Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Te amo, te odio, te amo, te odio: an ode to Barcelona

Since first being introduced to the West clan in 2007, my favorite male has been Barcelona. Barcelona is the second-highest ranking immigrant male in the clan, but by far the best looking (in my opinion). He's always extremely well-fed and well-coiffed, like he keeps a comb and a mirror in his pocket just in case he runs into any ladies (which he always does—he's quite the social butterfly).

Barce moves from hyena sub-group to sub-group with confidence and ease—unusual qualities in an adult immigrant male. He seems comfortable with his place in society and knows when to keep his head low and his mouth shut, and when it's okay to push his luck a little further. For example, he's the only adult male I've ever seen groom an adult female...and she loved every second of it. Nobody else could get away with that. You can practically hear him counting down the days until Midget, the only immigrant male above Barce on the social ladder and an old, old man, kicks the bucket.

But Barcelona and I have a love-hate relationship. As in, I love him, and he hates me. And all other Fisi Campers. And our cars. Since the day he arrived in the West clan back in 2002, he's been extremely "spooky," which is our term for a hyena that fears our car. It's not unusual for immigrant males to be spooky—after all, whereas the adult females and cubs have all grown up with our cars, seeing us every day since the day they first poked their head out of the den, the immigrant males aren't used to being observed so closely and are understandably a tad more wary. Most of them get over it after a while...but not Barce.

One of my goals for being out here is to dart the males in our clans, in part because we need their DNA to determine paternity for all our cubs. As of one month ago, all the males in our West clan had been darted with one exception—Barcelona. He's been around for seven years—a long time in hyena years—but has thus far managed to evade all the efforts to dart him. When he sees us, he hides behind bushes, trees, other hyenas, grass clumps, you name it. He's very crafty: sometimes he won't even hide his whole body, he'll just hide the parts that he knows we can shoot (the butt and the side). In the evenings, when we can't dart because of impending darkness, he'll prance around the car, lollygagging with his butt in the air. For three field seasons he has been taunting me like this.

This year, I came to Kenya with the expectation that it would be my final field season, so I knew it was now or never for me to mend my relationship with Barcelona. As the months ticked down, I wracked my brain, hoping for a stroke of genius, some brilliant plan that no one had thought of until now. I asked everyone I knew for ideas, and here's what I got:

-get scuba gear and a waterproof gun and wait in the river for him to cross
-dig a tunnel that pops up near one of his favorite spots
-rent a helicopter and shoot him with one of those enormous nets used to dart elephants and rhinos
-buy a predator drone from the military and shoot him via joystick from my tent at camp

As creative and helpful as these ideas were, they all seemed slightly out of my budget range of zero US dollars (conversion to Kenyan shillings: zero Ksh). I was getting progressively more desperate...and more obsessed. Barcelona had started to haunt my dreams (no, I'm not exaggerating). I started to mentally prepare myself for what seemed like the inevitability that I would have to leave Kenya without his DNA. His cubs would forever go unclaimed, the only daddy-less black marks in an otherwise perfect paternity data set. The thought was devastating.

But there was one secret weapon I hadn't counted on: my man. And this time I'm not talking about Barcelona (although I have referred to him as "my man" more times than I can count). My boyfriend Dan was joining me for the last six weeks of my field season, and one benefit to having him here was going to be that he could be my "shooter" (I'm the driver). He had a little experience in marksmanship (thank youuuuuuu, Boy Scouts!) and is just generally very good at that kind of thing. So his first afternoon at Fisi Camp I plopped him out in the driveway with the darting gun, put out our practice target, and told him to get to work. The next morning he darted his first hyena and over the next week a few more to boot. But no Barce.

Dan could see how important darting Barcelona was to me, and being a competitive person, it soon became an obsession of his as well. So after a week he proclaimed that if Barce wouldn't let us get close enough to shoot (less than 30m), we would just have to figure out a way to shoot him from farther away. Three hours of practice shooting in the driveway later, and I had a shooter who was hitting the target from 40m away. This development introduced an entirely new set of rules to the game, and it rejuvenated my hope. I started to allow myself to think that we might actually get him. Our first few days post-New Rules were unsuccessful but encouraging. Barce was letting us get within 40m...a distance he thought was safe for him, since it had been for so many years. We could feel that it was coming.

And then, on October 29th—what a glorious day!—the stars aligned. We found Barcelona roaming around a small thicket of bushes, a little chubby and therefore more lethargic than usual. Perfect. He was wary of us, as always, and was fulfilling his mantra of "constant vigilance!" We can't shoot hyenas when they're looking at us, because we don't want them to associate the experience with humans, and Barce wouldn't take his eyes off us. But we didn't give up. We were following him in the car from about 40m away, waiting for something to distract him, when off in the distance we saw a herd of wildebeest begin running in a panic. Barce's eyes lit up as quickly as ours did. As we watched, a hyena isolated one wildebeest from the herd and began to close the gap. For a split second, Barce forgot himself and paused, mesmerized by the thought of fresh meat. That's all we (okay, Dan) needed. He pulled the trigger and we watched and waited to see if it hit.

Got him.

From 36m no less. Nothing short of a miracle. It only took a few minutes for Barcelona to fall asleep—in hindsight, surprising given his enormous mass of 65 kg (143 lbs.) When I first drew his blood into our vials, I was so overcome with emotion—relief, joy, disbelief, pride—that I teared up a little. Dan proclaimed his blood "liquid gold." And indeed it was. You can't see it in the photos, but we're pointing to the name on the vials—Barcelona.

Now I can relax. And relax we did—the last photo is of us celebrating. Dan is wearing a pod from a tree on his head as a crown. Don't ask...he just shot Barcelona—he can do whatever he wants!!! (I may live to regret those words....)


E said...

Never put those words in writing! Yay Dan hyena shooter extraordinaire!

Anonymous said...

Is there a picture of your furry, four-footed man? He sounds handsome, so give us a look!

Katy said...

You KNOW I'm excited! I'll probably save that email from you for years. Now...not that getting BCA wasn't awesome, but I have two words for you & Dan: Get Yogi!

Dana-Phoenix, Arizona said...

Good narrative Leslie - Will be interesting to see how Barce reacts the next time he see you all.

What is the usual lifescan for hyena's?

Will you be coming back to the Mara, or is your assignment complete? Sorry we didn't get to see you this past Sept. But we did get to go out with Jeff one evening. It was fun!

I sure hope that Dan put that sausage on his head and it didn't fall from the tree :>)

Anonymous said...

I can imagine that immigrant males would be skittish. Being lowest on the social ladder, it seems that you'd often have to hunt alone in order to eat, involving a constant risk of being attacked by lions.

Colleen said...

Who took that awesome picture of you and Dan?

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