Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls, Wildebeest—it Tolls for Thee

WARNING: This post contains graphic material that may be unsuitable for some readers. Like anyone eating lunch right now. Shouldn’t you be getting back to work anyway, instead of procrastinating by checking blogs?


This morning was bittersweet. We had just left a large group of adult hyenas napping in some bushes when we spotted an adult wildebeest acting a bit strangely in the distance. Upon driving closer, we saw that it was straddling one of our adult females, Adonis (one of Murphy’s many daughters). Adonis had her face buried in the side of the wildebeest, which was open and spilling guts. The wildebeest wasn’t moving much, it was just standing there, halfheartedly trying to head-butt Adonis, who had cleverly positioned herself out of reach of its horns. Adonis, meanwhile, was happily munching away on various internal organs.

The distraction we provided when we pulled up afforded the wildebeest the window of opportunity to dash away. It ran to the far side of our car, seeking asylum. Adonis backed off for a moment as the wildebeest pressed its less-bloody side against our back door. We try to avoid getting involved in interactions in any way, however, so we pulled away. Adonis continued her feast, and within minutes, the wildebeest had collapsed onto the ground. A few minutes later, after some final efforts at thrashing, the wildebeest died. It was very brave throughout the whole ordeal: it hardly cried at all, which is atypical.

I say that this was bittersweet for obvious reasons. On the one hand, it is extremely difficult to watch an animal meet such an untimely end, to watch a life expired in front of your eyes. Today’s episode wasn’t even as brutal to spectate as it could have been; as I mentioned, there was hardly any bleating, which always pulls at the heartstrings. Also, this was an adult wildebeest. Seeing a juvenile of any species hunted in front of its panicked mother is unquestionably more painful for me.

On the other hand, everything needs to eat, and that includes carnivores. Their evolutionary path has led them to hunt live prey, which makes some people think of them as savage killers, but watching a carnivore die of starvation is just as heartbreaking as watching an herbivore starve. Also, we are here on the Mara Hyena Project, which means that at the end of the day, we are on Team Hyena, so it’s not that difficult for us to make the decision to remain uninvolved when it’s going to benefit the hyenas. In today’s case, this meant driving away so the wildebeest couldn’t use our car as shelter.

But before you start envisioning us reveling in the wildebeest’s misery, know that it’s not always that easy to maintain our standards of ethics. Remaining uninvolved doesn’t just mean failing to rescue a dying wildebeest. It also means standing idly by when a male lion attacks the hyena den, searching for cubs to kill because they are his future competitors. When that happens, there is nothing we can do but curse at the lion and watch and hope that he comes up empty-handed. If he does, that’s another victory for Team Hyena. If he doesn’t…well, death is as big a part of life here in the Mara as is birth—it has to be to keep the system running smoothly. Today, that meant one fewer wildebeest. Tomorrow the sun will rise again and the bell will toll for someone else. I just hope it’s not someone from Team Hyena.


Katy said...

Very well written Les :)

Anonymous said...

So how safe are you in the vehicle if the hyenas or another animal were to attack or if they had gone through you to get to the wildebeast?

Leslie said...

Very safe. The hyenas are wary of both humans and their vehicles. The hyenas know that in hypothetical Hyena vs. Land Cruiser battles, Land Cruisers win. The only animals that pose a real threat to us when we are in our vehicles are stampeding elephants, buffalo, or hippos, so we make sure to steer clear of all of those.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science