Friday, February 27, 2009

Killer cheetah

Cheetahs are pretty big cats, but in most cases if a cheetah encounters leopard, lion, or a hyena (hyenas are neither cats nor dogs), it will almost always retreat or give up kill. Cheetahs specialize in killing Thompson's gazelle (Tommie), a relatively small and fast animal. We have recently seen one male cheetah almost on a daily basis.

We first saw it scent marking territory not too far from our camp. Then we saw it emerging from the bushes one day and Ben said, "It looks like it is going to hunt." Being the diligent HYENA researchers that we are, we left the cheetah to look for hyenas. About 30 minutes later we saw the cheetah scarfing down a Tommie. We had never seen a cheetah hunt, so we were disappointed.

The next day we were on our way home from our morning observations when I spotted the same cheetah crouched about 30 meters from our truck. This cheetah was definitely stalking prey. I didn't want to talk, because the cheetah was close enough that my voice may have disturbed it, so I tapped Ben on the shoulder and quietly said, "cheetah." He slowed down and came to a stop just past the cheetah. I reached in the backseat for my video camera. Before I could get the camera ready, the hunt was on! There was a group of Tommie's about 150 meters away from the cheetah and it seemed an insurmountable distance to cover. I tried to get video for a second and realized it was futile and just sat riveted watching the fastest land animal on earth pursue its quarry. The cheetah closed the gap between itself and the cheetahs in about 5 seconds and chased a small Tommy over a hill. We lost sight of it at this point. We drove over the hill and saw the cheetah carrying the Tommy in its mouth. The chase covered about 300-400 meters in less than 20 seconds, resulting in a nice meal for the cheetah.

A few days later we were once again on our way home and Ben spotted something lying behind a bush. We drove closer to investigate and discovered it was a dead impala. Not just a dead impala, but a large adult male impala. I have seen male impala stand its ground against hungry hyenas, so killing an adult male impala is no small feat. They are fast enough to outrun most predators and strong enough to fend off the smaller predators. Not so on this day.

As the impala came into full view, we saw our friendly cheetah had already eaten the entire left leg of this impala! The cheetah looked fat and seemed to be taking a break from eating. We watched for a few minutes and the cheetah decided it could pack a few more pounds of meat away.

My initial thought was that the impala may have died from some other cause, such as disease, since there was no blood on the impala, except the leg where the cheetah had eaten. After taking a closer look with the binoculars we could see puncture holes in the neck of the impala where the cheetah had clamped it canines around the throat of the recently departed impala.

Later in the evening, another researcher stopped by the kill site and said the cheetah had eaten all four legs (that is where the most muscle tissue is) and most of the high calorie internal organs. Then a young hyena, named Acadia, approached the carcass and began nibbling. After a few nibbles, Acadia pulled the carcass away from the obese cheetah. Had the cheetah not been eating for 3 straight hours, it may have put up a fight. Acadia is about 16 months old and has a long way to go before being a full-size hyena, but an impressive feat none-the-less, taking a fresh kill from a killer cheetah like this one.

Why did I eat so much?

The crazy things guys do for girls

They pick fights.

They twist themselves into knots.

They puff up and strut around.

They dance (awkwardly).

They're willing to get down and dirty.

They help scratch that hard-to-reach itch.

They even get down on bended knee.

After all that - if they're lucky - they get the girl.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Philomen and family!

Yesterday, Audrey, Sean, and I went on an adventure to Kilgoris, a town a few hours north of the Mara, where Philomen lives with his family (that is, when he’s not being a fantastic cook, an impeccable housekeeper, and an all-around great guy here at Serena). Two weeks ago, Philomen’s wife Judith gave birth to a gorgeous baby girl named Silandoi, so we went to visit the family and meet its newest member.

Philomen’s house is simple, well-constructed, and amazingly cool in the midst of the equatorial heat. Here in Kenya, there’s a huge emphasis on family life, so brothers, sisters, parents, and other relatives often live in very close proximity. It was hard to tell who lived on the property, who was visiting, and who just showed up to hang around. Not that it really mattered, since everyone seemed quite at home!

In the spirit of generous Kenyan hospitality, Philomen prepared and served (on a silver platter, no less!) a huge meal for us. Afterwards, he poured endless cups of steaming chai until I finally learned how to say “I’m full” in Kiswahili (for future reference, it’s "Nimeshiba"). It’s a handy phrase to use when you’re the guest in a Kenyan home…otherwise, food and drink will continue to appear in front of you until you end up in a massive food coma.

Finally, we were introduced to dozens of family members, friends, and local kids. Since “wazungu,” or foreigners, are a bit of a curiosity here, it seemed like everyone in town had showed up to meet us and wish us well. Everyone was fantastically friendly, and we finally said our gracious goodbyes after several hours of hand-shaking, chai-drinking, and picture-taking.

Oh, and, with a gift from MSU, Audrey created possibly the cutest little Spartans fan ever. In a few years, Philomen's daughter Nola may be the newest FisiCamp recruit!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Animals have brains too (Part II)

So how can you test hyenas’ intelligence?

First, we tried sitting our hyenas down and giving them IQ tests. Unfortunately, they couldn’t hold the pens, and they ended up eating the test booklets. Back to the drawing board.

Seriously though, in order to be effective, our test had to meet a few criteria. First of all, it had to be hyena-proof. It needed to be something our hyenas couldn’t destroy, consume, or drag away.

The test also had to be something that, even with their limited dexterity, hyenas could manipulate in some way to “solve.”

Finally, the test had to represent a “novel task,” which is scientist-speak for “a challenge the hyenas have never seen before.” This way, we know the hyenas aren't just relying on some skill they already have.

Luckily, clever grad student Sarah Benson-Amram came along and developed a test that meets all these criteria. Called a “puzzle box,” it’s based on an invention by psychologist E.L. Thorndike.

Essentially, it’s a big box made of rebar (and when I say “big”, I mean “BIG…” this thing weighs about 75 pounds). The box has a swinging door that closes and locks with a sliding latch. We put a piece of meat inside the box as an incentive, close and lock the door, and present it to a hyena. Their task is to figure out how to get to open the box and get to the meat inside. Just like a Rubik’s cube or Sudoku puzzle is a brainteaser for us, the puzzle box is a way to test hyenas’ problem-solving abilities.

My favorite thing about watching hyenas interact with the box is the multitude of strategies they employ. Some bite the box; others dig underneath it. A few flip and tumble the box. Some decide that an aerial view will help, so they get on top of the box and peer down. Many hyenas try the “If I lie here and stare at it long enough, it will open” strategy. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen this one work yet.

Sarah spent an amazing amount of time and effort developing the box and working out the kinks. During Sarah’s research, 9 Mara hyenas (out of 58 who tried) opened the box. On average, a hyena needed to work on the box three different times before they could open it. One smarty-pants, Snaggletooth, got so good at the task that he was able to open the box in 3 seconds; Kent, shown below, could do it in 5 seconds.

I'm now doing some work with the box here at Serena. While all this just the tip of the iceberg, it’s certainly a promising – and interesting – way to look at animals’ intelligence.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Another death in the Happy Zebra Clan

It's sad when any hyena dies.
It's even worse when it's a hyena you're particularly fond of.
It's hardest of all when it's a tiny cub.

Last night, we came upon what originally seemed like an idyllic scene at the Happy Zebra den. Sawtooth - one of my favorite hyenas - was grooming her tiny black cub Neverland, who was born fewer than 20 days ago. The cub, however, wasn’t moving. We could see that his head was covered in blood.

After the vigorous bath didn’t breathe life into Neverland, Sawtooth stood over her motionless cub, looking confused. Several minutes later, she lay down in the denhole, just a meter or so from Neverland's body.

None of the other hyenas at the den seemed to understand why the cub was so very still. Over the next hour, several of them came over to sniff and prod the dead cub. Snapper, a Happy Zebra subadult, even picked Neverland up and carried him around for a while before she lost interest, placing him carefully back where she had found him.

Our necropsy showed that Neverland had died from massive head trauma just an hour or two before we arrived at the den. His entire skull and jaw had been crushed. While adult hyenas have extremely robust skulls, a young cub's skull still has a lot of developing left to do, and is surprisingly fragile.

The most likely scenario? Infanticide by another hyena. It’s brutal, but it happens in many species. When food is a limited resource, any extra mouths to feed mean less nourishment for you and your offspring. One way to deal with such competition is to kill it. It’s hard to know how often infanticide happens among hyenas, and we’ll never find out all the details surrounding Neverland's death.

The sad truth is that fewer than half of all hyena cubs survive to adulthood. We’ve got over fifty cubs here at Serena…let’s hope they can beat those tough odds.

Wait your turn

Pecking orders exist in many aspects of life. Never is this clearer than when a large animal is killed in the Mara. While waiting at the Keekorok airstrip for a flight to take a friend back to Nairobi, a ranger in the Mara told me there were hyenas feeding on a giraffe that had been killed by lions a day or two earlier.

When I arrived on the scene I found about 10 hyenas coming and going from the carcass. At least 50 vultures were hanging around patiently, and at times impatiently, waiting for their chance to stick out their neck and grab a chunk of the recently departed. The hyenas at the scene were not from a clan that we study, but it was clear which hyenas were dominant. Despite the fact there were probably hundreds of kilograms of meat and bones remaining, some of the hyenas were intent on not letting their fellow hyenas get a bite or meat, or even snap off a bone. This is one of the reasons it is important for hyenas to be able to eat large amounts very quickly, you don't know who is going to chase you away before you are full.

When a low ranking hyena is attacked or chased by higher ranking hyena, the lower ranking hyenas will many times displace the aggression onto the nearby vultures. In our regular hyena observations we call this scapegoating.

Whenever I see a hyena, whether it is on TV or standing next to my car, I always think, "Do I recognize this hyena?" I didn't immediately recognize any, but I did find one hyena with an ear tag. I was unable to read the ear tag, but I am hoping a former resident of Fisi Camp may recognize the hyena picture here.

After about 20 minutes of the semi-relaxed feeding scene, a male lion came trotting in and scattered the hyenas and vultures. This male was very fat and had probably been feeding on this carcass for the past day or two. Yet, he was unwilling to let anyone else near the carcass while he stuffed the last open pocket in his vast stomach. Truly a glutton. At one point he even picked up the entire carcass and dragged it about a meter. I am not sure if this was to reinforce to all present that he was at the top of the pecking order or if he may have been showing off, just because he could. Either way, I was impressed.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Animals have brains too

With a few notable exceptions, humans are pretty smart. But where did our intelligence come from? Assuming you’re among the 39% of Americans that accept evolution (see this poll for some interesting statistics), you’ll probably agree that at least some of our brainpower came from our animal ancestors.

For scientists, that’s not the end of the story, it’s only the jumping-off point that raises many tough-to-answer questions. How “smart” are animals? Are some species smarter than others? Why and how did intelligence evolve in the first place? Answering these questions will teach us about the processes that govern human decisions and the ways we think about the world.

These are issues we’re interested in tackling here on the Hyena Project, since we’re under the impression that spotted hyenas are rather intelligent (and that’s not just because we love them). Our observations show that they can recognize other clan members individually - and even determine their emotional and physiological states - by sight, smell, and sound. They understand the advanced concepts of cooperation and reconciliation. Perhaps most telling of all, hyenas live in this fabulously complicated dominance hierarchy, where rule-breakers are punished by severe aggression. A hyena that can't figure out the social rules will suffer injuries or even death, so there's probably very strong selective pressure for high intelligence among hyenas.

So, it seems like our hairy, drooling study subjects can teach us a thing or two about intelligence. But here comes the problem; how in the world can we measure intelligence in animals, especially in a species like the hyena?

I love cliffhangers (especially when I know the answer), so I’m going to leave you to chew on that one for now.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day...

...from Mama Fisis in the lab to Mama and Bwana Fisis in the Mara. Hope everyone finds as much love as these animals!

Baby cheetah

After spending nearly 8 months in the Mara, I had never seen a baby cheetah. That gets crossed off the list now. No need to say a lot about these pictures. The bottom line is baby cheetahs are cute. Not as cute as baby hyenas, but close.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Faux fisi

Here on the Hyena Project, we can turn any Average Joe into an eagle-eyed hyena finder. After a while, you’ll be able to detect the flick of a hyena’s ear in a stand of tall grass, or spot a hyena on the move hundreds of meters away. In fact, when you’re really on your game, you’ll know exactly which hyena possesses that flicking ear by its distinctive shape, and you'll be able to identify that distant hyena by its idiosyncratic gait.

However, you may occasionally go for hours, or even days, without seeing a single hyena…that’s when your super-hyena-sense gets a bit too sensitive. You’ll see, out of the corner of your eye, a shape that you’re convinced is absolutely, without a doubt, a hyena. You’d swear it on Darwin’s grave.

As you raise your binoculars to your eyes to see it more clearly, you’ve already started celebrating, gloating inwardly (or, in some cases, outwardly) about being the first to spot this long-awaited hyena.

Sadly, at this point you look through your binoculars and realize it isn’t actually a hyena at all, but a rock. Or a bush. Maybe it’s a topi. In any case…it definitely isn’t a hyena. This happens repeatedly, until you think you’ve gone insane.

In fact, there are particular stumps and termite mounds along our daily route that I know for a fact aren’t hyenas. Yet I am inexplicably compelled to look at these inanimate objects through my binoculars every time I pass, just in case they've somehow morphed into actual hyenas. They never have, but still, I check.

This log is an expert in hyena gets me every time.

Over the years, we’ve mistaken nearly everything possible for hyenas. Logs, dirt mounds, and bushes are among the most common culprits. Warthogs’ rear ends look uncannily like hyenas. Someone on the project, and I won’t name names, once mistook a single blade of grass for a hyena. It sounds crazy, I know…but when you really want to see a hyena, your imagination can trick you into almost anything.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hyenas, by the numbers

Let's face it: we all love fun facts. With these, you can impress your friends and family, or at least procrastinate for a few minutes...

The oldest hyena we’ve studied is K-Butt, who lived for nearly 17.5 years.

The lovable Bailey holds the record for our heaviest hyena, weighing in at a whopping 179 lbs. She was just under 3 feet tall at the shoulder.

Hyenas can run at 40 miles per hour for about 2 miles. For comparison, the fastest human clocked in at just over 27 miles per hour, and that was only for 100 meters. Wimp.

In the longest hyena hunt ever recorded, a hyena chased an eland for nearly 15 miles.

While the average hunting group size is 1.8 hyenas, successful zebra hunts require 10 or more hyenas. The reason? Hyenas need to call in reinforcements against male zebras, who protect their ladies fiercely and have a deadly kick.

Here in the Mara, hyenas kill 95% of the food that they eat. I bet you scavenge a heck of a lot more than 5% of your food.

Their bone-crushing bite force has been estimated at about 9000 newtons (2000 pounds), which roughly equals the force of a big NFL hit.

They have 11 distinctive vocalizations.

They can hear noises from over 6 miles away, and can probably identify odors from a distance of nearly 2 miles.

A mother hyena’s milk contains 15% protein, compared to less than 1% protein in human milk. No wonder hyenas grow up fast and become big bullies!

When erect, a female hyena's pseudopenis may be up to 7 inches long. Enough said.

**Remember, we're talking about spotted hyenas...the other hyena species are strange in their own ways. Most of the info here is from our observations. The rest is from the IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group website ( and the book The Spotted Hyena by Hans Kruuk. Both are fantastic sources of information for you hyena-philes out there!

You asked for it

A while back we asked for name suggestions for Gucci's new cubs, which need to be named after Italian foods. We received a lot of comments and great names. After much deliberation we decided to go with Gelato and Alfredo. I rarely pass by a gelato store without buying a scoop or two, sometimes even going back for seconds. Alfredo speaks for itself also. Here is a first look at one of the cubs. The day after getting this photo the cubs were moved to the communal den, which is hidden in the bushes, so we haven't seen them much in the past week.

Last week we discovered a new communal den for the Fig Tree clan. The alpha female for this clan has been hanging around the new den a lot and acting a bit strange, as new mothers sometimes do. Today we got our first look at her new cubs! Her lineage is Tolkien places (aka places from the Lord of the Rings series) Rohan has already been used. My first thought was Mordor. To balance out Mordor, the other cub will be named Gondor. For those not familiar with the Lord of the Rings, Mordor is the land of evil and Gondor is the home some of the good guys in the books. We don't know yet which cub will be dominant, so it will be interesting to see whether good or evil dominates in the duo!

"I said gimme some milk mom!"

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Just Plane Awful

After a fantastic visit to the States, I chose to schedule my British Airlines flight back to Kenya on a rather ill-fated day. More specifically, it was the snowiest day London had experienced in 18 years. Just my luck.

However, I was one of the more fortunate ones; I made it back to Kenya a mere day-and-a-half later than planned. Based on what I saw, I wouldn’t be surprised if other people were still stranded right now, almost a week later. People were either waiting in never-ending lines or sleeping on whatever surface was available – on counters, under chairs, even in the bathrooms. Some people even slept in the lines, since they barely moved.

Airline officials were handing out bottled water, toothpaste, blankets, and yoga mats. Wait, yoga mats? While at first I thought they were encouraging cranky passengers to meditate, I can only assume the mats were supposed to be used as mattresses.

However, meditation might have been a good idea for some incensed passengers. I’ve never heard so many people yelling in so many different languages. Others took it more in stride; I saw a German guy making an impromptu documentary with the videocamera on his cellphone. He was laughing, so either he was making the best of a bad situation, or he was thanking his lucky stars he wasn’t still stuck in line. Either way, he got some pretty nasty looks from those who were waiting endlessly.

When I finally arrived safely in Nairobi, my luggage was nowhere to be found. One day, two days, five days went by, and I really wanted some clean socks. After six days of partying with unruly suitcases from all corners of the globe and evading Heathrow luggage handlers, my bags finally arrived back in Kenya.

It’s good to be home.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Magadi Road

Cresting the last hill out of Nairobi the horizon unfolds before you, a two hundred kilometer straight view to the west. The Great Rift Valley.

Beginning the descent you leave the last cool Nairobi breeze behind. The “rift” part of the name immediately becomes clear as the way down is no gentle valley slope. This is more of an abrupt drop. “Hill 1,” for lack of a better name, seems to be the worst. There always seem to be wrecked trucks at the bottom of it. My first return trip to Nairobi there was two mangled truck cabs crumpled at the bottom. There were a couple guys gathered around the second truck and as the wreck seemed a fresh one I stopped to see if they needed help. They told me they just needed a lift up the hill with a part they needed to fix. Could I help them? Naively, I was about to say “sure” when the hitchhiker next to me whispered urgently, “just go.” He was clenching his jaw and looking resolutely forward and not at all at the guys at the side of the road. He started flicking his hand insistently forward so I left them there. “They were just trying to steal a part from the truck,” he said matter-of-factly.

This particular hitchhiker was quite a bit more interesting than most. He spoke excellent English for one. Most hitchers around this area are Masai and you are lucky if they speak Swahili. You’re also lucky if it’s only one. Half the time it’s seven people and one guy has a goat. Anyways, James was a train conductor for the Magadi Soda Company carting the ash from Magadi to Mombassa. Quite often the trains would break down out in the middle of the bush either from slamming into an adult giraffe (or several from the way he made it sound) or just general mechanical failure where he would then be left stranded thirty to forty kilometers from the Magadi road. On more than one occasion he had to walk back to the road through lion, hyena, and buffalo filled plains to get to the road as the Company never put any emergency food or water in the train for them.

Further down the road as the elevation drops and the temperature increases, more of the geography that makes this place unique appears. The road curves through several miniature valleys within the larger valley. Dormant volcanoes line the horizon. Nearby one of these old cones is one of the many sites made famous by the anthropologist Louis Leakey. At many of the larger hills escarpments can be seen far in the distance, steep cliff drop offs that form the step by step descent to the lowest parts of the greater Valley.

Further and further down the vegetation dries out and dies off. The greens become brown. The soil becomes rocky. The distant landscape waivers in the heat. White rocks, like melted stone, hang in shelves. Carnivorous limestone? A bulbous brown land mass several hundred meters high called Ol Doinyo Nyokie appears as if some enormous bubble of liquid rock hardened in place. I’m lost in a geologist’s dreamscape with no textbook.

A donkey wanders into the road. I say wander but I am damn near sure it’s deliberate. Those damn sons of… well I won’t get carried away, but I’ll tell you the donkey is surely the nihilist of the mammal world. The one animal with seemingly no respect for its own life or anyone else’s. You could be going sixty right at a donkey, slam on your brakes (if the brakes are even working that month), come within a hairs breadth of breaking both the car and the donkey’s backs, and that donkey won’t budge. He’ll just stare at you like, “what’s the point? (Nobody remembered my birthday...)”

Three or so hours into the drive you reach Magadi. Magadi means “ash” in Masai. There’s a city just outside of Death Valley National Park in California called Trona, which is another name for the soda ash crystals they mine there, the exact same stuff they harvest in Magadi. I was there not too long ago so when I first saw Magadi from a distance I was struck by the similarity. Sister cities across continents if I ever saw it. Much like Trona, Magadi hangs under an undulating current of hot air. Lake Magadi is a mostly dry soda lake covered in the white soda ash that gives the town its name. Already being at such a low elevation the reflection of the lake’s ash doesn’t help the temperature much in the intense equatorial sunlight. Temperatures regularly reach 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit) here. Flamingoes are routinely seen bursting into flame. The smell of the place isn’t much better as it is reminiscent of hot sulfur and bird poop.

For those curious soda ash, or more accurately sodium carbonate, is one of those ever-present industrial products that are used to make a whole bunch of useful things that no one had any idea existed were made from a smelly lake in Kenya (or California). It is used in things as varied as making glass, taxidermy, laundry detergent, dying, toothpaste, to induce dog vomiting, and for the production of “sherbet lollies” (thanks Wikipedia).

Mercifully the smell leaves you as you ascend a small rocky escarpment bordering the west edge of Lake Magadi. Sadly the well maintained and “paved” road is left behind as well. It is all dirt and rock from here on out. Navigation still remains un-necessary as there is only one road and no turns. Hard to get lost. This particular trip back from Nairobi is different. I notice a small dirt road heading off the main track not far after the short ascent from Lake Magadi. There is a small white sign indicating a nursery school or something like that. I had noticed the sign and road before, but had never paid much attention as it looked rarely used and probably short. I had made a very quick trip to Nairobi with Philip (one of our two research assistants) this particular time and the car was luckily not loaded down with hundreds of pounds of diesel, food, and other supplies. So I figured… what the hell, I’ll try the road.

My decision wasn’t entirely random. A month or so before I had found a small feature hidden in Google Maps called “Africa tracks.” Some helpful individuals had added their GPS track logs to a collective database increasing the map programs’ usefulness in our corner of the world incredibly. Many of our roads that we used on a daily basis were in this log and it helped out a lot when viewing the area. I had noticed a small track leading far to the north somewhere in the area just following Lake Magadi, but couldn’t at the time recall ever seeing any roads. The displayed track led to a mysterious second lake called Little Magadi.

Of course the knowledge of this place irked me for a good long time. What sort of place was this “Little Magadi?” why did it look like there was actual water in this lake? Was this some sort of beautiful oasis in our private wasteland? I couldn’t let this road go unchecked.

Half an hour later we had already passed the school mentioned on the sign and with it any vestiges of human habitation. The only thing that kept me going was a very faint track in the dirt and persistence colloquially referred to as “stupidity.” The terrain was pretty flat and rocky, no real geographic features to note, it wasn’t very suggestive of an imminent Shangri-La. Even Philip who is normally very supportive started doubting my maniacal urge to continue. Though just when we are ready to give up and turn back we crest the hill and there in front of us is an enormous lake. Really truly filled with water, actual visible blue water, and stretching for what looked like several kilometers in length. It was unbelievable. More unbelievable was that the road seemed to continue and I with it.

The lake was bordered by a large cliff or scarp to the west, the land mass our road was on to the east, and it stretched to the north out of sight. As the road continued we rose and rose above the lake and I soon realized we were on our own escarpment. This lake was bordered by two enormous cliffs. I realized that this was why no one knew about this place and more interestingly why the water persisted.

We went on and on and our road’s supporting landmass narrowed and narrowed. As we rose I could see that to the east there was another precipitous drop, this time leading to what appeared to be Lake Magadi. We were on some sort of perilous isthmus between the two lakes. I continued until I reached a single manyatta (basically a small Masai family unit/village structure) at the end of what I now saw to be a peninsula. The bomas were on the highest point of the very furthest tip. Sharp cliffs to each side, this family was precariously perched, but with what a view. To the west the deepest blue of Little Magadi and its scarp to the east Lake Magadi and the ascending escarpments of the upper rift valley. Massive dust storms swirled in the void below. The village at the ends of the earth.

I asked them what the place was called they said “Oloreshe,” or simply “Island.”

Back on the main road I make the only necessary turn of the entire journey, off of the road and into the bush. To the west the enormous Nguruman Escarpment a thousand meter cliff face jutting out of the horizon, the far border of the Great Rift Valley. The escarpment makes up for our entire four hour descent in one go as it erupts out of the landscape in one tremendous ascent. To the south Ol Donyo Shompole, the mountain that gives the area its name. To the east the Ewaso Ngiro, the “Brown River,” the small source of green in our dusty valley and the water supply to the massive soda lake to the south and west of us, Lake Natron.

In the haze between Mt. Shompole and Lake Natron a large volcano can sometimes be made out. Ol Donyo Lengai, “the Mountain of God,” which is actually within Tanzania at this point (along with the bulk of Lake Natron) had its last serious eruption in 1940 when ash was spread up to one hundred kilometers away. The ubiquitous volcanic rocks in the area are no doubt the leftovers of some massive ancient eruption.

Nestled underneath the trees and dust and haze is our camp. Six tents, six guys, two dogs, a cat, and the occasional donkey are all you’ll find here…

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I should have been a cowboy

In my travels over the past several years I have found two of the best ways to really get to know a place to is travel on foot and to get your information from the locals, rather than a tourist destination. One goal of my research, and the Hyena Research Project in general, is to understand the local ecosystem as thoroughly as possible and answer questions associated with the ecology of the park. There is no substitute for first hand information, especially from people that have lived in the area their entire life. I would classify someone that can walk 20 kilometers in the dark, much of the time without a flashlight on, as someone that really knows the lay of the land. For this reason, I asked some of the local Maasai cow herders if I could accompany them herding cattle one night. I also thought it would be a sweet adventure, so this certainly was not a purely scientific expedition.

The night of February 4th, a local herder stopped by to meet me and we walked to join his fellow cowboys. The herders said the herd we were tending that night was 500 cows, but I would estimate it was closer to 250. We had seven real Maasai herders and one mzungu (white guy) wannabe herder for the job. Four other Maasai acquaintances of mine actually showed up to see if I was actually going to go through with my plan. They said hello, laughed a bit at my unusual attire (sunglasses, backpack, no jacket, lack of a spear, etc...) then headed back to their manyatta.

The cattle herd

Three of the seven cowboys for the night (there is eight if you count me, but I was quite useless except for having several flashlights)

For the past two weeks it has rained nearly everyday and I expected this night would be no exception. Soon after we began, it was clear we were in for rain. The worst of the rain was to the West and to the Southeast, but we got out share. By 7:05 we had our first bullfight of the night. Two of the dominant bulls in the herd locked horns and set the tone for the night. A young cowboy told me the black bull was his father's and the white bull was another manyatta. We crowded around to watch the fights with much excitement. It looked to me like Andrew's bull was getting the best of Fred's, but Fred insisted his bull was the bravest. This was later verified, as this large bull continued to throw his weight around the entire night. At one point nearly driving another bull to the ground.

My inexperience in cattle herding in the Mara first became apparent when I stuck my herding stick down into a termite mound. I have heard many stories of people eating termites and I was thinking of having a snack. I let go of the stick and it dropped nearly one meter into the hole! I thought I had lost my herding stick for a second. A few laughs from the crew and we were moving again.

Bullfight #1 between two heavyweights

Rain looming on the horizon

Around 9pm, we had our first talk of lions in the area. As a rookie in the cattle herding game, I would not have noticed, but Fred told me that when the cattle stop grazing and sniff the ground or the air, they have probably caught the scent of a lion. In this case, a group of cattle was sniffing the ground, so the herders went to inspect. The grass was matted down and they managed to find a hair they said was from a lion. The cattle remained wary and at one point there was commotion on the right side of the herd. Most of the herders took off running towards the commotion thinking a lion may be attacking, but it turned out to be another battle of the bulls. Crisis averted. The cows continued to pick up the scent of lions and I was told at one point there were probably lions in the bushes nearby, but they never materialized.

At 11:30pm, the cattle were showing signs of fatigue, so it was time to rest. We rested in the wet grass for a little over an hour. Most of the cattle did the same. It was getting cold by this point, so some of the herders used each other to conserve body heat. Around 12:30am we were moving again the sky broke open again and soaked anything that may have dried in the previous two hours. My shoes were soaked and it felt like there was a tack stuck in my toe, but most of the guys were expecting me to not make it through the night, so I kept this to myself and trudged on, still in good spirits. I had realized early in the night that it felt warmer when I was near a large part of the herd. The body heat generated by these large mammals pushed a wave of warm air in front of them, followed closely by a smell common to any barn or ranch I have been to in the states.

Earlier in the evening, between the thunderstorms, the moon had illuminated the landscape. The latest rains had blotted the moon out of the sky and its almost totally dark and I was at times clueless as to our location. Some of these guys had been herding cattle since they were 4 years old, so they could have found there way with their eyes closed. On a couple of occasions I did actually see them walking slowly with their eyes closed. We found one guy sleeping standing up. He was totally out, but still standing straight up, which amazed me. One of the herders was about 10 years old and he was given the most difficult duty of bringing up the rear and chasing the stray cows back into the group. I stayed with one of the senior guys while he walked ahead to look for lions, buffalo, elephants or whatever might be lurking in the darkness. After verifying there was no danger, he would often lay down for a little snooze. I refrained from napping because I had heard that cowboys occasionally get left behind when the herd moves on while they are asleep. My eyes were closed a couple times, but I would debate whether it was sleep or not.

Cowboys dozing in the wet grass with their spears and cattle nearby

By 4am, the cattle were apparently full. Many of them were just walking or standing and not grazing, which apparently means they have eaten their fill. I was happy to hear this, since this meant we would be moving towards home at a faster pace. My foot was throbbing and there was not a dry spot on my body, so the thought of a warm bed was attractive. We had walked about 13 kilometers by this point, but we had about 4 more kilometers to walk yet, and most of the distance had become one large puddle during the night.

We slipped and slid towards the manyattas where the cattle and herders lived and warm chai and fresh milk straight from the cow awaited, but when we got close, the cell phones began ringing and news came that the Talek River was too high to cross. Three of the herders then split with the group and walked me back to camp. The others waited at the river's edge for the water to subside. Back in camp, the group settled in for warm chai. The first drink most of the herders had had since leaving their manyattas more that 12 hours and 17 kilometers ago. Not only do they not bring water for the night, they don't bring food. After carrying my backpack the entire night and having my shoulders ache, I have decided that not carrying food or water may be a good idea. Around 7am the herders headed back to the cattle and I headed to bed. After plucking a few ticks from myself and tearing at several siafu (biting ants) out of my legs and arms, I was ready for sleep after being awake for more than 24 straight hours.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science