Sunday, November 30, 2008

Was it worth it?

Last week we came upon Artemis, an adult female in the Talek West clan, digging a hole. She was using her front legs to scratch the dirt loose and her back legs to launch it skyward. Hyenas use dens for their cubs, but they do not dig the holes themselves or even fit into the hole usually. Most hyena den holes were originally dug by aardvarks. I was finally lucky enough to see my first aardvark a few weeks ago. Many animals in the Mara use aardvark holes, including bat-eared foxes, jackals, warthogs and hyenas to name a few.

Back to the original point. We immediately wondered, why was Artemis digging a hole? The only legitimate reasons we could think of were that she was indeed digging a den hole, or at least enlarging an existing hole, or trying to dig out something to eat. We sat captivated waiting for a resolution to the hole digging conundrum. Well, maybe not captivated the entire time, but we were very interested to see what would happen and recorded the scene in detail.

After about 10 minutes, another adult female hyena arrived. This was Gucci and she is a very curious hyena in my opinion. Gucci approached Artemis and inspected the excavation with great interest. Artemis basically ignored Gucci and continued digging. Gucci decided to sack out directly behind Artemis. This made for an interesting scene with Artemis throwing dirt in Gucci's face for about 10 minutes. Gucci did not seem the least bit bothered.

Artemis regularly pulled her head out of the hole to take a look around, possibly being vigilant for lions. I didn't notice if her vigilance rate increased after Gucci arrive, but it would have been interesting to note if she became less vigilant after the arrival of another set of eyes. At a couple points during the digging it appeared as if Artemis was snapping her killer jaws at something in the hole, but each time came up empty and returned to digging. At this point we were pretty sure there was something hiding below the surface. Was it a warthog, a bat-eared fox, a mongoose? You could cut the tension with knife as we waited. Well, not really, but it was fun to watch.

Finally, Artemis made a quick strike into the hole and pulled out her quarry. Twenty minutes of digging and she was rewarded with a rat! Yes, a little rat. She carried it for about 5 meters, then gulped it down in one bite. This was no Thanksgiving dinner for Artemis. Meanwhile, Gucci thought maybe there was another rat. She took a look in the hole and then wandered off. So did we.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The thrill of the hunt

We came upon a group of zebras meandering along the riverbank. Out of nowhere, a lioness streaked out of the bushes...

Running at full speed, she lunged for a big female zebra (deftly avoiding its powerful kick)!

She hung on for dear life and dragged the zebra to the ground.

Against all odds, the zebra made a valiant attempt to stand up...

But the lioness had the zebra in a death grip, and she tightened her stranglehold on the zebra's neck.

Finally, it was all over. The lioness, panting hard, finally relaxed.

It wasn't long before this mama and her cubs arrived from over a nearby hill, followed closely by 9 other lions.

The pride settled down to a nice family dinner.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

My two cents about freshwater ecology

Cows in a river is not a good things for many reasons. First or all, it makes the Fisi Camp luxury bath a little less luxurious when you see a cow upstream of you relieving itself. More importantly though, cows can have a detrimental effect on the ecology of the river and the park.

The first picture below shows cow grazing on the eroded banks of the Talek River. The banks of this river are heavily eroded because during periods of heavy rain, the river rises quickly and the swift current washes much the bank downstream. The erosion is exacerbated by the fact there is very little plant growth on the banks. Plant roots help to hold the soil in place reducing erosion. Plants, trees in particular, also soak up a large amount of water, making the current flow less swiftly and reducing the volume moving downstream. The extra silt in the river from erosion, which gives the river its brown color also blocks sunlight from reaching freshwater plants growning on the bottom of the river. When allowed to grow, these plants produce oxygen for animals in the river and help keep the river bed from washing away.

A second major problem with cows in the river is nutrient loading. When cows excrete urine and feces into the river, it adds nutrients to the system. These nutrients are usually gobbled up quickly by algae and bacteria, producing a green layer on top of the water areas where the water is slow moving. The algae and bacteria can reproduce so quickly that they may use up all of the oxygen in the water, leaving fish and invertebrates to suffocate. This is a common cause of fish kills. I have not observed this yet in the Talek River, as rivers can usually maintain a high enough oxygen level so this does not happen, but in ponds or slow moving water it can be a real problem.

If that wasn't enough, how am I supposed to get so fresh and so clean with brown/green water? To be fair, my bathing in the river is not good for the river, but at least I am not grazing on the banks too.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What a difference a nipple makes

We've mentioned several times that sibling rivalry in spotted hyenas is fierce. You might recall from my long-ago post on the dominance hierarchy that if a female has two cubs, one becomes dominant almost immediately, and reaps the benefits of this. It has easier access to the mother's milk, gets cuddled while nursing, and develops faster. In fact, we think that one of our older females, Moon Pie, actually has a bum nipple—all females have two teats—so in this case the difference is especially drastic. When Moon Pie has twins, the dominant cub tends to develop at a much faster rate than its subordinate sibling.

Anyway, here are a couple photos that highlight some of these differences. Remember Falafel, who had newborns back at the end of July? (She was the one who drooled all over one of them.) Here's a chance for you to check in on the progress of her cubs, Tilt and Jordache. It is difficult to see the difference in size because they aren't in the same photo, but you are able to see the difference in development. Notice how Tilt, the dominant cub (top photo), is already getting its spots, whereas Jordache, the subordinate cub (bottom photo), is still mostly black:

But it gets better. Perhaps you also recall that there's not only a difference between dominant and subordinate siblings...there's also a difference between high-ranking and low-ranking cubs. High-ranking cubs develop much more quickly than their low-ranking counterparts, because their moms have better access to food. Here's a picture of two cubs, Jordache (left) and Monopoly (right), that were born within two days of one another, and look at the tremendous size difference between them:

Monopoly is the granddaughter of Murphy, our alpha female, whereas Jordache is the granddaughter of a low-ranking female in a different matriline. You can see we're not messing around when we say this whole rank thing is pretty important. The last photo is also of Monopoly, and I'm including it just to give you a better idea of how quickly Monopoly's spots have come in compared to those of Tilt or Jordache.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Adorable antics

I admit, we love to post cute pictures of hyena babies. But sometimes, I just can't help myself. We've got nine tiny new cubs in Serena, and we think there may be a few more we haven't discovered yet. Here's an little introduction to a few of them...

First, we came upon Tyson, a female who seemed to be carrying a scrap of meat in her mouth. On closer inspection, it turned out that scrap of meat was, in fact, her tiny baby, probably just a week or two old! Don't worry, she wasn't taking care of some strange carnivorous craving - this is how hyena moms carry their babies around. But come on, this can't be a comfortable mode of transportation for the little one.

We soon saw that Tyson had not one but two new cubs, Sputnik and Challenger, who we've named after space missions. Here's a cuddly picture of the trio nursing. However, the sibling rivalry has already can see Challenger - on the bottom - trying to push Sputnik out of the way!

Then, we stumbled on twins who we've named Chaos and Conspiracy (in the "famous theories" lineage). When we first arrived at the den, Chaos - true to his name - was busy being a total pest! First, he climbed up his mom's neck and hung on for a little piggyback ride.

His mom, Jenny, managed to dislodge him from her neck, but not before Chaos decided he really liked that nice high vantage point. He proceeded to climb on the back of another female sleeping nearby.

Apparently, this little nook was so cozy that he settled down and napped! The female woke up and shook Chaos off, but it looks like we've got yet another trouble-maker on our hands.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Kila Nafasi

“When you educate a boy you are educating an individual. When you educate a girl you are educating a nation.” —Ibu Badir

As I wrote last time, the Maasai have not historically made education a high priority in their communities. Given the traditional roles of women as mothers and homemakers and men as cattle herders, this is understandable. Unfortunately for the Maasai, the widespread lack of formal education among their people has put them at a great disadvantage economically and politically with respect to the other tribes. It’s difficult to get strong representation in government without being highly educated, and with the growing spread of capitalism and technology, other tribes have taken advantage of education to make economic progress far beyond the Maasai.

Although Kenyan law decrees that all children must attend primary school, the rural nature of Maasai communities makes enforcement impractical. Many children still do not attend school, or attend for only a few years. Compounding the problem is the fact that school is not free in Kenya as it is in the United States, and in order to attend primary school you must be able to afford the fees.

But these fees pale in comparison to the fees one must pay to attend secondary school (equivalent to our high school), which is not required by the government. Eighth graders in their last year of primary school take a nationwide placement exam that determines which secondary schools they are eligible to attend. The students that perform the highest on the exam are then welcome to attend the very best secondary schools in the country…if they can afford it. Because all secondary students board at their schools, a secondary education costs approximately $450 USD per year. It is therefore easy to see how some families might view education as a cost they simply cannot afford.

This problem hits girls much harder than boys. Although some Maasai families are beginning to recognize the importance of sending their sons to school, most are still very reluctant to pay such high fees for their daughters. Female enrollment in primary school really tapers off in the later years of primary school: in the local Talek Primary School, there are only six girls in Grade 7, and only two girls who have made it to Grade 8. This is undoubtedly in part due to the fact that the girls know they have little hope of continuing onto secondary school, so there isn’t much incentive to finish primary school.

This trend has implications far greater than whether or not a girl can recite her multiples of eight or name all the planets in the solar system. Girls who attend secondary school are more likely to get a paying job, less likely to contract HIV, and more likely to then educate their own children. Girls who do not attend secondary school are more likely to be circumcised and married off at young ages of twelve and thirteen. “Female circumcision,” which is really just a euphemism for female genital mutilation, is illegal in Kenya, but is still practiced in rural areas. Beyond being cruel and unnecessary, it put girls at great risk for infection and makes childbirth very difficult. I have even heard horrifying stories of young women starving themselves during their pregnancies so as to have as small a baby as possible, because the nature of female circumcision makes a woman’s body prone to tearing and excessive blood loss during childbirth. Needless to say, undernourished pregnant mothers produce undernourished babies, many of whom then have developmental problems.

Okay, now that I’ve made you thoroughly depressed, I’m going to change the story a little bit.

Enter John. Enter Katy. Enter Audrey.

John (the same John from my last post) is an especially progressive Maasai man—one who values education for all, especially women, and decries female circumcision as outdated and inhumane. For years now, John has taken his own time and money and traveled around to rural Maasai communities, leading workshops for women on HIV prevention, the importance of education, and the dangers of circumcision. He has also used personal finances to fund the secondary education of girls who have shown academic promise but whose families could not afford school.

Upon hearing this in 2006, Katy, another student in the Holekamp lab, teamed up with the Infamous Audrey to help expand John’s efforts and educate more Maasai girls. The result was Kila Nafasi (“every opportunity” in Swahili), a non-profit organization based in the United States. Kila Nafasi’s sole purpose is to provide scholarships to girls who are academically qualified to attend secondary school but cannot afford it. I joined Kila Nafasi in 2007, and I am proud to say that as of 2009 we will be sponsoring nineteen girls (see photos), including several from the Talek area. We send the money from our generous sponsors (all tax deductible, of course!) directly to the schools, and we visit the sponsored students periodically throughout the year to ensure that they are receiving the education our sponsors are paying for.

Public consciousness of some struggles African women face—HIV/AIDS, genocide, female genital mutilation, poor health care—has increased dramatically in the past several years. Education plays an important role in the solutions to these problems (and countless more), and Kila Nafasi is proud to join the fight. As our organization grows and more students are sponsored, a secondary school education is becoming a realistic dream for primary school-aged girls in our area. Unfortunately, this means that the need for scholarships currently exceeds the available funding. If you’d like to help in any way, either by becoming a sponsor or making a one-time donation, please visit our website, where you can also learn more and see more photos of some of our students. For more information on the benefits of educating girls in underdeveloped nations, read Jonathan Alter's September 20, 2008 article from Newsweek.

I will close with this:
All of our sponsored students are remarkable, but the ones that really blow me away are the ones who had to defy their parents’ wishes to attend school. Imagine being fourteen years old and looking your mother and father in the eye and saying, “I know you want a certain life for me, but I am choosing a different path for myself.” What strength and courage these girls must have! After all, they know that their choices might very well make them shunned from their families and considered unwelcome in their own homes. John has been kind enough to open his home to some of these girls during school holidays, when they have nowhere else to go. Others stay in a church, surviving only on the generosity of their neighbors. These brave young women have had to fight so hard for an education many of us take for granted, and yet they keep fighting, keep struggling, keep sacrificing. Would we all were that strong.

That's all, folks

A mere four days later, the hippo buffet is history.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Day 3: Hyena heaven

The hyenas finally found their moment just before dawn, and the hippo kill finally became theirs. By 6am, more than 15 hyenas had converged on what was left of the carcass.

However, after more than 72 hours, there's not a lot left to this once-massive beast.

Once they finished all the meat on the hippo, our beloved bone-crackers started in on the skeleton. Here, you can see the effects of their unbelievable jaws...they can (with not a whole lot of effort) break right through the ribs to get to the marrow.

However, apparently hyenas' amazing eating skills don’t extend to hippo hide. This stuff is amazingly think, and apparently pretty hyena-proof. They gnaw and gnaw on it, but it’s kind of like a dog chewing on rawhide. You know that eventually it will disappear, but it doesn’t look easy (or delicious).

This hyena tried a different strategy: maybe there’s something UNDER this nasty tough skin! Unfortunately...there wasn’t. He settled down and began to chew like everyone else.

By late morning, nothing was left but a few straggling hyenas, a spinal column, and a big slab of hippo hide.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A new day dawns on the hippo...

Here's the hippo, day 2. A LOT of meat is gone, in a bit over 24 hours! You can see the ribs are exposed, so just the meat along the backbone, as well as some scraps near the head, are left.

The lions, completely stuffed after collectively consuming several thousand pounds of meat, were lying in the bushes nearby. One greedy lioness didn't like the vultures feeding on "her" carcass. Every time the vultures wound descend, she would drag her painfully fat body up, and chase them off. She'd then return immediately to the shade to sleep off the indigestion from which she must have been suffering. You can see her in the corner of this picture, just after she scared all the vultures away.

This jackal was a bit luckier than the vultures, and somehow managed to snag an entire hippo leg for himself. Despite the leg being bigger than he is, he tried valiantly to drag it away from the scene to keep it safe from other scavengers. Needless to say, he didn't make much progress.

Our hyenas have been lurking around, waiting for a good opportunity to make a move, but the lions' presence hasn't given them their chance...yet.

I am William Wallace

Identifying hyenas by their spots can be a difficult task. Hyenas make this task even more difficult by "sacking out" in mud holes, which leaves them essentially spotless. I don't mean spotless as in clean, certainly they are not that type of spotless. By spotless I mean almost none of their spots are actually visible.

In addition to using spot patterns to identify the hyenas, there are various other tactics we use to identify hyenas. One of the first ways I learned to identify individual hyenas was by their ears. Many hyenas have notches in their ear from squabbling over food, play that got a bit too rough, or aggressive interactions with other hyenas or lions. Recognizing ear notches is very useful when only the head of the animal is visible or the entire hyena is covered in mud. Ear notch identification is not much use at night or when the animal is running. I have found a combination of facial features, such as ears, and spot patterns to be most effective. Relying soley on one or the other just doesn't cut it.

The pictures below shows why just knowing spots does not always work. If you look closely at the left ear, you can see this guy's ears are in rough shape, with multiple notches in the ear. This Kyoto, an immigrant male in the Talek West clan. If you look closer and have an imagination you may see shades of William Wallace, ready to lead his army to victory against the English (see Braveheart for those of you that don't get this bit)!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Ever wonder what 7,000 pounds of meat look like?

Once upon a time, a hippo lived in a water hole about a kilometer north of our camp. One night, that hippo went out grazing, as he did every evening. Unfortunately, he never made it home. A group of hungry lions were lying in ambush, and hunted the hippo down just a few hundred meters from his little pool.

In the interest of science, I've decided to document where those 3 tons of hippo meat go, day by day. Here's the carcass about 12 hours after the hippo was killed. Two male lions were at the kill, and from the size of their bellies, they had apparently been gorging themselves all night.

These guys were already so full that they could barely breathe. They'd nibble half-heartedly on some meat, then waddle away a few feet and lie down to rest and digest.

In 12 hours, the lions have barely made a dent in the massive carcass. However, they haven't had any competition for their prize yet. We'll have to wait to see what happens overnight.

**By the way, I know not everyone is as interested in seeing photos of carcasses as we are. If these posts get too gross, comment and let me know!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Scadoxus multiflorus, a.k.a. Flowerus Wickedcoolus

I know I said my next post would be the follow-up to my last one about Maasai education, and I am hoping to get to that soon, but in the meantime, how awesome is this plant? It's colloquially called a blood flower or a fireball lily, and it's a poisonous perennial found throughout tropical parts of Africa. Here are a couple photos of one that's growing in camp. The photos don't give a good sense of scale, but the diameter of the flower is probably a good eight inches. For more info, visit (duh, where do you think I found its scientific name? field guides are SO passé...).

Friday, November 14, 2008

Battle of giants

Giraffes are odd creatures in many ways. They are one of the only things I know that can look completely awkward, yet subtly graceful at the same time. They are a joy to watch as they go about their business in their slow, yet deliberate manor.

Before I arrived in Kenya, Dr. Holekamp had told me a very interesting story about a giraffe fight she had witnessed. I had high hopes for seeing these giants have a round of fisticuffs. I have been fortunate enough now to see giraffes battle for dominance on two different occasions. Last year I came upon a scene with about 15 giraffes standing around, watching two giraffes slug it out. It reminded me of high school fight, with many people standing around watching, but nobody is brave enough to break it up and most don't want to get close enough where they could become part of the action.

Giraffes have a fighting style only they can have. The swing their long necks at each other, trying to deliver blows with the thick, blunt horns on top of their head. It may look futile the first time you see a giraffe take a swing with its gangly neck, but I am quite sure if you were hit by the swinging giraffe head, you would be out of commission for a long time.

During the most recent fight I witnessed, I had trouble deciding which animal had won the fight. Looking back through the 90 pictures I snapped off in about 5 minutes, it was clear who was the champ. In the battle I saw last year, the fight went on for about 15 minutes, then another contender walked up. One of the two original fighters quickly sauntered away. Contender number two stood its ground, sort of. When the new challenger approached, the remaining contender gently placed its neck over top of the dominant animals neck.

It may seem strange that the subordinate animal would place it neck on top, but after I thought about it a bit more, it made sense to me. With its long neck on top of the dominant animals neck, it was in a completely defenseless position. The dominant giraffe could have easily taken a swing with its wrecking ball head and inflicted major damage. This is how many dominance interactions play out. The weaker animal shows its subordination by placing itself in vulnerable position. This is what I have worked out in my head about giraffe war. If anyone has read or been told differently, I am always interested in learning new things so feel free to write me. Or just see if you can pick the winner in the pictures, the one on the left or the one on the right.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science