diet from hunting donkeys due to reduced waste availability. 

I'm planning on going to the rubbish dumps of Mekelle at night to give these urban hyenas my multi-access box and cylinder detour-task to see how the urban life might affect innovation and inhibitory control! Hypotheses for the evolution of large brains and cognition predict that urban animals will be better problem solvers than rural animals due the demands of surviving in an evolutionarily novel environment.

Disclaimer: I did not take any of these photos! 

Schramme, E., 2015. Social Structure of Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) Populations around Mekelle city in Tigray, Ethiopia.

Yirga, G. et al., 2013. Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) coexisting at high density with people in Wukro district, northern Ethiopia. Mammalian Biology - Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde, 78(3), pp.193–197.

Abay, G.Y. et al., 2010. Peri-urban spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) in Northern Ethiopia: diet, economic impact, and abundance. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 57(4), pp.759–765.

Yirga, G. et al., 2012. Adaptability of large carnivores to changing anthropogenic food sources: diet change of spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) during Christian fasting period in northern Ethiopia. The Journal of animal ecology, 81(5), pp.1052–5.

Audet, J.-N., Ducatez, S. & Lefebvre, L., 2016. The town bird and the country bird: problem solving and immunocompetence vary with urbanization. Behavioral Ecology, 27(2), pp.637–644.

Maklakov, A.A. et al., 2011. Brains and the city: big-brained passerine birds succeed in urban environments. Biology letters, 7(5), pp.730–2.

Papp, S. et al., 2014. A comparison of problem-solving success between urban and rural house sparrows. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 69(3), pp.471–480.

Preiszner, B. et al., 2017. Problem-solving performance and reproductive success of great tits in urban and forest habitats. Animal Cognition, 20(1), pp.53–63.

Snell-Rood, E.C. & Wick, N., 2013. Anthropogenic environments exert variable selection on cranial capacity in mammals. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 280(1769), p.20131384.


Monday, February 6, 2017

Not About Cho’ Life

Greetings Fisi Blog readership.  In terms of importance, one underrated aspect of camp life in the Mara is access to the “choo” – the word for bathroom in Kiswahili (pronounced cho).  Given the likelihood of GI infections and other bugs of that ilk, it’s always nice to have nearby choo you can run to.  However, living in a tented camp without askaris (guards) or fences is a reality out here, and one that you need to respect if you plan to continue living.  Hordes of dangerous animals migrate through camp every night to reach a productive swathe of grassland on the plateau behind the forested hillside our camp rests on – the herbivores to consume said grass and the carnivores follow to prey upon the herbivores.   Most of the time it isn’t safe to leave your tent in Serena between the hours of 9:00PM and 5:00AM. The species you need to especially watch out for are cape buffalo, hippos, and elephants, with lions and leopards also presenting a significant threat but not as likely to get taken by surprise and charge you.  Obviously, documenting nocturnal camp life if pretty difficult given the aforementioned set of circumstances.  But there is good news!

A collection of fauna that enjoy the Cho' Life
I’ve recently acquired a game camera from the US of A and have deployed it in strategic positions around camp to capture the wildlife we encounter on a daily basis around the choo.  The species captured so far, include: a lion, our resident leopard (affectionately named Carlos), impala, a hippo (one of the thousands of pictures of them that I have), one of our three resident genets, some baboons from the local troop, a young bushbuck, one of our fisi friends from North Clan (shamefully didn’t show us any spots), a dik-dik, and our resident white-tailed mongoose.  Some animals not captured yet, but seen frequently enough are elephants, giraffes, cape buffalo, warthogs, banded mongoose, and dwarf mongoose. The most glaring omission is an individual known as the “Choo-ffalo” – a crazy, old cape buffalo who loves the choo for reasons unbeknownst to us Fisi campers.  You would think there would be other cool hangout spots much more luxurious than our choo – but the Chooffalo doesn’t feel that way so more often than not he’s grazing somewhere in the vicinity after the sun sets.  He’s a really great guy though.

All hail His Grace, Carlos of House Chui, First of His Name, King of the Jowls, Lord of the Night, and Protector of the Realm

Keep your fingers crossed and hopefully soon we’ll get some cool footage on the game cam.  That is after I fix it up a bit.  About two weeks into shooting, Scar (the infamous one-eyed lion of Serena pride) and his brothers decided they didn’t like their close-up and pawed camera off the tree mount I had set up along one of the Hippo Highways.  This must’ve been an inside job and Scar knew which way the camera would be pointing, as we didn’t even get a single shot of the event!  It survived the battering somehow and will be as good as new with some strategic application of Gorilla glue.

Celebrity Sighting: Miss Falafel Fierce

Ok listen, Falafel is everything a hyena should be and more. She is my celebrity crush – if I were a tech-savvy preteen I would have an Instagram page devoted to her. She is as her name (that I’ve just given her for the sake of this post) suggests, fierce.

Falafel having a nap. Photo cred: Emily Bray Cohen
I “met” Falafel through volunteering in the hyena lab a year and a half ago. I was a super senior looking for something to fill my time while I finished up some classes and luckily Kenna had some interesting data to comb through. I was looking through the context data for a specific vocalization, the giggle. Giggles are possibly the most famous of the hyena vocalizations, and for good reason. Giggles really do sound like manic laughter, Hollywood got that part right. Giggles are emitted during confrontational interactions (i.e. when a hyena is being aggressed on or when they are aggressing on someone). While looking through all this aggression data one name in particular kept cropping up, Falafel. Now Falafel is a really low ranking hyena. I mean REALLY low ranking, there is only one lineage lower than her, and most of those hyenas are dead. But in a ton of these aggressions Falafel Fierce was the aggressor. Often times she was aggressing on a higher ranking hyena! And even after countless smack downs from those high rankers, she was still up for a fight. Why? Because she has moxie, that’s why. You just have to love that spirit.

I made out to the field for my year as an RA in October, and I am dying to see Falafel in real life. My love for her cannot be contained, so people start to tell me their best Falafel stories. My favorite one goes like this:
Falafel and a number of clan members were challenging a couple lions for a carcass. Falafel, being the nasty gal she is, goes diving into the mess of lions head first. Obviously, she got her butt whooped, but that’s not the best part. The part that I love is that despite her being low ranking, the other members of the clan jumped in after her and PULLED HER OUT OF THE FRAY. That’s truly amazing because normally low ranking hyenas can count on very few allies. The higher rankers could easily have used the distraction and snagged the food, but instead they grabbed Miss Fierce. It would appear that Falafel is a strangely popular low ranker? I can’t say for sure.

A picture I took the day we met. You can tell that she is equally as enthused.
That story, and others like it, only made my adoration for Falafel grow. I was looking for her everywhere. It had been exactly a month since I had been in the Mara when finally, we got a call saying Falafel was near us in the territory! We rushed over and sure enough, my girl was there rolling around in a bush. She was filthy. Her fur was completely matted and when she stood up to stretch we could tell that she had obviously just eaten. Falafel was so full that she waddled when she walked. Her belly was making it difficult for all four of her legs to reach the ground at once. She was the most disgusting hyena I had ever seen. It was awe inspiring.

Soon after our first meeting, Falafel gave birth (yes!). In order to take care of her little cubs she spends a lot of time at the communal den, and we get to see her all the time. She is just as filthy as ever. I've had a few months to observe her by now, and from what I can tell she loves nothing more than a good fight and a good nap - how relatable. 
In short: Falafel >>> everyone else.
Well done, Falafel. Keep on keeping on, you disgusting thing.

Falafel as a wee tot. Photo cred: Jaime Tanner

Falafel with one her newest wee tots, Mavi or McG! Photo cred: Rebecca Lafleur

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Greatest Scape

Near the Mara River, thirteen hyenas feed on a fresh hippo carcass.

While Michiganders spent December sliding across slushy and icy roads and bundling up against the cold, life in the Masai Mara was a completely different story. I'm not just referring to the temperature, either; December brought a great drought to the Mara. Over the course of two weeks, we received only 2 millimeters of rain. Although the Mara River snakes past our camp, running the length of North Clan's and South Clan's territories, there is still hardship. Without rain, the grass cannot grow, and without the grass, many herbivores went hungry. The wind whipped up dry dust. The plains faded from green to tan. Even the blubbery hippos grew weak from hunger.

This drought didn't hold back everyone, though. The ever-cunning, opportunistic hyenas narrowed their focus in on the hippos, picking them off as they traveled to and from the Mara River under the cover of darkness, seeking grass.

Driving back at the end of observations, I was reflecting on what a calm morning it had been. We had hardly even seen any hyenas! As we neared the "Hippo Pool" on the river, we then realized why the morning had been so quiet: half of North Clan was piled on top of a fresh hippo carcass.

While scrambling to identify the twenty-seven bloody hyenas whirling around the carcass, we saw some incredible aggressions.

The Greatest Scape: Being a clever girl wasn't enough to keep this hyena off the hook. Shoot Her teamed up with Hey Jude and Soup Nazi against his own sister, Clever Girl. Clever Girl is the lowest ranking of her siblings, and soon her other sibling, Where's The Goat? joined in against her too. It wasn't long before six hyenas were all ganging up on Clever Girl, despite her many, exaggerated submissive behaviors: squealing, giggling, grinning, pinning her ears back, submissive posturing, and even crawling across the ground. Frustrated, Clever Girl took off to find herself a scapegoat. Shockingly, she actually scapegoated -- or "scaped" -- onto a higher ranking hyena, Billie Jean! Rather than escalating the fight with Clever Girl, who, let's face it, was having a rough day, Billie Jean took off after Leprechaun, in immigrant male. I'm pretty sure "scape-chain" isn't in the ethogram, but it sure looks like one to me! See the video below.

The Greatest Scape

Hyena Politics: Hyenas' lives truly are ruled by their clan's linear dominance hierarchy. Leprechaun, an adult male, circles the carcass for half an hour before finally finding an opportunity to make off with a little scrap for himself. However, this low-ranking male just doesn't catch a break; within seconds, a small subadult hyena, Where's The Goat, puts Leprechaun in his place, snatching the scrap back. See first video below. A mid-ranking female (Gummy), on the other hand, walks off with a whole hippo leg to herself, no questions asked! See second video below.

Hyena Politics: Leprechaun is thwarted

Hyena Politics: it's good to be Gummy

Vocalizations: Over the course of the morning, we also heard the whole array of hyena vocalizations. In the video below, a tractor pulls a hot air balloon basket past the carcass, sending the hunters into a bout of whoops and alarm rumbles!


In addition to identifying twenty-seven bloody hyenas, we faced several other obstacles as we watched the Northies feast.

First, when you study some of the most adorable animals in the world, it's hard not to get distracted!

Will you just look at those wittle feet?

There are also the inevitable aggressions that take place almost within sight.

The most inconveniently-positioned bush

Lastly, some of the bolder Northies like to come and say "hello" to us. Below, Gummy investigates my camera. I love getting close to hyenas, but not this close!

When you're faced with one of nature's fiercest creatures,
and your only defense is to blow air in her face.

All-in-all, this was a great day to be observing in North Territory... and an even better day to be a North Clan hyena!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

To familiarize or not?

Hello everyone, it's me again, that grad student testing hyena cognition. It's pretty standard protocol in the cognition testing business to familiarize your subjects with the testing apparatus so that fear doesn't stop them from participating. I've always thought that seemed like sound science and I've been doing this with the hyenas. Wild hyenas tend to be more fearful than captive hyenas and I want every hyena to have a chance to solve the box, not just the bold ones.

For those of you new to our blog, my "testing apparatus" is a multi-access puzzle box. It's a box that's baited with food on the inside that has four different "doors" or ways of opening the box to get the food inside. During a familiarization trial with the hyenas, I take the lid off of the multi-access box and put it on its side so that hyenas can just walk up and eat the food from inside the box. This way they get used to the smell and texture of the box and learn to associate it with food (and not scary things).
Hyenas investigating the box during a familiarization trial. 
However, I've noticed that a large proportion of hyenas who have opened the box did so on their very first time interacting with it. Yep, zero familiarization trials. This has happened enough times that I've started to wonder if giving the hyenas familiarization trials might also make them lazy. I.e. they've learned the box has free food inside it. When they're given a test trial they don't try to open it because they're used to getting the food for free. I've had many hyenas sniff around the box once and then sack out just a few meters away, to all appearances just waiting for the box to magically open.

Hyenas investigating the box during a test trial. Many of these hyenas had familiarization trials, but TERV (no familiarization trials) ended up solving it. 

Then I had this trial yesterday with Burger (BRGR). I put out the box for ADON, whose had 2 familiarization trials but ADON wasn't interested and remained sacked out in her spot under a shady bush. After I put out the box BRGR emerged from the bushes. BRGR has watched other hyenas' trials with the box but she'd never contacted it herself before nor had a familiarization trial where she fed from the box. Yesterday, however, she was quite curious about it; after less than a minute she opened it using the door knob. My excitement slowly turned to dismay as BRGR never got up the courage to eat the food from inside the box after the initial shock of the door knob opening. Most hyenas who open the box once are fairly good at opening it again. But since BRGR didn't feed, she won't be able to form an association between solving the box and getting food. I have no idea what her reaction to the box will be next time she sees it! Now I've learned though what the benefit of a familiarization trial can be! If BRGR had stuck her head inside the box to eat during a familiarization trial I'm sure she wouldn't have been afraid to stick her head inside this time. I've decided that I should still attempt to give all hyenas at least 1 familiarization trial which will hopefully balance the cost of potentially teaching the hyenas to be lazy with the benefit of teaching them not to be afraid.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

All in a Day's Work

So I had a pretty great day the other day – this day being January 17th 2017.  The den sessions on morning obs were pretty normal, took place in South territory.  There is a running joke in Serena about obs in South.  We call them Sobs (South Observations), due to the number of hyenas normally present at den sessions and the difficulty of gathering all the CIs and IDs at the session.  Normally, you really start sobbing if you are doing solo Sobs, as it makes it that much more difficult to keep track of everyone.  However, this morning I didn’t sob, not even a single tear.  On top of that, we added a new mother to the ranks of moms in South: Blue Band.  She was nursing her two cubs this morning in a quiet corner of the communal den.  By this time, it was getting light out so I snapped a couple of photos of the kids to age them later and went on my merry way to explore the territory.  This is when things started to get really crazy.  While performing a prey transect, I ran into three subadult female lions and a subadult male – playing kill the carrier with a black-bellied bustard.  Turns out a juvenile martial eagle had killed the bustard, but this jubilant pride of lions decided they wanted the kill for themselves – the martial had no choice but to concede, as he watched glaringly from a decently-sized termite mound a couple of meters away.  With my prey transect unfinished, I reluctantly left the lions and forged ahead, deftly shooting (with a rangefinder, of course!) zebra and topi left and right.  I didn’t get more than 300m farther down the transect, when I chanced upon three cheetah brothers drinking from a small spring at the top of a lugga.  These guys are one of the few resident cheetah coalitions in the Mara triangle, a rare sight indeed.  The Mara allowed me complete my prey transect without any other ludicrous events occurring.  At this time, I looked down at my watch and realized I was going to be about half an hour late for breakfast.  So, with my stomach alarm rumbling, I sped back to camp. 

One of the three Lemai brothers, who are residents now in the Mara.  It is thought that they emigrated from Serengeti.
Throughout the day, I completed the mundane daily tasks of Fisi Camp, such as transcribing data, car checks, and cleaning the solar panels that power camp, quietly contemplating how spectacular this day had been so far.  Fortunately for me, the Mara still had some big surprises in store for me.  I left to head to North territory that evening and upon approaching the den, I noticed four conspicuously large boulders within 200m of the den that had not been there two days ago.  It took me about half a second to realize they were, in fact, biotic and slowly moving between the shrubbery.  Cape buffalo were quickly ruled out due to the coloring and lack of fur.  As soon as one of these creatures lifted their head, the search image instantly materialized in my cerebrum: black rhinoceros.  I almost popped straight through the roof of the land cruiser, as I haven’t seen a rhino in two months, much less four at once.  These four rhinos represent approximately 15% of the population in the entire Mara triangle so it was certainly a special sighting.  Especially considering the fact that I had them all to myself, no tour cars in sight.  Although, I would’ve loved to stay with this incredibly endangered species all night…I had a job a job to do.  At this point, I was only 100m away from the den and could still see the rhinos quite clearly anyway.  North den is pretty quiet at the moment, as the old cubs are just about to graduate and the young cubs only emerge from the den when their mothers are around.  Luckily for me, Waffles, the matriarch of North clan, who we’ve expected to have been harboring youngsters in one of the den holes, arrived from the East. Given how this day has been going so far, I believe you can foretell that I did wind up seeing Waffles’ cubs nurse from her for the first time.  So absorbed was I in acquiring photos to age the cubs with that I didn’t notice the lumbering fortress of elephants, forty strong, taking a beeline to the den and showing no signs of stopping.  As you can imagine, this was quite an intimidating sight and I decided that I should flee the scene before they got too close.  I could’ve just given a wide berth to these determined pachyderms, but I wanted to see how the hyenas would react to the approaching behemoths. 

Rhino Squad......Assseeemmmmmmbllleeeeeeeee!
The rhino mini-herd was less than 100m from the den now and on the opposite side as the elephants.  Given the number of calves in this herd, I figured that even if the elephants were oblivious to the impending hyena den in their path, they would not be willing to approach the rhinos and risk altercation.  Taking care not to not disturb the peacefully grazing creatures, I slowly placed them between myself and incoming elephant herd.  The rhinos didn’t mind one bit and, with the car off, seemed to accept me as a wonky member (a land cruiser with an H-antenna sort of looks like a rhinoceros) of their family group by moving closer.  Through my binoculars, I could see Waffles at the den.  At about 10m, the elephants realized they were walking through a large carnivore den, and responded accordingly – an orchestra of trumpets, an extravaganza of head waves, and a spree of mock charges.  Unbelievably, in spite of all of this hullabaloo, Waffles didn’t even blink once.  She stayed sacked out where she was nursing her cubs, not five minutes before (the cubs squealed and ran into the den as soon as they caught a whiff of the forthcoming danger), and lazily napped through the whole ordeal.  Although I can’t determine whether it was bravery or stupidity, I can definitely ascertain that this matriarch has some serious panache. 

Waffles and the Pachyderms (A great band name should anybody be in need of one).  This was only the first wave!

After about 45 minutes of being stonewalled by Waffles, the elephants abandoned their turtle shell formation with their calves in the rear and nervously peered over their shoulders every couple of paces to make sure Waffles was not in pursuit.  My benevolent rhino shield worked wonderfully as well – the elephants veered off to the escarpment as soon as they made it to the other side of the den.  With a magnificent sunset at my back, I left my companions, grateful for their assistance, and returned to the den to continue recording behaviors.  Well, it’s all in a day’s work out here in the Mara.

Bonus Shot: A rare January storm rolls in from Tanzania as I leave the den, while the Mara Conservancy performs a controlled burn along the escarpment.  Obligatory Lion King Reference, the atmosphere has an eerie resemblance to the penultimate scene of the movie.

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