Monday, June 29, 2009

Look Out Poachers

The Mara Conservancy has just made a giant leap forward in anti-poaching efforts. Just this week they welcomed eight dog-handling rangers and two new “officers” into their ranks. After an intensive four-week training with two professional dog trainers from the Colorado police department, these dogs are ready to assist the Conservancy and surrounding lodges.

Using their amazing bloodhound sense of smell, the rangers will bring these dogs to poachers’ camps and follow individual tracks left behind as people flee. For Mamusi and Murani (the dogs; meaning “something we’ve been waiting for” and “warrior” in Masai) following the trails left by the poachers is the easy part. For the rangers, keeping up with such strong dogs that enjoy every minute of tracking, is much more challenging.

Jeff and I had the opportunity to follow along on a training exercise and boy can these dogs run! To prepare the rangers for extreme all-night tracking, each ranger had to go through (and continue) rigorous conditioning. This includes running multiple kilometers around the camp daily, all-encompassing weight training, and being able to traverse the nearby escarpment in under seven minutes!

We ran about a mile and a half following the dogs in our practice run, and I cannot imagine what it must feel like during the real thing. Running through the dark of night with no lights, surrounded by grass that is at least eight feet tall, all the time searching for people that you know have no remorse for breaking laws.

After lightly jogging behind these dogs, I know there is absolutely no way I could out-run them in the middle of the night.

Good luck poachers when they are at full speed!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What else is out there at night besides hyenas?

Here are a few photos from our Shompole camera traps to give you an idea of the diversity of life-forms wandering around there at night. See if you can identify all these animals. I'll post answers in my next blog entry.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Running back: a reentry

As I’ve mentioned in past entries, I often turn to jogging for all my therapeutic needs. Handily, it also accomplishes my exercise needs. So here’s an account of my thought progression during my first run back in the Mara:

Minute 1: So happy to be back on my feet on my old stomping grounds. Feeling light and energetic and ready to take on the world(!). (Sigh. This won’t last.)

Minute 6: The endorphins must be starting to kick in, because I’m having one of those isn’t-nature-so-amazing moments—a common feeling here in the Mara. I’m struck by the unparalleled blue and wide expanse of the Kenyan sky, the spectacular view of the hills rolling in the distance, and the serenity of the afternoon.

Minute 8: Moment over. Cue running, screaming, and waving children. At first I feel the warmth of familiarity, of a reunion with old friends…the same feeling I got when I saw Morpheus, my favorite hyena. But I’m quickly brought out of my genial haze as I get a swift elbow to the thigh. An overzealous kid is insisting on running six inches in front of me and is swinging his elbows like there’s no tomorrow. Well-intentioned, my young friend, but please excuse me as I gently shove you aside.

Minute 25: My mind wanders to random topics as I try to preoccupy myself during the long middle stretch…the Red Sox are 5 games up, that’s lovely (an ocean away, I still care)…Murphy should be having a new litter of cubs soon…I wonder what my most-loved one is up to right now...hopefully missing me….

Minute 33: I approach a group of older kids walking home from school. One by one, they fall into step with me, saying hello and then silently joining the trek. Now we are four, now nine, now fourteen. I smile, saving my biggest grin for the lone girl, knowing that she has faced many hardships to stay in school this long, and will surely face countless more if she is to finish secondary school against all odds.

Minute 36: “What is your name?” my companions want to know. “Leslie” is particularly difficult for Kenyans to say, and I am reminded of my journey to the Mara on a lorry from Nairobi a few days ago. While waiting for the driver to return from errands, a parking enforcement officer sidles up to my open window.

“You can’t park here.”
“Sorry, it’s not my lorry. You’ll have to talk to the driver. He’ll be back soon.”
“You have to pay a fine.” I wonder if this is because my white skin makes me look like an easy target for cash. Or maybe we’re just actually parked illegally. Probably both. I decide to use my charm as a young American woman to my advantage and offer an innocent smile and a Kiswahili apology. This seems to do the trick for the moment and we ease into small talk. He asks my name, and when I tell him, he makes me repeat it. He tries to write it down, and it takes him three tries of listening to me spell it for him before he gets it right.
“That’s too hard,” he says. “You need a Maasai name. I think it should be Naisenya.”
“Naisenya? That’s pretty, I like it. I think I’ll keep it.” He writes it down for me so I can get it right. He wanders off, having forgotten all about our parking ticket.

So I hesitate when the school children ask my name. I contemplate which is worse: giving my real name, which they’ll have trouble pronouncing, or giving my new Maasai name, and sounding completely crazy. I decide to go for it:

“Naisenya.” They dissolve into giggles—it’s a common Maasai name, but they can see I’m no Maasai. This disconnect pleases them to no end. I’m glad I went with that one.

Minute 48: Want to die. Cursed altitude, cursed equatorial heat, cursed unblinking sun, cursed Kenya! I’m too out of shape for this. What was I thinking, running this far my first time?!? That was an error. Maybe I shouldn’t have come running at all. Maybe I shouldn’t have come back to Kenya at all. Cursed heat.

Minute 59: The end is in sight, and with it, the endorphins are flowing freely again. I happily reach camp, reveling once more in my surroundings. My moments of self-pitying drama have passed and I decide that I am, without a doubt, happy to be back at Fisi Camp.

At least until the next time I try to run.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

NSS Episode Two: Fifty Cent's Triumph

In a land where Elf (the dominant female) is queen and clashes with lions are the norm, we bring you a clan. Located between the beautiful Oz Valley and the famous Mara River, this is where the drama unfolds. Known to many as “fisi,” we just call them “North.”

This is the North Side Story.

Episode 2: “Fifty Cent’s Triumph”

It was just like any other day at the North den. That was until food was brought back for the cubs. It was at first a free for all with Krest, Avalanche, Sagrada and Fifty Cent fighting over the small leftovers. Sagrada then stealthily swooped in and stole the food from the other cubs and ran across the den to keep what was left for himself.

This peeked the interest of a previously sleeping Muay Tai who ganged up with Fifty Cent to try and recover the food with force. Sagrada nimbly avoided these two but in doing so he missed the sneak attack by Avalanche. Avalanche took advantage of the distraction by Muay Tai and Fifty Cent and claimed the food for himself. After successfully stealing the food, Avalanche came snout to snout with his big brother Tsunami. Dominant versus submissive. A showdown between brothers.

Tsunami saw his opportunity and without hesitation made his move. He did not count on Avalanche’s patented side-step move, and Avalanche smoothly slid by his brother who missed the food completely. This last movement woke a sleeping (as usual) Jiu-Jitsu who decided Avalanche’s prize looked like a tasty morsel. Jiu-Jitsu knew he was bigger than Avalanche so he tried a rush approach on the food. Avalanche was not fooled and countered with a bite that caught Jiu-Jitsu off guard and caused him to retreat quickly. Avalanche then made his first mistake. He set down his prize to look for further attacks. At that point Fifty Cent swiftly swooped in and tore the remaining meat off the bone and quickly retreated into the den, leaving Avalanche staring in disbelief. Within a couple of minutes Fifty Cent reemerged from the den without the food and looking quite triumphant. Fifty Cent’s raid temporarily distracted Avalanche giving the other cubs a chance to sneak in and secure the prize.

What followed was a melee of attacks until Sagrada again emerged with the prize. His capturing of the prize surprised him so much, considering his low rank that he overlooked the one cub he should have been watching for, Fifty Cent.

Fifty Cent bided his time until he knew Sagrada was lost in chewing. He then snuck in and grabbed the bone from the complacent Sagrada and again raced back into the den leaving all the other cubs staring in confusion.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

How low can your belly go?

A hungry adult spotted hyena can consume a LOT of food in a single meal. An adult hyena is shown in the top photo before consuming a meal. An adult female typically weighs about 65 kg (roughly 145 lbs). Although average meal size for spotted hyenas varies across Africa from 0.2 kg to 9 kg, an individual hyena can consume approximately 18 kg of meat and bone in an hour. That's 40 lbs of food, folks. Imagine how you'd feel if you had just consumed 160 Quarter Pounders at one sitting. A bit bloated, right? Well the bottom photo here shows you what a spotted hyena looks like under the same circumstances. Notice that she's still going strong, continuing to feed even though her belly is almost touching the ground. Now you can also imagine how hard it is to determine when a female spotted hyena is pregnant based on her appearance; with her belly size going up and down this much during feeding and fasting, it's very tough to detect the presence of a litter that, at most, will weigh only about 3 kg!

Why eat so much at a single meal that you can barely waddle away afterward? Well, if you're a female spotted hyena, you do this because your ability to produce and support babies is strictly determined by how much food you consume. And you never know when or where your next meal might be coming from. If you were dining at McDonald's and knew you might not be able to eat again for several days, I bet you'd probably try to jam in an extra Quarter Pounders or two yourself.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The North Side Story

In a land where Elf (the dominant female) is queen and clashes with lions are the norm, we bring you a clan. Located between the beautiful Oz Valley and the famous Mara River, this is where the drama unfolds. Known to many as “fisi,” we just call them “North.”

This is the North Side Story.

Cast of (cub) Characters -- From Oldest to Youngest

'SAGRADA' - A big cub with a huge heart, trying not to step on any higher-ranking cubs’ paws.

'KREST' - Easily distinguished with his light coloration, always up for a good chase.

'HOOKER' - A bit of an airhead, often aloof as to what is happening.

'TSUNAMI' - A brave cub who is developing a taste for adventure.

'AVALANCHE' - The lower ranking member of the natural disaster lineage, with the ear damage to prove it.

'TYRANNOSAURUS REX' - Known by many as “bear face,” her muttonchops can be seen for miles.

'50 CENT' - Recognized by his signature “monkey ears” and quizzical look.

'JIU-JITSU' - The dominant cub of the martial arts lineage who enjoys the benefits of his higher rank by napping all day.

'MUAY THAI' - The submissive cub of the martial arts lineage who follows suit by also napping all day.

'EDWARD TEACH' - Confined by his small frame and scraggly appearance, the quintessential underdog.

'PARTHENON' - A punky youngster trying to make her way in a cub eat cub world.

Episode 1: “Precocious Parthenon”

It was a lazy morning like any other day at the North clan’s den off of the runway. Arriving at just past 8AM, most cubs were sleeping-- however this would not last for long. At precisely 8:22, Parthenon emerged from the den. And with her, came a new attitude to the group. It became quickly known by all cubs present that their lazy morning would not last much longer.

Starting with a harmless sniff of the sleeping Edward Teach’s back, things quickly got out of control. No one seemed to be giving Parthenon the time of day and she was not having any of this. Fed-up with being ignored by the whole gang, she knew something had to be done.

Parthenon approached and bit Avalanche, and it started-- setting off an avalanche if you will. Avalanche counter-attacked by biting and shaking Parthenon, followed by chasing her around the den. His point was made.

Trying to rally more towards her cause, Parthenon approached a sleeping Jiu-Jitsu and bit him as well. Un-phased and not looking for problems, Jiu-Jitsu backed away from the troublemaker and fell back asleep. It’s hard being a cub he thought.

Sick of Parthenon’s antics, Tsunami reached to give her a good biting. However, she juked him and Tsunami’s mouth made contact with Avalanche. Taking a second swing he finally got a hold of Parthenon. She had learned her lesson.

After backing away from the scene, Parthenon seemed to be contemplating her part in this crazy world. She knew this was not going to be the last these lazy cubs had seen of her.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Candid camera---striped hyena style

After my last entry about the new guys, which included a photo of them checking a camera trap in Shompole, someone asked that I post some photos taken by the camera traps. So here are a couple fun ones. We set out camera traps in two different ways, at striped hyena dens and in an area-wide grid. These tell us different things: the cameras at dens tell us about whether the dens are occupied, if so by whom, and who else drops by each den to visit. The cameras set out in the grid tell us where there are hyenas that are unfamiliar to us, and they also tell us about which animals other than striped hyenas occur in the vicinity of each camera on each day. The grid cameras are "baited" with scents, but the den cameras are not baited. The top photo here shows a young striped hyena rubbing against a stick pounded into the ground near the camera; we have dipped pipe cleaners in specific commercially-avaialable scents and wrapped those around the stick. Like so many other mammalian carnivores, striped hyenas like to rub against strong-smelling things, and that's what's happening here. Note how fully bristled this kid's tail is while he's rubbing--- just like a bottle brush. That's a hyena's way of telling you he's pretty excited about those scents!

The bottom photo shows a scene at a den with mom (farthest from camera chewing on a bone), baby (in middle) and an adult male visitor (perhaps dad; that remains to be determined). Who knew these "solitary" carnivores led such busy social lives!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Meet the new guys

Although we will all miss Kate's wonderful blog entries, we can now look forward to blog entries by our two new students, David Green and Jeff Smith (shown here watching Joey Verge check a camera trap at a striped hyena den in Shompole). Both Jeff & Dave joined the project in April, and Kate trained them before she left. They will be monitoring the spotted hyena clans on the western side of the Masai Mara.

In addition, Joey Verge (shown here atop our Landcruiser, listening for a lost striped hyena), who you may recall has been working on striped hyenas in Shompole, Kenya for the past several months, will be moving to the Mara later in June to work on spotted hyenas. Thus you can expect to see posts on this blog from all three of these guys in the coming months.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science