Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Talek West Tragedy

We’ve been living a nightmare these past several days. Someone poisoned a carcass in Talek West territory, and we’ve lost four hyenas that we know of so far, which are in addition to Honey, Idi, and Endor, who were poisoned last week outside the reserve. This second poisoning happened relatively close to the den, but we never found the carcass itself.

Blanket was the first casualty. Hadley and Benson found him dead at the end of morning obs. He had a sticky pink substance coming out of his anus, and was bleeding from his mouth, nose and eyes. When they brought his body back to camp, it looked like he was crying blood. The necropsy was fascinating in a very awful way; whatever they used to poison him was a disturbingly potent substance. The flies that landed on Blanket began to die, littering the ground around him with their twitching bodies. His internal organs, especially the liver, were discolored, and had a blotchy, irritated look to them. The inside of his stomach contained the remains of a calf that looked like it had been doused in a pink substance the color of pepto bismol.

Then, while we were still reeling from Blanket’s death, we got a call that there were more dead hyenas. I had been hoping we might get a day or so before other bodies turned up, or that maybe the calf in Blanket’s stomach was too small to kill many others, but there’s practically no way to kill only one animal with poison. This is because poison is indiscriminant and creates a huge amount of collateral damage. What I have been told is that usually, when a herder poisons a carcass, it kills scores of hyenas, a few lions, lots of jackals and vultures, and even domestic dogs. What is even more concerning is that the flies that died around Blanket clearly demonstrate that this poison remains deadly even after it is consumed, which means that it can spread secondarily to an even broader swath of the ecosystem. To add another level of concern, when an animal is poisoned, it seeks out water to drink. This means that they can also spread the poison to an aquatic ecosystem, which in an area where most people get their drinking water from rivers could actually end up harming humans as well. The probable and potential effects of a poisoning event are extremely serious and disturbingly wide reaching. So we knew after Blanket that there would be others, but we were still dreading what we would see.

As we drove towards the area where Hadley and Benson found Blanket, we saw a strange shape in a tree, a tangle of cream-colored wings sticking out at odd angles from the branches. As we drove up, we saw it was a dead tawny eagle hanging off its perch. Above it, there was another eagle that was panting and struggling to fly away. We managed to get the dead one out and when we looked at it, we saw pink goo oozing from its mouth and the stain of pink on its feet. Tawny eagles are a bit like vultures in that they will also congregate at a kill to eat the meat. In this case, that exposed them to the poison as well.

We had to climb on the car to get the tawny eagle out of the tree, and as we looked across the plain, we realized that there were more small bodies scattered across it, from a variety of species. Even before we got close to each of them, I felt a sense of horror seeing the scale of effect laid out before us.

After a half hour of collecting dead animals, our non-hyena casualty total was three tawny eagles, one vulture, and two jackals. We knew that there were probably many more that we would never find, because there was a dense lugga nearby that most of the dead animals would have sought out as they died.
Hadley photographs a dying Tawny Eagle that was killed secondarily after feeding on this Black-backed Jackal that died from ingesting poison

The first hyena we found that afternoon was Mousetrap. She’s a bossy young female with one of the most distinctive spot patterns of any hyena in the clan. She had just had her first cub, Earl Warren (Ewar for short), who is a rambunctious mischief-maker and is too young to survive without her. When we found Mousetrap, there were two strings of dried blood coming out of her nose, coated in dead flies, and the same telltale pink stains on her fur.
Mousetrap, as we found her

The next hyena was Xenon. She was another beautiful young first time mother. We had just finally confirmed seeing her nurse the night before, and hadn’t even given her cub a name yet. Her cub is also too young to survive without her. Later, when KWS vets were doing a post-mortem on her body, they found signs of internal hemorrhaging. Her lungs were full of blood, and her stomach held the remains of a calf that were stained an otherworldly neon pink and purple.

Wilson mentioned that some of the hyenas might try to get to the den as they were dying, so we made our way towards it. We found another hyena in the creek behind the den, deep in the bushes. It took us a while to get her out of the water, but when we laid her out we saw it was Obama. Obama is yet another first-time mother, and her cub Sycamore Fig is also too young to survive without her.

Finding Obama highlighted just how difficult it will be to know exactly how many animals were killed by this single event. If others also went into water surrounded by bushes, we may never find them.

The KWS vet team conducting their post-mortem on Xenon and the others
Despite the sincere concern expressed by those officials present at the post-mortem for Mousetrap, Xenon, and Obama, we were a little worried that no real action would be taken as a result of the poisoning. We were very wrong about that. The response has been overwhelming. The County Council blocked all livestock grazing in the reserve until the community brings them the person responsible. If nothing else, I hope this sends a strong message that poisonings are not an acceptable reaction to livestock predation and that hyenas are a valuable part of this ecosystem.

(Correction: Sycamore Fig is actually not Obama's first cub, but her second. Her first cub, Acacia, died when Obama got her snare.)


dee said...

You guys be careful and take care of yourselves. This has got to be so very stressful for all of you. I am sooooo sorry.

Peter Knight said...

very good report on an obviously very serious problem. Bahati nzuri in finding the person / people involved and explaining / educating them in the widespread consequences.

Dana said...

So very, very sorry to read this. Sure hope they find the ones that did this. Would be interested to know what kind of fine/jail time would ensue.

Page said...

So sorry to hear this guys. Unfortunately, these kind of tragedies are all apart of what it means to do field research. Hang in there and I know that Fisi Camp will turn this heartache into a wealth of new knowledge.

Dr.B to Be said...

This sounds like the D-con poisonings we see here in the states. A rat eats the d-con, a hawk eats the rat, and so on. The death via hemorrhaging is a very horrible way to go. So saddened to hear this.

Anonymous said...

So sorry.
Katrina, Lily's Mom

Anonymous said...

The last time I saw Mousetrap she was small enough to cradle in one arm. Rest in peace little one.

Scissors MacGillicutty said...

I'm so sorry to read this, and I'm dreading reading the follow-up post. It is, unfortunately, a powerful teaching tool for showing the interconnectedness of ecosystems, and how you can't just change one thing without there being wide ranging consequences.
My heart goes out to you folks who developed fondness for these hyenas, and I want to cry myself when I think of the motherless cubs.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science