Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Hyenas in a Haystack

By Emily Thorne, IRES 2013

Emily T., Emily B., and Moira with Digs.

I always figured one day I would come face to face with some large and scary carnivore, but had you asked me a few months ago I never would have thought it would be a wild adult female hyena. Moreover, I couldn’t begin to imagine that I would be in the back of a moving Land Cruiser straddling this hyena, keeping her safe as she started to wake up, while trying not to let myself get thrown around with every bump and dip in the road that threatened to send me flying. If you asked me today I would tell you I couldn’t wait to do it again.

Hyena research has its exciting and unbelievable moments, no doubt, but it also requires a lot of time and an incredible amount of patience. Some of the hyenas being studied here in the Mara have been fitted with GPS and VHF collars that provide the researchers with valuable data about where the hyenas are located, allow the hyenas to be tracked using radio telemetry equipment, and even record the temperature. Once the hyenas are wearing their new high-tech accessories they can usually be found much easier and may lead us to a few collarless hyenas they happen to be hanging around with. The difficulty lies in finding the hyena and putting the collar on in the first place.

Since we arrived in Serena, Dave has been on a mission to find and collar one particular hyena in the Serena North clan: Sauer, the lowest ranking of the high ranking females. A female spotted hyena’s rank in the social hierarchy is inherited from her mother. For this project the hierarchy was divided into equal thirds (high, medium, and low) and a few high and low ranking females from three clans were selected to receive a GPS collar. We spent several mornings driving around the entire North territory in search of a needle in a haystack. Sauer’s cubs were no longer den-dependent so she could be anywhere.  One morning we managed to stumble upon her and her two cubs. This seemed promising so we followed her. And followed her. And followed her some more. She seemed quite content to wander around in what seemed like every patch of tall grass in the Mara, almost strategically avoiding any areas that would allow for a safe and easy shot with the dart gun. Finally she settled on a nice cozy spot. Unfortunately for us that spot happened to be in a lugga, which meant tall grass, water, mud and absolutely no chance for us that day. The next time we found her she was on the move again. We followed her for over an hour through excellent areas with short grass and no thickets or luggas but she just wouldn’t stop moving. She wound up leading us back to the den, which happened to be hyena party central that morning. Our luck seemed to be turning around when she wandered away from the den to a patch of short grass and sacked out. Just as we were finally about to get a good shot along comes another female. Apparently Sauer wasn’t in the mood for company because she stood up and started to wander off again. We followed her but she gave us the slip once more. We watched her walk into a rock field, up the side of a hill and out of site into a thicket. Twice we almost had her and twice she managed to get the best of us.

It turns out however, that it was a good thing she did. To our surprise, our plans suddenly changed when we witnessed an interaction between Sauer and another female named Digs. It turned out that Digs, who had been lower ranking than Sauer, had jumped a step up on the social ladder, something that isn’t seen too frequently in a stable hyena hierarchy. She had surpassed Sauer (who was now a middle ranker) and was now the new lowest ranking of the high ranking females. This meant that Sauer was out and Digs was our new target.

Dave, Wes and I had spent several mornings driving around South in search of Marten, another female Dave wanted to put a collar on, when one morning we received a call from Lily, Moira and Julie who were driving around in North. They had spotted Digs so we headed on over.
At first we thought Digs was going to give us the run around like Sauer had. After over an hour of slowly following her around the North territory past luggas and thickets, through tall grass and around lots of puddles she finally made it to the perfect spot. We were driving slowly next to her, as close as possible trying not to spook her. In one fraction of a second she stopped right next to us, turned her head away with her back end in just the right position and Dave took a perfect shot. It only took a few minutes for her to go down and then I got to see a truly wild (but chemically immobilized) hyena up close and personal. My first thought was that she was huge, but at about 50 kilograms she was actually on the small side for a female hyena. Being that close to a wild large carnivore was surreal. Her feet looked like my dog’s feet only twice the size. Her fur was surprisingly coarse to the touch.  Her sharp carnivore teeth and huge jaw muscles left no doubt that she could do a number on a wildebeest or buffalo. We got to work immediately. We collected blood and other bodily substances (we can all now say we have “milked a hyena”, literally) and measured her head, teeth, limbs, and numerous other body parts. We measured her neck and fitted her new collar so that it was loose enough to be comfortable but tight enough that it wouldn’t fall off. After checking to make sure the collar was working properly we weighed her.

Just as we were finishing up she started to come to. Perfect timing. We carried her to the car on a stretcher and Lily, Moira and I climbed in the back with her. Since it was a rather bumpy ride and the immobilization drugs were starting to wear off (and I happened to be sitting closest to her) I made sure she didn’t get tossed around. And let me tell you, riding in the back of the car with one knee in a puddle of hyena drool, the other leg over Digs’ body (which smelled ever so slightly of dead elephant) in order to brace myself and not squish her, while leaning over to keep her eyes covered and head down was probably one of the most bizarre and coolest things I have ever done. We left Digs under some nice trees in a shady thicket, made sure she was nice and cool so she wouldn’t overheat and surrounded her with big branches to keep her safe. When we checked on her later that day she had fully recovered and was already out and about taking care of hyena business.

Digs is doing very well with her fancy new collar. We have tracked her around the territory multiple times since then and Dave has been collecting lots of GPS points for her. Her data, along with the other collared hyenas’ data, will enable researchers to answer important research questions that have never been able to be answered on such an interesting and dynamic species as the spotted hyena. I hope I get to lend a hand in more of these incredible experiences during the rest of my stay here the Mara.


dee said...

Great post Emily, I'm going to print it out and use it to answer the "what's it like?" question! Thanks

EmilyThorne said...

Thanks Dee! I'm glad you liked it. I definitely enjoyed the experience!

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