Friday, January 2, 2009

Welcome to Shompole

We found a dead Waterbuck, an animal about the size of a horse, out in the bush. Really we didn’t find it Hyena 105 found it. She had eaten a hole about a foot and a half wide out of well let’s say the softest and most easily accessible part of a dead animal. (I’ll let you figure that one out.) Other than that our new corpse was in good shape. I backed the Landcruiser up to it, we wrapped some steel cable around the front legs and neck, and away we went. It was one of those, “if only Mom could see me now” kind of moments. Or maybe one of those, “how did I get to this?” kind of moments.

Why drag a large dead animal back to the camp you say? Why for bait of course. Aaron has been using dead fish up until now and these last couple days it has just not been cutting it. The fish is left in a bucket in the sun to fester and smellify (a word meaning to increase greatly in scent, look it up) for a few days and then it’s ready to be used as bait. You would think a stinking pile of dead fish would really entice a striped hyena into our trap, but we haven’t had any luck with it.

Trapping striped hyenas is relatively simple in theory. You have a leg trap (imagine those big bear traps with the spike teeth that you see in cartoons) that is actually lined with rubber so the hyena is not harmed. Two steel bands, one on each side, bend into a V form the spring tension needed to close the trap. A small clip that holds the jaws open notches into a circular pressure switch in the center which when appropriately weighted (i.e. stepped on) will release said clip causing rubber lined jaws to snap shut.

Through the use of radio tracking, identification of tracks, motion sensor camera traps, and some luck you get an idea of just where you might catch a hyena. Aaron had three different places in mind. We used bushes and fallen trees to create a sort of V shaped cul-de-sac. The bait goes at the top of the V and at the narrowest point is where we place the trap. This forces the hyena to step right in this narrow area where the trap is buried. Some artful placing of branches, leaves, grass, and sticks is required to make the trap area even more appetizing for a prospective hyena’s foot placement. Aaron often spends an excruciating amount of time delicately dribbling leaves around the trap, pausing, looking longingly at the trap, only to frown and move some grass around until it’s perfect. He finishes it off with a fake hyena footprint right in the center of the pressure switch. A subtle art.

Even with all the careful planning of placement and design my first few days of trapping were unsuccessful. On trapping nights we go out at 4:30 or so to bait and place the traps, hopefully finishing around 6:30 as the sun begins to set. At 11:30 or 12:00 you check the traps and then again at 5:30AM. This of course creates a major dent in your nights sleep. On the first night out of nine of our traps only one had been sprung. Pulling up in the car we could see the bushes thrashing and the two reflected eyes of some unknown creature. Approaching on foot Aaron tells me this animal is a Civet. A Civet is an animal about the size of a medium dog or maybe an enormous raccoon. It is mostly black with a leopard print body and thick shaggy mane of black hair running from head to tail. It is thrashing madly, spitting, yowling, and generally looking very unhappy and threatening.

Aaron grabs a blanket out of the back of the car. “I’m gonna throw the blanket over it, hold it down, and then we’ll switch places,” he says.

“Ok,” I say. Of course I’m thinking yeah freaking right I’m going to put my hands on that obviously dangerous animal.

After a few attempts Aaron manages to pin down the civet. We switch and I can feel its pulse through the blanket. It is actually quite calm. Like a parrot in a cage the blanket seems to have soothed it into a confused sleepy state. Aaron releases the trap and the Civet’s foot is free. We remove the blanket and it resumes its thrashing and spitting, gives us one last dirty look, and takes off into the dark. Not a hyena but exciting just the same.

The next few nights were just as unsuccessful. The second night we caught a Genet a small cat/weasel-like creature that is just cute as the dickens. It was much calmer than the Civet. It had managed to trigger the trap (only meant for something as heavy as a striped hyena) by placing two of its legs on the trigger at the same time. I was sad to see that it had cut itself trying to escape, as its paws were caught in the far edges of the trap where there is no safety rubber. Luckily no bones were broken and after spraying its wounds with antiseptic spray we sent it on its way.

The last night of trapping was heralded by a great thunderstorm. Shompole is very dry and dusty, it rarely rains, so it was all the more surprising when on the horizon an enormous cloud could be seen. Violent winds preceded the storm and the dust was kicked up in clouds. It was a very dramatic scene, the world seemed lost in turmoil. The storm like all weather here came from the east and blew to the west. Unfortunately our path took us to the west where our three sets of traps lay in wait. As we drove we were enveloped in our own dust cloud, unable to see or breathe. Speeding up did little to help as the dust would only catch up when you slowed again. When we finally got to the acacia forest, where we could find some respite from the wind, I found little comfort. My entire body was covered in about a half inch of dust. My nostrils were fully saturated and my hair successfully full. A very unpleasant feeling.

Of course the rain came. And of course it came after we had set the traps. This meant that we had to make a decision. If the rain continued to increase it meant that we would be unable to return to the traps later because the roads would be washed out. However, if it ceased we would be fine. We decided to close them and then… of course… it stopped raining.

So you can see it’s not hard to imagine (or maybe it is) just how excited we were to find some delicious new bait in the form of a dead waterbuck. Tomorrow we will start trapping again in hopes of catching and collaring a new hyena. Our new GPS collars will enable us to track the animals via satellite if only we can catch one.

Hi my name is Joey and welcome to Shompole, Kenya where we attempt on a daily basis to study the striped hyena…


Katy said...

Ah, the dust of Shompole and the fun of checking traps all night! Say hi to Aaron for me.

Anonymous said...

Oh, you're after a Striped Hyena? Its my understanding that they're very fond of melon of all sorts, or anything sugary, if somehow meat does not work.

Anonymous said...

Why are you trapping stripped hyenas? And why not also trap spotted ones?


Anonymous said...

We trap striped hyenas to collect paste samples from their scent glands, and to take a bunch of (tooth & body) measurements we cannot get in any other way. Whereas what we call "free-darting" of spotted hyenas is usually easy because they live in more open areas and can immobilized during daylight hours, these circumstances apply only rarely to striped hyenas, which might potentially run off into the night then fall asleep near a lion or some other danger. Therefore we set traps in safe places for striped hyenas, and check them at short intervals throughout the night.

Anonymous said...

Can you determine hyena presence by paste samples- is it only obtained from scent glands or do they leave evidence of this in their environment? Do spotted hyena differ from striped hyena in this respect?

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science