Tuesday, August 30, 2016

5 Months, 5 Moments

Time goes by so fast!  As of today, I have been in Kenya for five months, working as a Research Assistant for the Mara Hyena Project.  In these five months, I have learned, seen, and done so much.  This whole experience is too incredible for me to convey properly in words, but I will attempt to describe here just a few cool moments from my past five months in the Mara... one for each month.


On the morning of April 6, I went out on my first ever "obs" (observations) period with the Mara Hyena Project, riding along with Jared and Benson as they collected data on Talek West clan.  There were so many firsts for me that morning...

I saw my first Mara sunrise!
I saw my first wild lion!
I saw my FIRST WILD HYENAS, including an adorable little black cub who was probably seen by human eyes FOR THE FIRST TIME that morning (I later got to name her Aries, after my own astrological sign)!

(NOTE: Sorry, the cuteness was too intense for me to photograph.)

I can't really pick a favorite moment from that morning, because the whole day took on this glowing, magical sheen that was almost surreal.  But one of my favorite moments was meeting a hyena named Meeko, named after the raccoon in the Disney movie Pocahontas.

We were driving along - the closest landmark was Gargoyle Tree - and then suddenly we saw this beautiful, fluffy subadult hyena, looking at us.
We stopped the car, and the hyena came right up to us.  He looked intently in the open window, gazing at us with curiosity and interest.  I looked back at him as he looked into my eyes.  I didn't realize at the time that Meeko was simply a popcorn fiend; sometimes we have to give hyenas lures like popcorn and powdered milk for the sake of our research, and popcorn was what Meeko was after when he was gazing so intently into the car.  In that moment, all I could think about was the strange, fascinating animal looking back at me through those lovely brown eyes, and what incredible stories his life, and the lives of the other hyenas in his clan, must hold.  I wanted to discover more about the life stories of the Talek West hyenas, to learn who they were, what they do, why they do what they do.  The tales behind those beautiful eyes.  And I knew in that moment, This is why I'm here.


One evening in late May, we went out for observations.  The car I was in was intending to focus on doing "cow count", and just record all the livestock we saw along a specific route in the park.  But the Mara had other plans.

On an open plain, we stumbled upon a rare sight: what looked like an all-out war between two groups of hyenas.  Two fronts, by turns chasing and retreating from each other in a deadly dance, their tails bristled, whooping and loping back and forth.  Eventually, one group retreated for good, running off to the west.  Piecing together the identities of the hyenas involved in the incident, we (together with the other project car present at the scene) realized that this battle had happened between members of two different social groups of Talek West: it was members of the "Main DOC" group against members of the "Pond" group, and Main DOC had successfully kept Pond (the retreating group) away from the impala kill Main DOC had been feeding on.  This war/food competition/chain of team vs team aggressions was an exciting and significant moment to witness.  It may provide evidence that Talek West "clan", which we formerly thought was still one big happy family, is now breaking up into separate clans that compete with each other - or else it already has.


I got kissed by a giraffe at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi.  Enough said!

In July, I saw my first crossing with Erin and Robyn at the Mara River!

It started with a few zebras.

Then there were twelve crocodiles.

Then there was one less baby zebra.

Then a bunch of wildebeests started crossing the river, and chaos broke loose.

It was breathtaking and shocking and terrible and mighty, seeing life's brutality and its stubborn determination to survive playing out before us.  It all happened so fast that it seemed to be over in the blink of an eye, in a single moment.  So many wildebeests getting torn to shreds by the crocodiles, and so many wildebeests pushing through to the other side of the river.  This wasn't a nature documentary.  This was real life, and real death, unfolding before our eyes.  It was horrific and sad, but also inspiring and beautiful.  It was like nothing I've ever seen before, and I don't think I will ever see anything quite like it again.  


I was sitting on my front porch (well, technically, I was sitting on a chair on the tarp in front of my tent... it's a porch, all right?!) one mid-August morning, talking to my mom on the phone, when I saw some distant branches rustling, and heard some crashing sounds.  I oriented to the noise, but was not particularly alarmed; a few vervet monkeys and baboons pass through our camp and make a racket in the trees, and while vervets are mischievous (raiding tents, stealing food) and baboons can be really destructive (TEARING HOLES IN TENTS to raid them and steal food), this still seemed like business as usual.  See some pesky primates, chase them away.  Camp life, like normal.  If they started moving toward the kitchen, I'd be concerned, so I kept an eye on the area, but I just kept talking to my mom.

The crashing grew gradually louder, and while I tried to keep paying attention to my conversation with my mom, eventually all my senses were geared toward the noise.  As I watched, an elephant appeared out of the thicket on the path right by our camp shower, and was grazing in an easygoing way on the trees around the shower, maybe 50 meters away from me.

For a moment, I was speechless.

"Sorry, Mom," I finally said.  "I've got to go.  There's an elephant in camp and it's about to step on the shower."

"Oh, really?" Mom gasped with a tone of childlike wonder and excitement.

"Yes!" I said, now frantic and worried.  "I have to go.  I love you.  Bye!"

Cautiously, I walked away down the path to the kitchen, my eyes never leaving the magnificent (and terrifying) animal before me until the thicket of trees between us swallowed him.  I told the guys about the elephant, and for our safety, they worked together to chase him away from camp.  They named him "Bubu", which means "mute person" in Swahili, because he had found his way into our camp by making so little noise that no one had heard him coming.  It's incredible, the way such powerful animals can walk so softly, the way such large creatures can vanish into a clump of bushes.

I will never forget that moment: just sitting there, looking into the trees, and then watching an elephant emerge out of nowhere right before my eyes.
Being an RA for the project has brought such unforgettable moments into my life: the ones I mention above, and so many more.  Here's to the next 7 months, and the road ahead!


Jeff Todoroff said...

So well-written, and a pleasure to read. Your description of the river crossing was really powerful. I can almost smell the Mara- thank you, Amy

dee said...

Really great post Amy. Thanks and please keep it up.

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