Saturday, November 17, 2018

The transition from college life to field RA: An honest post

I’m officially four months into my stay here and cannot believe how quickly the time has gone. Honestly, even the most tiring and arduous of work days fly by. You get back from obs, eat breakfast, spend the day working and before you know it, it’s time for dinner, and then it’s time for obs again. It’s a circular lifestyle, but each day is unique. Truly, there is no such thing as a boring day in camp (except for maybe the two-week stint in August where we had rain nearly every day and could not take the car out).

However, this post isn’t about our daily routine, but rather a reflection on my transition out here. I just returned from a two-week Nairobi trip, which was the last thing I needed to be trained on before I could consider myself completed trained. Having finished this, I’ve been thinking a lot about my expectations vs. reality of this job, the transition from college life to this type of work, and the way I’ve grown as an individual in ways I did not expect.

For me, when I first heard about the position all I could think about were the hours I’d spend in the field…the hours I’d spend studying hyenas and seeing other wildlife, cruising around in the Masai Mara. A complete dream. And it is! I seriously have the best job ever. Ever. However, the time we spend chasing hyenas isn’t the half of our duties. For my personal development, I am grateful for this. I’m forced to be organized, have my brain actually turned on at all times, be an excellent communicator with my fellow RAs (and my closest friends) at both Serena and Talek camp, as well as being an effective communicator with everyone back in Michigan, working from afar to ensure this project runs smoothly.

I’ll give you the most recent example of the ways I’ve been pushed. Since I’m fresh from Nairobi…let’s talk about that.

Me and Benson in Nairobi!

A list of some things I did/RAs on the project frequently do.

1.     Drive alone on the left side of the road in a boat sized stick shift vehicle on busy streets with drivers that don't necessarily abide by the laws (or the lines--ha).
2.     Took an Uber alone for the first time in a foreign country (sounds simple, I know, but the first time, sure, I can admit I was a little nervous).
3.     Went to Immigration several times to handle our student passes and VISA renewal.
4.     Drove to the Kenyan Wildlife Service to pay for research passes and meet with government officials.
5.     Handled and exchanged large sums of cash for project costs.
6.     Had copies of car keys and mailbox keys made.
7.     Paid bills and called mechanics to handle things related to cottage maintenance.
8.     Spent many hours in many stores finding supplies for camp (such as massive jugs to hold water, new car batteries, pharmacy medications, re-stocking our food etc.)
9.     Communicated with our Nairobi mechanic about fixing the car during our stay.
10.  Filled the liquid nitrogen tanks.
11.  And of course (and more fun!) explored coffee shops and cafes in between.

Playing with the mechanic's pup.

Some of the purchased supplies for camp!

My point in listing all of these tasks is that so many of them are things that I’ve never imagined myself doing. In this two-week period, I proved so much to myself and what I am capable of handling. And these are only Nairobi related tasks!

During the drive home from Nairobi, I thought a lot about how the transition to this job was not an easy one. Some days have been really difficult and all I want to do is lie down and sleep the stress away. Other days have been some of the best of my life. So much is thrown at you right away and you cannot be crushed by the responsibility. Here on the ground, we must directly ensure the field sites run smoothly. Last year at this time, my biggest worry was if I would have enough time to go to the gym after class and study for a quiz before going out for drinks at a trivia bar. This morning, I woke up and the car was having battery problems and issues with the fuel gauge…problems that needed immediate resolutions. We solved these all before 9am. Last year, I might not have been awake by 9am. Here, we can’t procrastinate.

This job has even changed my personal organizational skills. I went from never making my bed, to being the person who makes her bed every day. Not only this, but I sweep my tent every day. A girl who cares about the cleanliness of the floor of her tent? Me!? Mom…are you reading this!? And even more shocking, I now have a full skin care routine of washing my face and moisturizing twice a day. Sometimes, I wonder, who the heck is this girl!? And I feel proud.

In four months, I’ve grown so much as a person. At 22 years old I’m proving to myself that I’m capable of handling so many responsibilities I hadn’t ever imagined.

And it has only been four months.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Teamwork makes the dream work

And so it was that on the 7th of November, Jessica Gunson - bright-eyed and bushy-tailed research assistant - set out for solo obs and stumbled upon a carcass session, turned high speed chase, turned lion-hyena interaction, turned SECOND carcass session.

At 6am, as I paused to take a sip of my coffee, I began to hear loud whooping and growling coming from down the road, in Happy Zebra territory. I stowed my travel mug and took off to investigate, heading off road and directly into a carcass session. It appears a low-ranking immigrant male had killed a wildebeest over night, and there were now 12 hyenas vigilantly standing by as subadult KNG feasted. Because this was solo obs, I quickly jumped into action. I pulled out our audio equipment (pictured below) to begin recording vocalizations for one of our graduate students. I simultaneously whipped out my camera to film behaviors, and grabbed my hyena ID book to start confirming the identity of the hyenas present.

Former RA Emily Nonnamaker captures hyena vocalizations at a carcass session
Suddenly, a whoop rang out from the east. We all (myself and 18 hyenas) paused and looked in this direction and then… they took off! At breakneck speed, 17 of the 18 hyenas present loped to the east as I frantically attempted to follow. We had travelled for over 2km when I spotted it – 5 female lions feeding on a wildebeest. There were already several Happy Zebra hyenas here, nervously pacing as they awaited reinforcement. What happened next cannot be adequately described in words, so I’ve included a video instead-

It takes 4 hyenas to overpower 1 female lion, so with the arrival of these 17 hyenas (and I), the group was victorious and took the wildebeest. I sat in silence. Awed at the cooperation and bravery of my dear Happy Zebra hyenas. When it comes to hyenas – teamwork makes the dream work.

Bonus: The one hyena who stayed behind at carcass #1 was SKEP. She may not have the team spirit, but she sure is smart. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Baby boom

One of the best parts of this experience is being able to get to know the personalities of the individual hyenas in our study populations and watching them interact with the world around them. It gets even better with cubs. Being able to meet a week old cub, be the first person it’s ever seen, and watch it learn about its surroundings and its spot in greater hyena society is truly a blessing. To the joy of every Talek RA, our Talek West and Pond clans have recently had a baby boom, and we have so many new bundles of joy to get to know.


Little Mizz is the newest addition to our Talek West clan, with Knot as their adoring mother. Being less than a month old we don’t see much of Mizz except when Knot decides to gingerly lift her out of the communal den for brief bouts of social time. All the cubs at the communal den seem almost too eager to meet their new den-mate, and all of us in Talek have to say that we share that excitement and then some.


Pilosa is an older cub in our Talek West clan, with Gofa as their mother. However, we’ve only known Pilosa for a little over a month. Pilosa is proving to be a bold and spunky little hyena, always seemingly eager to investigate our cruisers and explore a little further from then den than their other den-mates.

Scat and Guano

Scat and Guano are the newest black beans to grace our Pond clan, with Tasty Twist as their ever vigilant mother. Nearly 3.5 weeks old, Scat and Guano don’t come out of the den often (nor does Tasty Twist really let them), but when they do, their wobbly little legs don’t take them far before their older den-mates Ygritte and Margaery Tyrell excitedly greet their newest clan mates.

Ygritte and Margaery Tyrell

Currently the cool kids of the Pond Clan den, Ygritte and Maergaery Tyrell are just over 2 months old and are seemingly enjoying the newfound freedom that their mother Bonnet has given them. They spent their mornings tearing around the den holes, finding scraps to chew on, grass stalks to paste on, and older clan mates to play with – some of which do so reluctantly. They try very hard to play with their new den-mates Scat and Guano but are often aggressed upon by Tasty Twist in her efforts to protect her babies from their rambunctious antics. Until Tasty Twist lets them interact with Scat and Guano, Ygritte and Margaery seem to be perfectly content exploring and chewing on all the wonders the land around the Pond Clan den has to offer them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Happy Halloween!

We all know that hyenas are adorable.
But they also can look pretty fearsome at times. In honor of the Halloween season, here are some hyenas showing off their spooky side.
MGTA staring right into your soul
First we have MGTA who decided to go for a dye job. She looks fabulous with her new red hairdo, combining the practicality of consuming large quantities of meat while also being fashionable.

We also have ZITI who has a look similar to MGTA’s bloody style but with the extra flair of a blood streak along his side. He’s really into the holiday spirit.
ZITI shows off his own unique style
Taking it a step further is CYBR, who in addition to a little bit of dried blood is also showing off her pearly whites, in a look that is both intimidating and fierce.
CYBR being sassy
The grand winner of the spooky look contest though has got to be KENG. While taking a nap one fine day, she forgot to close her eyes completely which resulted in this terrifying picture. I certainly wouldn’t want to come across her in a dark lugga!
KENG being spooky while sacked out
All these hyenas definitely look pretty scary, but it’s important to remember that at the end of the day they can also be pretty cute. Thanks for reading, and have a Happy Halloween!   

Saturday, October 27, 2018

On losing a loved one...RIP TEDY

The craziest yet most amazing part about this job is its unpredictability. There are days where it rains day and night and we are bored out of our minds just itching to go for a drive. And then there are days in the field where you find elephant tusks in the middle of a territory and alert the rangers, follow mating hyenas for extended periods, find a new tiny black cub, see a hyena you thought was long dead, watch your hyenas hunt down a baby wildebeest, or maybe even get a call that a hyena was found dead in the Mara river.

Yesterday, while enjoying our French toast and coffee after morning obs, we got that call. We had no idea if it was a hyena from our clan, though it seemed likely since the body was found in the middle of our North territory. My heart instantly sank hearing this. Though I try not to pick favorites, North clan is definitely the clan I know best at this point and it is a particularly exciting time to be a North clan member since there are many tiny cubs running around.

So we do what any hyena researcher would do, grab our cameras, ensure the necropsy kit is in the cruiser, and set off for Hippo Pools and Toilet, the spot where the hyena was reportedly seen. We roll up and since that spot is an area where anyone can exit their vehicles, we start to take a look around. Eagle-eyed Jess spots the hyena first, its body floating in a shallow part of the edge of the river. We call a ranger, since we will need one to escort us down to the river’s edge, and wait.

I can’t lie it was a pretty amazing experience summiting down to the side of the river to photograph and examine the hyena. Once we got close, it was without a question that we knew this hyena very well. That circle on her hind left leg was unmistakable…it was indeed TEDY. We were all totally stunned. TEDY is WAFL’s (our North clan’s matriarch) best friend. Up until recently, TEDY was at the den every single day playing with Waffle’s cubs. She LOVED them. She would spend the entire time trying to get them to play with her. Groaning over them…picking them up by their neck…moving from cub to cub. She was funny because it seemed like she didn’t quite know how to make them love her but she wanted them to SO badly. We always knew when TEDY was arriving at the den because she would run in bristletail and immediately aggress onto someone before making her way over to the cubs. Kate, Jess and I always joke that TEDY is Waffle’s bodyguard. Making sure no one messes with her. Interestingly, in the past couple weeks, SOUP as well as her cubs LOBI and CHOW, the next highest ranking females, have been acting aggressive toward Waffle’s and her son Hershey’s. Perhaps this is because TEDY has not been around to help Waffle’s defend her throne…or perhaps Waffle’s is simply ready to give it up and focus on raising her two new cubs.

Kate, the bold soul that she is, waded into the murky water full of hippo poop to flip the body over and examine for injuries. After taking tissue and hair samples from her body  as well as seeing that she did not have any obvious wounds, we had a moment of silence for her over the river. It was definitely a sad day over here on the Serena side, though we know it is all a part of the circle of life.

TEDY will definitely be missed. RIP.


Thursday, October 18, 2018


When many people come on safari their goal is to see all of the Big Five; lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. While the Mara has these to offer in abundance, many other animals reside here that tourists and research assistants alike hope to see but may never catch a glimpse of. These include rare animals such as the aardwolf, aardvark, African wild dog, zorilla, and honey badger, among others. Sightings of these creatures are rare and often a once in a lifetime experience. Here in Talek camp we recently had destiny on our side and had the rare, once in a lifetime chance to not only see one of the rarest animals in the Mara, but one of the most trafficked animals in the world – the pangolin.

The sweet, rare, ground pangolin 
Pangolins are mammals that reside throughout African and Asia. They are the only mammals covered entirely in keratin scales, which forms a sort of protective covering over their body. While these scales protect them from animals in their habitats that may do them harm, they are also the leading cause of their endangerment. Pangolin scales are used in eastern traditional medicine, to create love charms, and in East Africa local people believe that if they burn them they will keep predators away ( Pangolin scales possess no supernatural healing or magical properties, they are composed of keratin; much like our own hair and fingernails. In addition to being poached for their scales, pangolins are also hunted for their meat and are a popular item in the bushmeat trade ( In many cultures pangolin meat is considered a delicacy and is in high demand as a result. Despite the fact that all 8 species of pangolin (we saw the ground pangolin) are protected by both national and international law, their population numbers are plummeting due to the wildlife trade. Reports from 2011-2013 estimate that between 116,900 and 233,980 pangolins were killed in the trade. Many experts believe that these numbers only represent about 10% of the reported number of pangolins in the wildlife trade ( Due to the solitary nature of the pangolin, it is difficult for experts to come to accurate conclusions about their population status. In addition, attempts to breed pangolins in captivity have proved unsuccessful, as the animals in captivity have developed handicaps such as ulcers, pneumonia, and premature death (

Due their solitary nature and endangered status, seeing a pangolin is one of the most unique experiences one could hope for while in the Mara. Benson, the Kenyan RA who has been with the project for almost 10 years, has only seen a pangolin twice during his time with the project. The fact that we were able to see one of the most trafficked animals in the world alive, in its natural habitat, totally undisturbed by human presence was truly a blessing and a memory I think all of us will treasure forever.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science