Thursday, June 9, 2011

That was my May in the Mara

I used to have a yellow lab when I was younger. Isaac (my brother) and I had this game we played where we would fish for our dog off the picnic table with a rawhide tied to a broom handle with some twine. To call this a bit odd seems fair, but I think the concept is accessible…drag the rawhide around and the dog chases it until he catches it, tug of war, and then embellish some heroic tall tale about catching a trophy; it is the kind of tale where the catch gets bigger and better each time the story is retold.

About 10:00 pm on June 2, 2011, the bait was secure and the line was cast. Following a Land Rover and the dead hyena in tow, 2-6ish hyenas (very much alive ones) revitalized my sense of excitement from my dog fishing days, as I hung on to the spare tire mounted on the back of the Land Rover. Although yellowish-tan, furry and pretty charismatic like my old lab, I hesitated in wanting this evening’s edition of carnivore fishing to end in a catch. Rather I was hoping that once the necropsied remains of the recently found dead Koi (alpha female hyena from the Happy Zebra clan studied by the Serena Hyena Camp within the Mara Conservancy Park) had been drug a safe distance from the camp drive way, I would be able unhook the tow cable from Koi’s body in a timely enough fashion that I would not be mistaken for the bait.

The fact that I am doing well and writing this now a few days later makes it clear that this tale has already lost the element of danger, and bravery, and tragedy that tend to weave a series of events into stories of epic proportion. Maybe a few beers in, sitting around with some friends a few months from now and a more exciting version will manifest, but because I have already unveiled the end of May and the beginning of June, I should fill in the story line up until this point in time.

Right, so Koi was found dead along the High road the evening of June 2nd by a watering hole we call Egyptian Goose. That same evening Koi was brought back to camp and a handful of people (the water researchers, camp staff, a few visitors etc) all helped or watched the necropsy of Koi in the glow of mag lights and headlights. Koi appeared to have been dead for less than 24 hours. Her cause of death seemed most likely to be lion(s). This was determined by the puncture wounds found around the neck and amongst the writhing mass of ticks, flies, and non-descript ecto-parasites inhabiting Koi’s matted fur. I am not sure how many of Koi’s ecto-parasites decided to switch hosts and join my team that night. Still you are faced with a serious question when deciding whether to leave well enough alone or swat with a hand covered in hyena fluids ripened by the warmth of the Kenyan sun. To be fair not all of the excitement was at the focus of our scalpel blades and sample vials. Cast in the interface of shadow and trailing headlight or mag light beams that were focused away from the necropsy, a number of local North territory hyenas had gathered. I imagine, as much as I could smell Koi, these North hyenas must have been able to smell Koi from some distance. I have no idea what the North hyenas intent or interest was, but they paced and dodged in the artificial light with increasing energy and boldness as the necropsy continued. It was like if you have ever been at a small venue bar to see a show. Before the main act comes out the crowd kind of jostles in this uncoordinated but unified rhythm of impatient discontent directed at that first band; we were the lead singer for that unappreciated opening act the night of Koi’s necropsy. Soon enough though Koi had been preserved forever in the records and data logs, and was hooked in tow by a cable to the Land Rover. Out across the plane we go, with at least 6-12ish hyenas (very much alive and big ones) in pursuit…

Koi was not the only one to suffer lion troubles in May. On a morning earlier in the month, myself and a few other research assistant/grad students were at a den conducting a fairly standard obs session. The morning was nearing the time we might drive around and try to find other hyenas, but before leaving we saw two hyenas loping across the plane. In casual pursuit were three male lions. At first it did not appear as though the lions’ course would bring them much nearer than 100m from us and the den. That was an incorrect presumption. The lead lion quite intentionally shifted attention and gear, and came running at the adult and cub hyenas at the den. I will try not to sensationalize this part. However, a big male lion, when moved by some inspiration to do more than sun bathe and nap, becomes an impressive display of muscle contractions and potential killing force. This fact was also realized by the hyenas, and the adults all scattered while the cubs dove into the nearest den hole they could find, as the lead male lion leapt over a ditch next to the den. The male lion reached into the den with its paw but to no avail before it began urinating on the den. Meanwhile at a den hole about 50m away, one brave cub ventured a look out of the den. The hyena cub caught the lead male lion’s eye, and he again sprang into action running at the den and trying to reach in and grab the cub. Soon the other two adult male lions had arrived at the den. Again there was a series of macho displays in which the lions were urinating and pawing the ground with their rear legs on top of the den. Not long after marking the den, the lions moved on and retired for the day long nap that was sure to follow. We soon left as the morning was waning, as was the potential for a Mara headliner. It is not that we are impatient, but at that point in time it would be like trying to watch and episode of the Bachelor following an episode of Jersey Shore; relatively it had just become too tame.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not that tame is always bad, but I think everyone can better know where they stand day to day when the stakes go up. Take for example two other den sessions in which the only animal participants were hyenas…well at least live ones. Both of these session involved Clovis, the alpha female from our South territory clan. In two different cub provisioning events, Clovis provided her youngest cubs with almost exclusive feeding access on wart hog kills. If lions, as a context, tend to excite hyenas I think it is safe to say that food does as well. The question is then, if you are Clovis, why bring the wart hog remains back to the den and have to stand by vigilant to ensure that no other hyenas steal your cubs’ prize? It seemed most likely to be a lesson. Why bring the food back among all those other hungry hyenas? One reason might be, simply because you can… and that is the glory of being at the top of the social hierarchy. During the excitement of both of these apparent provisioning events, not only did Clovis provide a lesson to her cubs and the rest of the clan in regards to rank, but it also helped me rank my own status thus far in the Mara. Prior to the two wart hog den sessions, I figured myself close to adequate in terms of observing behavioral interactions among a group of hyenas. Well that day, even as a bystander, I was able to reflect and re-evaluate. Thank you Clovis for increasing the session energy and humbling me with nearly 160 tracks on my DVR to the tune of, ‘NOTE: …incomplete CIs.’

Well that was May and it has been fun and challenging and educational, but now it is already June. Just yesterday on the 5th of June I saw the first of the migration (zebras) crossing the Mara River.

I am sure as the herds increase in number I will get many more opportunities to improve on my kill session data collection. Watching those first couple thousand zebras crossing the river I was struck by one peculiarity. Even after making a frantic effort to swim, run, or stumble past four large and waiting crocodiles, many of the zebras re-traversed the river back towards the bank they had just left behind. 

Maybe the grass is always greener, or maybe the adrenaline and sense of accomplishment is addicting? I think if I was I zebra I would at least look for another river to cross or maybe consider the lions still waiting just up the bank. Anyway I’ll save from some tacky analogy (I have likely exhausted those) involving my time in the Kenya, compared to a journey full of river crossings and crocodiles. Suffice it to say I am sure June will have at least one or two blog worthy events, but if not… Did I ever tell you about hyena fishing…


Dana said...

Great post Zach - you definitely have a way with words. It's sad tho that Koi last rite was being drug behind a vehicle all dissected. Question, the hyena's that were following your vehicle, would they eat her once you untied her?

Zach said...

I was wondering the same thing...the next morning I went to check the carcass which had been partially eaten and drug some distance, but i am not sure what was responsible for moving/partially eating it

Dana said...

Thanks for answering Zach - guess we will never know the final fate of Koi.

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