Thursday, December 6, 2018

A Carcass and a Clan War: Every Hyena Researcher's Dream

The Mara has a wonderful way of knowing exactly what you want and keeping it from you. Whether that thing is rain (yes there are times when we’re literally begging for rain), to have an uneventful drive back to camp without surprise elephants, or an exciting carcass session after seemingly endless obs periods without anything eventful, if the Mara hears that you want something, she (yes the Mara is a woman) will do her best to keep it from you. Except for one recent incident.
            Last month was characterized by obs period after obs period of the same old routine. This is not to sound ungrateful by any means, every day in the Mara is unbelievable and a true blessing, but from a research standpoint the hyenas weren’t giving us much to work with. Not to mention the overall lack of rain (and thus lack of mornings in) was leaving all of us exhausted and in need of something new and exciting. That wonderful new and exciting thing practically fell into our laps on November 16th. Earlier that day I had been talking with Allie about how tired we were and how I wouldn’t be upset if it ended up raining that evening since “the Mara hasn’t really given us anything exciting lately.” A few hours later, to our disappointment the rain never came and we went out for evening obs. We were about to wrap up our den session at one of the Talek West den when we hear one hyena whoop in the distance and all of our adult females at the den (Pisces, Atacama, Amazon, and Hilton Hotel) tore off in the direction of the whoops. Soon after their departure we heard a chorus of whoops coming from that same direction, became rather curious, and decided to check out what all the excitement was about.
            To our surprise and delight, we found that Ziti and some other Talek West males had just brought down a full grown wildebeest. However, despite their best efforts to feed the clan, they made one crucial mistake. They had killed the wildebeest right on the borders of Talek West and KCM territory. We figured it was only a matter of time before some KCM hyenas heard foreign whoops on their territory boundary and came to investigate. So we stayed to find out, and sure enough, no more than 5 minutes after our arrival we saw the first of many KCM hyenas – lead by their fearless matriarch Princess Buttercup – come loping down the hill. What ensued was a clan war, but this time territory lines were not the only thing at stake. This time the winning clan also got a fresh (and fairly untouched by hyena standards) wildebeest.
            For the next 45 minutes in the pitch black of the Mara night with only our headlights and dying MagLites to aid us, we watched each clan strategically rush and route the other to gain brief access to the wildebeest carcass. For most of the clan war it seemed like KCM was winning, which we speculate was due to the fact that they had a solid and established matriarch to lead the charge while Talek West for the most part fumbled in their power vacuum. That is, until Decimeter, one of the daughters of the recently deceased Buenos Aires arrived on the scene. With Decimeter there Talek West was seemingly more eager to make stronger and more frequent charges toward KCM and secure longer stretches of time on the carcass. While this one instance isn’t enough data for us to conclude that Decimeter is the new Talek West matriarch, it certainly allows us to speculate that at long last, the power vacuum is starting to disappear.
            55 hyenas and 3 exhausted research assistants later, the clan war finally concluded, however the winner remained unclear. To our knowledge the clan boundaries haven’t changed, and at the end of 45 minutes the wildebeest had been reduced to nothing more than a hollow hide and bones. The entire drive back to camp we couldn’t stop gushing about how much data the past 45 minutes had given us and how serendipitous it was that it all practically fell into our laps. Despite being absolutely exhausted by the events of the past 45 minutes, upon our hour late return to camp all of us couldn’t wait to wake up early the next morning and commence the obs process all over again. That’s the great thing about the Mara, while she withheld from us what we initially wanted, she ended up giving us something so much better.

Due to restrictions on the size of the file the website allows us to upload, I was only able to upload a minute long video of some of the highlights from the first 10 minutes of the session. I apologize for the brevity, but I hope it suits all of your possible hyena carcass/clan war needs.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Hyena Mock Elections: Talek West Edition

So we all know that hyenas don't go to high school. But what if they DID? For your enjoyment and amusement, I present hyena mock elections. Just like the good old high school days, except with bigger ears and more spots. 

Best All-Around: NANO
Nanometer is just the best. The daughter of the former matriarch, you'd think she would let all that power go to her head but that's simply not the case. Nanometer is a friend to all, perfectly content to just chill in the lugga or go for a nice wildebeest hunt. Yay NANO!

Class Clown: EPIC
When it comes to silliness, Epic takes the crown. Whether it be falling into den holes or tripping over his own feet, you can count on Epic to put a smile on your face. 

Best Eyes: JMBO
Enough said. Look at those beautiful brown eyes!

Best Hair: KESQ
Also self-explanatory, this old man still has some fly style!

Best Bromance: PITU and YUNI
Being that they're actual brothers, Pitumarca and Uyuni certainly have this category on lock! They can always be found together, and who knows? Maybe they'll even disperse together!

Biggest Drama King: MENO
Anemone can always be counted on to stir up trouble, just look at the menace in his eyes!

Most Likely to Stay in the Clan Forever: ZITI
Most male hyenas disperse from their natal clan at around age three, but not this guy! Eight years old and still going strong in Talek West, Ziti is here to stay!

Most Likely to Take Over the World: MGTA
You can just see the determination in Magenta's eyes, she is ready to take on the world. It may start in the Mara but who knows where she'll end. Be prepared.

Most Likely to Brighten Your Day: PCES
There is no one better at turning a frown upside down than Pisces. The second her adorable face shows up on the scene your day instantly becomes a winner.

Best Spots: HRTZ
And last but not least, the coveted Best Spots award goes to Hertz! Hertz can't be missed with that lovely loop on his side, and his spots are never muddled or dirty. Congratulations to Hertz!!

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.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science