Friday, September 24, 2010


Hey all! I am super excited to be one of your windows into the world of the spotted hyena for the next 10 months, but before I do that, I guess I’d better tell you a little about myself.

My name is Tracy Montgomery, and while I hail from the sunny lands of Northern California, I have passed the last four years attending Amherst College in Massachusetts. I graduated in May, and spent my last year there researching the effects of estrogens on male fish reproduction (birth control pills, while a breakthrough for us girls, get into our waterways and have much less exciting effects on fish sperm). At Amherst, I worked at our Museum of Natural History, telling people all the cool things we learn from prehistoric bones and tracks while simultaneously being educated on dinosaur species by 6-year-old boys. I also played ultimate frisbee, learned how to deal with winter and to cross-country ski (skills that will obviously come in handy out here), and explored the stunning beauty of the northeast by foot, bike, and car.

I arrived in Nairobi two months ago on the same flight as the magnificent Meg, and a few days later drove to Talek camp, my home for the next year. And are we spoiled out here - fresh homemade food, a hot shower, and solar electricity are only a few of our camp amenities. I went out on obs that first night, promptly fell in love with the hyenas (and Chicopee, my hyena 'boyfriend'), and have been going back twice a day for obs ever since. There is nothing more amusing than observing a terrified male hyena courting and bowing to a female, and little more awesome (or disgusting) than watching hyenas make a kill. I’ve seen so many amazing things out here in just two months – the said hyena kill, a Masai Ceremony of the Women, and an extremely rare black rhino, just to name a few – that I can’t even imagine what the next 10 months hold in store for me.

Or for you, as I plan to share all these amazing experiences with all of you, starting with my next blog. Tutaonana, later!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Splish splash, I was taking a bath

The Serena hyenas are usually pretty fascinating, but lately it seems like they're being even more entertaining than usual. This morning was a perfect example. Meg and I had bumped into a few of our North hyenas (almost literally, as it happens, because we initially found them when they ran across the road in the pitch black at 5:50am, right in front of our car) and were following them around hoping for some excitement.

They eventually meandered over to a small watering hole, and suddenly two of our hyenas, Angie and Arrow, dove into the water. It was 6:30am, completely freezing, and apparently they figured this was a perfect time for a swim. Go figure. Anyway, while we didn't quite get the excitement we were looking for, we were still thoroughly amused.

The pictures are a little bit grainy due to the faint light, but here are just a few of the things I've learned hyenas like to do in the water:



Err... drowning each other?

The backstroke.

And, my personal favorite, pistols at 10 paces.

Our hyenas frolicked in the water for a good half hour, and it looked like they were enjoying every bit of it. I was actually getting jealous towards the end -- it's been getting ridiculously hot here in the middle of the day and I'd love to go for a swim.

So, Kay, can we talk about installing a pool at Serena? Pretty please?

Jambo from Serena!

Hello, fellow hyena research blog readers!  This feels slightly odd; I've been a reader of this blog for quite some time, but now I get to be on the other side posting my own experiences in fisi camp!  My name is Meg and I'm relatively new here - almost 2 months in.  I graduated in May from the University of Michigan and now I've crossed over to the dark side working for the Spartans.  I know, I know.  How could I stoop so low?  Don't you worry, my Wolverine comrades - I haven't started wearing those horrendous green and white colors.  At least not yet, anyways :)

While I've been reading this blog for almost a year now, the introduction posts haven't stuck out as much as the exciting hyena posts have so I'm not exactly sure how this goes.  You probably want to hear cool stuff about hyenas rather than boring stuff about me.  Well too bad - this is the one post in which I'm allowed to talk only about myself so I'm going to milk it for all its worth.

I'm sitting here in my tent in Serena camp listening to the North clan hyenas whooping not-so-far in the distance, and it makes me realize how far I've come in the short time I've been here.  When I first arrived, I was in complete awe at how tough everyone seemed out here.  Nobody seemed to be concerned that elephants were logging the forest 50m from my tent (I, on the other hand, had brainstormed a list of escape routes if the elephant decided that my tent looked like a nice stepping ground) or that crocodiles have been known to frequent the Talek river - which I had been crossing daily to go running on the other side.  But now I realize that it only takes a little time to adjust the level of risk I feel comfortable with.  As Andy Booms told me in my first few days here, you just have to get used to a new "normal."

Back to the whooping - I still remember how I felt when Kenna pointed out hyena whoops to me on my first night in the Mara.  It sounded eerie, like something that belonged in a Halloween haunted house.  But after weeks of learning and observing the hyenas, the sound has a completely new meaning to me.  My first thought (much to my disgust) is usually "Aww, how cuteeeee!"  But once I get over this weird, giggly, maternal feeling, I find myself wondering who it was, and what's going on.

By now I feel fairly well assimilated in to this new type of "normal" that is living in the Mara.  Serena camp felt like home within hours of arriving and I am SO glad to be here.  I have to thank everyone - Kenna, Steph, Andy B, Camille, Tracy, and all the guys - for making the transition so transparent.  I was not too worried about how I would fare out here in the bush, but it feels so much better starting a new chapter of my life with such great and welcoming people.

Now that I've got the boring me stuff out of the way, I can move on to the reason why I'm here - hyenas!  I've been very lucky so far - I've seen a hyena kill AND a hyena mating already.  It's been amazing to say the least.  These events and more will be featured in future posts, but now it's time to sleep before the alarm goes off and it's back to work!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

lions & leopards & bandits. Oh my!!

Submitted by Camille Yabut on 12 September, 2010

Alright, I admit it, I'm not the best at keeping current on these blog things. To make it up to you, I've got 3 entries coming up in quick succession. There's been a lot of craziness going on, so yes, it'll probably take at least that many entries to catch you up.

First things first, I'll tackle all the (relatively) recent camp and Mara excitement in this post. Top of the list? Bandits! About a month and a half ago there was a shooting here in the Mara Triangle. Some bandits attacked one of the tent camps, robbed the tourists, and then shot three of them. Two of the victims had to be airlifted to a hospital in the city, and the last one died too soon for medical attention (someone told me that one was shot in the head, but I don't know if this is true). The bandits ran away on foot, and a huge manhunt was organized to find them. The Conservancy put most of their rangers on it, plus poacher sniffing dogs and the local police!

The tent camp was pretty far away from our camp, and we're located very close to the Conservancy headquarters and ranger barracks, so we felt pretty safe. Unfortunately, one of my hyena clans has a territory that reaches all the way up to that area, so we had to restrict evening obs for a while. We were asked to avoid being out after dark until the shooters were found, for our own safety. The Conservancy also offered to station a ranger at our camp until they caught the shooters, but honestly I feel more antsy when there are strangers in camp, so I declined.

Anyway, at the time we had been having elephants in camp every night what better bodyguards could you have than a herd of elephants? They'd trample anyone who came close AND you can't take them down with a few measly bullets. The downside to this was that we spent several mornings in a row trapped in our tents because the elephants would forget to leave, but all in all it seemed a fair trade.

They eventually caught one of the bad guys, persuaded him to talk, and I think they caught the leader based on the info they got. I find myself speculating as to the methods used to make him talk, but mostly I think, "Good riddance!" One of the victims was a 70-year-old man who was just celebrating his birthday with some friends. Bastards.

Next up, more lions! (And why is it that I have so many stories about lions?! I'm a freaking HYENA researcher. Maybe if I pretend like I'm studying lions, I'll see more hyenas?) Before I came to the Mara, there was apparently lioness who decided to take up residence in the Serena Lodge compound and raise her 2 little cubs there (Serena Lodge is the closest lodge to Hyena Camp, only about 5 minutes away). In the process, she went and got herself completely acclimated to humans -- she's absolutely not intimidated at all.

She disappeared for a little while, only to turn up again last month.... in the middle of Hyena Camp. Oh dear.

I was in Nairobi at the time, so I missed the really exciting bits where she strolled through camp in the middle of the day, but read the post by Andy Booms here to get the full story.

By the time I got back to camp she was still hanging around (one day she decided to take a nap up by the choo/toilet, WTF?! We need that!) but mostly I just bumped into her skulking around the edge of the thicket that our camp is in, whenever we'd leave camp for obs.

She's disappeared again now, but I'll keep you posted on whether she comes back again.

And to close off this post, the last bit of camp fun I'll leave you with is: leopards! It's usually really hard to spot leopards out here. They're ridiculously shy, plus they're nocturnal, so you'll pretty much only see one by sheer luck. We at Fisi Camp don't actually have a problem finding leopards though, and that's because the leopards really prefer finding us. They just have to take a stroll straight through the middle of camp, every night.

They usually start at my end of camp, come up by the lab tent, stroll past the kitchen tent, meander up by the cars, and then end their jaunt by walking past the staff's tents. While on their walks, they like to bat at the edges of our tarps, shred helpless tea towels, and sneak up to tents where people are innocently sleeping and then VOCALIZE REALLY LOUDLY. Ok, to be fair I hadn't actually fallen asleep yet, but I was close! Also the leopard got so close to my tent that I could actually hear his paws as he stepped on the grass and leaves -- and if you know how quiet cats are while walking, then you know how flipping close that had to have been. I'm still a little bit pissed about that whole deal, but then it's hard for me to be charitable when something scares the living daylights out of me.

So, that wraps up the recent in-camp adventures.

Kenya Mpya! Katiba Mpya! (New Kenya! New constitution!)

Submitted by Steph Dawes on 28 August, 2010

Yesterday was a major day in Kenya! After years of discussion, Kenya has finally not only voted in its new constitution (that was on August 4th, if you remember I said that I was going to post about the referendum… I am not, this is much more interesting. Short story: the referendum passed and Kenya has a new constitution and the entire country is excited to be moving forward! GO KENYA!) but they have started celebrating the change that is coming and implementing the changes…and that was what yesterday was all about- celebrating the new Kenya!

So, yes it was a public holiday.

No, I was not aware during the entire day that I was out vulturing… but, when I got back, Benson and Joseph (our camp staff, amazing men, both of them) made me well aware by informing me and telling me that there were surprises and plans for a celebration later that evening… and well, I am always up for Fisi Camp celebrations!
So, how did we celebrate? Why, how any good group of Kenyans and Americans should celebrate such a momentous occasion- with celebratory home and handmade flag pins, homemade cake and nice dessert-table conversation! Yes, while the girls were out on obs (and I was running and reading in my tent. I am Legend is a GREAT book, btw) Benson and Joseph went way out of their ways to prepare celebrations.

As dinner finished, Steven, Lesingo, Joseph and Benson and us all gathered around the table singing “Kenya Mypa! Katiba Mpya!” (New Kenya, New Constitution!) happily… and we proudly wore the home MADE Kenyan flags and enjoyed two homemade cakes- one with wheat for the wheat eaters and one Steph-safe and gluten free! My cake said “HAPPY NEW KENYA!” painted in Chocolate icing….mmmm all around (and of course, soda for those interested!) As we prepared celebrations, we all sat around the table- the whole crew, Lesingo, Steven, Benson, Joseph, Laura, Tracy and myself. We talked about the new constitution and how Kenya would change from their perspectives… some of the highlights:

1.The new constitution will hold land owners and land holders responsible for their land. What this means is that many government leaders have seized land over the years… and now, they will be held accountable and land will be returned to those who rightfully own it.
2.The youth 9all young people, even young married folk) will be empowered with jobs and opportunity so they can better protect their assets (in Maasai land, that means ways to protect and care for their livestock and families, most often.)
3.The government will be reorganized to enable more representation in parliament. Provinces broken down into counties which will each have a representative that will hold town meetings and report to higher and higher levels of government. Also, the youth and citizenry will be invited into parliament (not sure how the details work there) but the constitution indicates wanting the common man involved in running the country.
4.Free primary education (and secondary) will really become FREE. That means cutting down on corruption and better budgeting of finances to fully supply schools so that everyone has access to good education.

In listening to Joseph and Benson, I garnered the following about the celebrations in Nairobi: Apparently the celebration was held in Nyayo Stadium and there were representatives of 7 different African countries and the UN present. In addition, Kofi Annan was there for the day. There were speeches all day from dawn until dusk! Prime Minister Odinga was not even able to get to his remarks because everyone was so busy celebrating the constitution and his role in it! Everyone who could make it to Nairobi did…and it was a day of happiness, hope and celebration…

It was the same at Fisi Camp in the Mara. Good luck, Kenya!

A day with vultures

Submitted by Steph Dawes , 27 August 2010

So, I know that I have been trying to get caught up on blog entries, writing of events of the past, but I have decided that for today’s (or… rather, yesterday’s) entry, I am going to actually talk about yesterday because it was pretty different than most days at Fisi Camp… mainly because, instead of being a Mama Fisi, I was a Mama Vulture! Yes, that’s right. Yesterday, I took a day OFF of hyena obs to spend the day driving around with Corrine (PhD student at Princeton), John (Kenyan research assistant), and Richard (Ugandan Researcher here to learn how to trap vultures), searching for carcasses on which vultures were feeding so that we could trap them and hopefully give them backpacks with tracking devices, very similar to the collars we use…

Out goals for the day: To trap and backpack two vultures… in order of preference: 1. Lappet- Faced Vultures (they are HUGE and have red heads, though the redness of their heads seems to depend more on their aggression and excitement levels rather than the amount of time spent in the sun; they also have very strong beaks and tend to be the vultures that tear carcasses open) 2. Adult white- backed vultures and 3. everything else (which we were NOT settling for yesterday.)

We left around 645am, after a drop off at the Talek Gate and started on our way. We drove out of the park and all around searching for carcasses. So, when we came upon a carcass our first step was to census the vultures- what species, what ages, and then… what was the carcass? from there, we could make an educated decision about setting traps… or not. If the answer was yes, we would do a drive by. John would basically position the car so that the birds were on the opposite side from the carcass and then Corrine and Richard would quietly and stealthily get out and set the traps (basically thick fishing wire that the vulture should step into and pull closed when it moves away…like a slip knot.) They tie the traps onto the carcass. GROSS! and then would sneak back into the car…we would drive away and watch for signs of a vulture struggling to fly, and failing. At that point, we would close in and attack!

I think overall we set traps out 7 or 8 times throughout the day, but did not catch a single Lappet! Turns out they are sneaky, suspicious birds who (once the carcass has been messed with) are very hesitant to return. Don’t blame them. What would you do if you were feeding quietly and contentedly (with the occasional squabble over the best tail scrap or anal meat?) and a car drove up for a few minutes and when it left, there were pieces of black plastic everywhere over your lunch? Luckily, the day was saved by us catching one vulture – a Rupell’s vulture. This poor vulture was caught early in the morning…around the neck… which is exactly what we DON’T want to have happen. BUT it did… so when that happened we rushed in. Seriously, throw stealth mode out the window! We were in. Blanket over vulture. One person steadying his body. The other holding his neck (they are really long… so they can poke and prod very lithely… or lethallydepending on how you look at it.) Then Corrine approached and grabbed blood from the leg. It was awesome to watch how quickly and effectively they worked. Then Poof! the bird was free and in the air, never to land near a car ever again.

That was pretty exciting… probably the best part of the day… the rest of the day was, as I explained above…spent driving around and hoping to catch a lappet-faced… almost and missed calls on so many accounts…

My overall impression, after talking to the team and experiencing part of their work, is they are doing GREAT research… imagine what you can do with conservation if you are able to determine vulture territories, land use and feeding habits? They are a vital part of the eco-system as they prevent carcasses from just sitting there and enabling a dangerous spread of disease (among others). However, as interesting as the research is… I could never ever hold a job where I spend all day every day driving around in a car unable to really move around. That was an important lesson for myself. That I need to have time to move around. Should I ever engage in field work again, I imagine it will have to be moving and outdoor oriented! But, I respect and love the vulture project. I can hardly believe that the species I am coming to respect the most in this Mara eco-system, are those most misunderstood and dis-respected in pop culture.

Narok Supply Run 2010 (June 28- 30th, 2010)

Submitted by Steph Dawes on 18 August, 2010

**Please note: This story is a true story. Nothing has been fabricated and no names were changed. It is real from start to finish and as honest as possible with slight positive twists. Be prepared for this brilliant next installment of "it's just life in the Mara." Please enjoy:**

So, we drive up to Narok (the last main town before the Mara.. its three hours away from camp, just about…pending road quality and car problems along the way) and spend the whole day shopping. “Three hours?” you scoff… “That’s Nothing!” Well, you might have considered it a simple drive, but then you would have needed to know that not only was I driving Marc, Kenna and Siri, but we also had three Kenyans in the bed of the truck: Joseph O, who has been doing small labor for us (used to work for Kay.... he is mentioned in a Primates Memoir as the Kenyan who rolled in white dirt a long while back and sort of went crazy working for white women. Interesting character), going back home in Narok, James ( he worked here until he got fired because he was cheating us in Talek...had a whole scam running...well, he seems to keep coming back to camp- and even asked Kay for a rec letter- which she wrote... but insisted people call her for more details. Yikes. would not come back and stay at a place that didnt want me around.)and Benson, one of our amazing current team members who is getting married next month!, who was going home to visit his family. And the road condition (picture American rocky, dirt road on steroids plus HUGE pot holes that not only you but the entire CAR would fall into and NEVER be seen again. Yeah. No exaggeration there.). Bahhaaaa. Long drive. Dusty. Bumpy. Normal. ::Sigh:: So, we make it to Narok around noon, having dropped James at one of the gates on the way out...and we have some food at the Kenol.

Note on the Kenol: It is a gas station…but behind it is this very secret and beautiful oasis that has pretty decent food. Fisi camp reveres it for its Samosas… but they have basic 9very basic, like mall basic) Chinese food and other snacks which are good to eat… picnic benches, grass, trees, flowers… idyllic hide-away in the midst of the dusty, dirty, trash ridden Narok, that we all have come to love.

So, we then start our epic shopping trip. First to market day to get fresh, cheap fruits and veggies... check... in large large amounts... double check... plus paw-paw…yes, I finally found papaya! Mmmm... check. Then to Naivas (grocery store) for everything else. Check. Then back to the Kenol to pick up samosas cause thats what Kay wants for dinner (30 of them.. .haha…half veg and half meat) check! I am doing that while the crew is getting diesel from a cheaper gas station (up the hill). They pick me up. Marc at the wheel. Clutch starts sticking. He can't easily up or down shift. Pull over to side of road. Steph (that’s me!) gets in driver seat. Drives. Hard to up or down shift-- getting to impossible (starts of easy and just gets worse and worse). Pull over. Kenna tries. Nope. Ok, we've broken down in Narok. Call Kay.

No panic but unhappiness- we need a mechanic and we need a mechanic now. Get back to Kenol and explain prob. Their mechanics get to work. Call Chris and Amanda (water researchers who stay at Serena Camp when in the Mara. Awesome people. Starting grad school at Yale in the fall but totally not the stereotype. Have a house in Narok, where they base) and find out they are just getting back into town and are heading to the Kenol now. (THANKS FOR SAVING US). Kenol mechanics look at car and decide that the gear box oil has been leaking (probably true. There is evidence of that. ) They fill up oil and explain issue. Say "we are sure we fixed the problem. We take great care of our customers." Kenna and Steph test drive car around Kenol. No good.. Can’t shift. KEnol guys make excuse that they would have found the problem if they had more time and try to way over charge us. We refuse and pay them reasonably for their labor. Don’t lie to us. We may be women and American, but we are not stupid!

At this point. Chris and Amanda have brought their mechanic. Kay has also called our NBO mechanic. It is around 6pm. We are able to make it to Chris and Amanda's house where we can safely leave our car for the night as we figure out what to do next. Maina (their mechanic) thinks it has to be a gear box problem and/or clutch or pressure plate issue. So does our NBO mechanic, Ian. Maina gamely agrees to look it over on Tuesday (it was late in the day…sun setting is not a good time to investigate car problems outside…) Chris and Amanda offer us a place to stay for the night... mattresses in their front room. Totally perfect...


Side note: It is amazing. The golden spoon. They have a veg kitchen and a non veg kitchen and it was some of the best Indian food in Narok (not saying much, but it was impressive… not the best in Kenya by any means, but it held its own. ) Now, Side note 2: We stopped at the Golden Spoon on our way up to NBO to do the Kay and Pat epic switch, and apparently the non- veg food was less than desirable. New news. Apparently knowing the owner and chef (and him being there) is VERY important (he was there the first night with Chris and Amanda and I think was putting on a bit of a show for us…). I stopped there with Pat on the way down to the Mara and though no longer the best ever… it is still very delicious. If you ever eat there, go veg!

Crash back at Chris and Amanda’s place. Next morning...feel like sh** due to lack of medicine for any of my special conditions and cold. But,optimistic. Not much happens during the morning, but the afternoon was great. ** Maina discovers that the pressure plate was completely cracked and the clutch plate was worn down. We were able to order parts and get them from our connections in NBO, so the car was fixed, test drove, and humming by 5pm. Too late to head back to the Mara, but early enough to feel good and have a fun night in.

**During the day we basically explored Narok and did some shopping basics. It was pretty fun. Taught Marc and Siri how to bargain... had a great show down with a lady making some beautiful Maasai jewelry (It was about time to start looking into Maasai handicrafts, given that I am living in the Mara this year. Perhaps someone will get lucky J ) It was epic : (as is everything, apparently. Best adjective EVER)… Then got back to Chris and Amanda’s and made homemade pizza. We even found Amarenth flour (which is perfect because I am now eating gluten free… and feeling a million times better!).... go pizza and hangout night!

The next morning, anti climatically (thank goodness)...we left and made it back safe and sound to the Mara... to find out that the green cruiser was leaking oil though a tire and the white cruiser's alternator was going. Yikes. Fun car week that week. Seriously. When it rains, it pours out here, or so I am learning. Thursday then, we had the opportunity to take both the HILUX (yes, the same car that we had taken to Narok and had fixed just a day before)...and the green cruiser into our mechanic at Sarova (a nearby lodge. He is our Mara mechanic.) What an insane couple of days!

Luckily now, months later… all of our cars seem to be holding up ::knock on wood::. I am ever thankful for that. Yes, we have plenty of minor set backs, but I am thankful for the opportunity to learn about cars this year, our weekly car checks, our nearby mechanics and everyone else who plays support to our vehicles and project :) And of course, our friends in Narok and around Kenya who consistently come to our rescue. And for adventures with memories to last a life time!

Over and out—

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science