Saturday, December 4, 2010

Waffles and cubs

Sorry for the delay everyone, but as promised, here's a quick photo essay on our winner for Hyena Mom of the Year 2010: Waffles! Most of the pictures are admittedly focused on the cubs rather than on Mama Waffs, but hey, can you blame me? Everyone knows hyena cubs are the cutest things in the Mara!

First up, here's Mama Waffs in all her glory. Excuse the deer-in-the-headlights expression, she's not used to being in the spotlight.

It was a big surprise when Waffless became a mom. It was her first litter ever, and we hadn't been seeing her around the den very frequently at all when, POOF! A cub appeared!

Surprise, surprise! A week or so later, we found that not only did Waffs have a cub... she had TWO. Thus was born the "syrup" lineage. Say hello to Log Cabin and Hungry Jack.

We saw them almost daily for 3 months. Here they are getting more adventurous, and starting to get their spots:

Then everyone, including Waffs and the babies, decided to switch dens. We lost them for around 2 or 3 months. I was getting worried that maybe the babies had died, since it was her first litter and cub mortality is higher the first time around. But Mama Waffs didn't disappoint. We eventually found the den, and our little guys had turned into monster balls of fluff! They're huge!

Nice going Mama Waffs. For our last shot, here's Hungry Jack, all grown up and eating a nice rack of ribs! Congratulations Waffles, those are some handsome looking babies you've got there.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rampage through Serena Camp

Last night Serena Camp was invaded by a berserk hoard of lions, hyenas and hippos. They charged straight through camp, taking out nearly everything in their path. Casualties of the battle include the kitchen tent, the storage tent, and my (Camille's) tent. Meg and I are stationed at completely opposite ends of camp, so between us we pretty much witnessed the entire disaster: Meg watched the first half through her tent windows, while I got the "full impact" of the end of the fight (haha, I punned... keep reading to the end so you can appreciate it fully).


Since I wasn't able to take photos of this memorable event, let me paint a picture for you. I'm lying in bed. The would-be blackness of the night is infiltrated by moonlight shining through the trees, lighting up the ground and creating eerie shadows throughout camp (okay, not that eerie, but I wanted to make it sound better). It's definitely light enough to walk around without a flashlight. Hippo screaming, hyena whooping, nothing out of the ordinary. Then I hear some MAJOR whooping, and the sound of something large running through camp (think of the sound if I galloped around upstairs and you were in the basement). Then I hear scuffling through the trees. Hm, that sounds big. I perk up and watch through my screen window to try and check out the action. It's like watching an action movie, Mara style. From what I could hear, it sounded like a minor fight was going on in the thicket. I see a couple lionesses/juvenile lions run by, so I run to the opposite side of my tent to look through the other window. Some hyenas run by. Cool.

All of a sudden, a HUGE crashing sound comes from the edge of the thicket: I turn around and look through the window opposite me (I'm now standing in the middle of my tent), and a group of at least 4-5 screaming hyenas are running towards my tent, with at least 4 roaring lionesses chasing them. OH CRAP. After I pause and take in the awesomeness of the situation, I duck down to a crouch (which, clearly, is the right thing to do in this situation. HIDE from the carnivores so they don't see you through your tent screen, duh). In the haste of my ducking I accidentally knock over my pee basin (ahem...chamber pot) and spill my own pee on my tent floor. Oh, GREAT. The beasts knocked IN TO my tent, turned the corner, ran in to my tent again, and kept on running.

The sound of lions and hyenas roaring that close to me with the sole protection of a tent screen was beyond incredible...incredibly scary. From what it sounded like, there were at least 10 lions and 10 hyenas overall, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were more. I stayed ducked down with plans to scurry under my bed until they had cleared the area to the other side of camp, but luckily I didn't have to resort to such action. It seemed they had chased the hyenas away, because most of the lions quietly ran back past my tent and in to the thicket from where they came.

OH MY GOD! WHAT JUST HAPPENED? I finally get up and go back in to my bed. Aside from some more hippo screaming, nothing else happened - at least that's what I thought at the time.


It was around 11:30 or so when the noises started up. I could hear a mess of whooping, giggling and lions roaring, and it was steadily getting louder. Based on the direction of the sounds I thought that something big was happening in our driveway, but I had no idea at the time that Meg was actually in the middle of the fight. Just from the ruckus, I was pretty sure that there were at least 10 hyenas involved, but other than that I was just listening and trying to guess what might be happening. I wasn't worried, since we usually hear things happening just outside camp and we've never had a problem before.

Within a few minutes, it sounded like all the animals were moving closer. I could hear them from roughly the area of the kitchen tent, and started to get a small feeling that maybe things weren't going to go so well. Next thing I knew, I heard a stampede of footsteps charging in my direction. There was a loud crash (which I found out in the morning was the storage tent) and I frantically grabbed for both my glasses and a flashlight. I keep my window uncovered, so I had just enough time to shine the light out my window and catch a glimpse of a big gray shape hurtling towards me. Hippo?! CRAP!!! I flung myself off of my bed and rolled underneath it. Then it felt like the world just came crashing down around me.

For just a few seconds I could hear things falling over, the tent ripping, a hippo screaming, hyenas whooping from all around me... it was chaos! I was in pitch black because I had smacked the flashlight getting under the bed and must have whacked something loose. Then all of a sudden the cacophony passed over me and everthing went crashing away through the trees behind my tent.

I stayed frozen for a while, terrified that they might come back and run over me a second time, but eventually groped around for the flashlight and gave it another smack to turn it on. Then I could only stare. My tent was turned upside down! My chest of drawers had been flung into the middle of the tent, my bookshelf was toppled over, the desk was balanced on two legs and was only upright because the tent canvas had fallen down around it and was anchoring it in place! Everything I had on top of the table or on the shelves had been flung clear across the tent from the impact.

At that point I tried to decide whether or not to get out and get help or at least move to another tent (since Andy's was unoccupied), but I could still hear the lions and hyenas snarling at each other just on the outskirts of camp, and since I wasn't hurt I decided to stay where I was. I also had no clue where my phone might be in all the mess. I yanked the mattress to the floor and eventually managed to get a few hours of sleep, though every sound had me bolting awake in case I needed to take cover again.

Piecing together the events the next morning, it looks like after the lions and hyenas left Meg's side of camp last night, the fight swept through the kitchen tent and then off in the direction of the storage tent. Somewhere between the two tents the stampede picked up a hippo, who was probably just peacefully grazing in camp like the hippos do every night. The terrified hippo got swept along in the chase, the lions and hyenas ran directly over the storage tent, and then I looked out the window and managed to spot the hippo on a collision course for my tent. The hippo ricocheted off of one edge of my tent, smashing the metal supports, and then lions and hyenas ran directly through the middle of my tent and the whole thing came down on top of me.

We took pictures of the damage once the sun came up, and I think it was actually more terrifying to see the damage from the outside. From inside the tent, things were happening so fast that there was mostly a feeling of shock rather than fear. Seeing everything in the daylight just makes you realize how close a call it was.

First, a rough map of their path through camp:

The Kitchen Tent:

The Storage Tent:

Close-up of lion prints on the top of the storage tent:

My (Camille's) Tent:

Door to my tent (I had to belly crawl to get out the next morning):

Lion claw marks (sliced straight through the top of my tent):

Inside my tent:

Marks of the fighting on the ground outside Meg's tent:

Broken support poles from my tent:

Despite the damage to the tents, no one in camp was injured and nothing is irreparably broken. We were really lucky. Here's hoping nothing like this happens again!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Wapi fisi?

[Translation: 'Where's the hyena?']

There are just some days when I really do believe that the hyenas just have it in for us. We recently misplaced one of our clans - Serena North - and went on a few obs sessions either seeing no hyenas or seeing only a couple that were sacked out and clearly had no desire to get up from their R&R to conveniently lead us to their new den.

What made it worse was that we had been hearing REALLY close hyena whooping each night, indisputably belonging to our Northies (our campsite is located right in North clan territory). So, each night and morning we would head out falsely believing that THIS was the time we would find our hyenas again.

The photo below is documentation of how utterly annoying the fisi can be at times. I took this photo on one of those disappointing obs sessions in North where we found a hyena or two but much to our despair, no den. I urge you to find the hyena in the picture, although it shouldn't be too bad considering I fussed with the contrast to make it stand out more (click on it for full size). This photo is also proof of how hyenas seem to defy the laws of physics. The hyena in the photo is Waffles (WAFL); she is an adult female, has 2 young cubs (Hungry Jack and Log Cabin), and is by no means a small hyena. How she managed to lie so flat on the ground behind a couple stalks of grass is beyond me.
With cases like this, it becomes no surprise to me how easily we can lose our hyenas. We could have easily driven past her and not even noticed. And there's hardly even grass on the ground, thanks to the wildebeest. I'm not excited for the time when the wildes are gone and all the grass grows back; I think I'm going to need to develop a hyena-spotting super power!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hyena mating

Last month, Camille and I were lucky enough to witness a hyena mating! This is a pretty rare experience as, normally, hyenas will seek out a secluded place and go at it privately. However, as you will see from the photos, in this instance it seems that AO (Agent Orange, female) and EUC (Euclid, male) prefer exhibitionism.

We had set out for a normal morning of obs in Happy Zebra clan, and arrived at the D (fancy abbreviation for 'den') just as the sun was rising. AO's cubs were hanging out, wandering and play romping as usual. Then we see AO; strolling by, ignoring her cubs, and leave walking (lofty science language for 'leaving the session in a walking manner'). EUC was following close behind her, but that's pretty normal for hyena males given their low ranking (males want to get close to females, but are too scared to actually approach, so they end up following them around really pathetically). What we did notice was that she was unusually tolerant of his behavior and close proximity to her. She only aggressed on him once if I remember correctly, but then continued to walk away, not minding that he was following close behind.

Since nothing too exciting was happening at the D, we decided to follow AO and EUC. They continued walking in this manner for about 25 minutes, and we continued following them. The only reason we continued was because EUC briefly mounted AO a couple times, so we were hoping to eventually see the real thing.  Then they both decided to poop. 'Cool, more samples!' I think. Camille gets out of the car to find and collect the poop and I keep an eye on the hyenas. After a couple minutes of unsuccessful poop-searching, I see through my binos that EUC has yet again mounted AO, but this time he's STAYING up! "Camille!! We have to go now!" I shout. "Wait, I think I can find it, hold on a sec" she answers. "No, no, you don't understand. They're really doing it! They're mating, forget the poop!" I say. I'm not sure if those were our actual words, but they are true to the effect of our exchange before we raced off in anticipation of some exciting action.

We get there and yippee, they're still in the "thrust" of the action, so to speak. In the style of the true professionals that we are, we positioned ourselves in the best possible angle, took photos, recorded videos (the project requires us to!), and giggled our behinds off. It lasted about 6 minutes. Here are just a few of the hundred photos that we took (click on them to see full-size) --
It's blurry, but EUC following AO as they were leaving the D.
The scene as we arrived. Clearly they weren't concerned about topi or zebra voyeurism.
Had to give you a close-up.
Who says you can't multitask? They're even alert to their surroundings while in the act.
All done. EUC spent some time sniffing in the area he had been standing.
Interestingly enough, afterward, they continued walking in the same direction together. EUC would lope a bit ahead, but then turn around and wait for slow-walking AO to catch up. We followed them doing this for a while but then had to leave to do prey transects. Every once in a while, EUC would chase some zebra or wildebeest but then quickly give up. I like to think that after we left, EUC took down a yummy zebra for AO in thanks for her kindness and willingness to give him the best 6 minutes of his life.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Vote Now: Hyena Mom of the Year

Here's a poll for the Hyena Mom of the Year. Traditional election rules apply: vote early and vote often.

It's a bird... it's a plane... it's SUPERMOM!

Sometimes people find it hard to believe that hyenas make good mommies. A few nights ago, though, Meg and I had the privilege of witnessing a showdown that would make a believer out of any skeptic.

We were at the den of our Happy Zebra clan happily watching our hyenas when we noticed a family of elephants browsing about 200 meters away. We at first didn’t pay the elephants any attention but they kept moving closer and closer to the den, at which point I switched to keeping an eye on the elephants while Meg observed the hyenas. The elephants got to within 50 meters of the den when a fight broke out between one of the younger elephant females and the big matriarch with a young calf.

The fight seemed to rile the matriarch up, because once the other female backed down, the matriarch promptly charged at our hyenas, who at that point hd stopped what they were doing and were watching the elephants warily. The visible hyenas scattered in all directions away from the den (and trust me, we scattered with them; there's no way I want to be that close to an angry, trumpeting elephant).

Suddenly, one of our female hyenas, Ojibway, sprang out of the den. She had been completely hidden in the den hole so we hadn't even realized she was there, but Ojibway just happens to have a brand new 6-week old cub inside that den. Ojibway saw the elephants, and instead of running with the others, she planted her feet right by the den and stared the elephants down. There were six elephants total standing less than 10 meters away from her, but she refused to back down. Meg and I were terrified thinking that we were about to watch one of our hyenas get trampled into the ground, but the amazing thing was that the elephants turned away and just left her alone. Way to go Ojibway!

Other nominees for Hyena Mom of the Year are:


Marten is a low-to-mid ranking mom in Serena South, currently raising her first ever cub. Marten is such a good mom that, despite her low rank, little Jean-Luc Picard has now caught up in size to the dominant female's cub, who is also about 2 months older!

Left C-Slit!

She just gets to be in the running for being Hagia Sofia's mom, the single most photogenic cub in the history of Fisi Camp.


Pike is our teenage momma. We didn't expect her to have cubs for at least another 6-8 months, and lo and behold, she went and had two of them. She surprised us even more when she turned out to be a fantastic mom. Boomerang and Katana are about 7 months old and already two-thirds their mom's size! Pike is also fearless in defense of her kids; she actually once attacked Koi, the top female, when Koi was poking at her cubs.


Sauer is such an overprotective mom that she managed to hide her cubs from us for six or seven months! Then suddenly out she comes with her two huge fluffballs, Optimus Prime and Megatron! Way to be sneaky mama-Sau.


Such a patient mom is our AWP. She's happy to just lie there while her little cub Velociraptor uses her for a jungle gym, and gnaws on her ears to boot!


Waffles is second from the bottom in rank in Serena North clan, and a first time mom to boot. Despite that, though, her babies Log Cabin and Hungry Jack always look fat, clean and fluffy. I watched once as several of the higher ranking females banded together to pick on Log Cabin. Good mama Waffles dove underneath the females noses, squealing and giggling up a storm, and shoved Log Cabin out of the way so that he could run for the den! Then, once he'd escaped into the den, Waffles threw her body down on top of the den hole and wouldn't move, despite that fact that the other females were standing over her and beating on her.

So cast your votes hyena-fans! Who should be named Hyena Mom of the Year? You decide!

Friday, September 24, 2010


Hey all! I am super excited to be one of your windows into the world of the spotted hyena for the next 10 months, but before I do that, I guess I’d better tell you a little about myself.

My name is Tracy Montgomery, and while I hail from the sunny lands of Northern California, I have passed the last four years attending Amherst College in Massachusetts. I graduated in May, and spent my last year there researching the effects of estrogens on male fish reproduction (birth control pills, while a breakthrough for us girls, get into our waterways and have much less exciting effects on fish sperm). At Amherst, I worked at our Museum of Natural History, telling people all the cool things we learn from prehistoric bones and tracks while simultaneously being educated on dinosaur species by 6-year-old boys. I also played ultimate frisbee, learned how to deal with winter and to cross-country ski (skills that will obviously come in handy out here), and explored the stunning beauty of the northeast by foot, bike, and car.

I arrived in Nairobi two months ago on the same flight as the magnificent Meg, and a few days later drove to Talek camp, my home for the next year. And are we spoiled out here - fresh homemade food, a hot shower, and solar electricity are only a few of our camp amenities. I went out on obs that first night, promptly fell in love with the hyenas (and Chicopee, my hyena 'boyfriend'), and have been going back twice a day for obs ever since. There is nothing more amusing than observing a terrified male hyena courting and bowing to a female, and little more awesome (or disgusting) than watching hyenas make a kill. I’ve seen so many amazing things out here in just two months – the said hyena kill, a Masai Ceremony of the Women, and an extremely rare black rhino, just to name a few – that I can’t even imagine what the next 10 months hold in store for me.

Or for you, as I plan to share all these amazing experiences with all of you, starting with my next blog. Tutaonana, later!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Splish splash, I was taking a bath

The Serena hyenas are usually pretty fascinating, but lately it seems like they're being even more entertaining than usual. This morning was a perfect example. Meg and I had bumped into a few of our North hyenas (almost literally, as it happens, because we initially found them when they ran across the road in the pitch black at 5:50am, right in front of our car) and were following them around hoping for some excitement.

They eventually meandered over to a small watering hole, and suddenly two of our hyenas, Angie and Arrow, dove into the water. It was 6:30am, completely freezing, and apparently they figured this was a perfect time for a swim. Go figure. Anyway, while we didn't quite get the excitement we were looking for, we were still thoroughly amused.

The pictures are a little bit grainy due to the faint light, but here are just a few of the things I've learned hyenas like to do in the water:



Err... drowning each other?

The backstroke.

And, my personal favorite, pistols at 10 paces.

Our hyenas frolicked in the water for a good half hour, and it looked like they were enjoying every bit of it. I was actually getting jealous towards the end -- it's been getting ridiculously hot here in the middle of the day and I'd love to go for a swim.

So, Kay, can we talk about installing a pool at Serena? Pretty please?

Jambo from Serena!

Hello, fellow hyena research blog readers!  This feels slightly odd; I've been a reader of this blog for quite some time, but now I get to be on the other side posting my own experiences in fisi camp!  My name is Meg and I'm relatively new here - almost 2 months in.  I graduated in May from the University of Michigan and now I've crossed over to the dark side working for the Spartans.  I know, I know.  How could I stoop so low?  Don't you worry, my Wolverine comrades - I haven't started wearing those horrendous green and white colors.  At least not yet, anyways :)

While I've been reading this blog for almost a year now, the introduction posts haven't stuck out as much as the exciting hyena posts have so I'm not exactly sure how this goes.  You probably want to hear cool stuff about hyenas rather than boring stuff about me.  Well too bad - this is the one post in which I'm allowed to talk only about myself so I'm going to milk it for all its worth.

I'm sitting here in my tent in Serena camp listening to the North clan hyenas whooping not-so-far in the distance, and it makes me realize how far I've come in the short time I've been here.  When I first arrived, I was in complete awe at how tough everyone seemed out here.  Nobody seemed to be concerned that elephants were logging the forest 50m from my tent (I, on the other hand, had brainstormed a list of escape routes if the elephant decided that my tent looked like a nice stepping ground) or that crocodiles have been known to frequent the Talek river - which I had been crossing daily to go running on the other side.  But now I realize that it only takes a little time to adjust the level of risk I feel comfortable with.  As Andy Booms told me in my first few days here, you just have to get used to a new "normal."

Back to the whooping - I still remember how I felt when Kenna pointed out hyena whoops to me on my first night in the Mara.  It sounded eerie, like something that belonged in a Halloween haunted house.  But after weeks of learning and observing the hyenas, the sound has a completely new meaning to me.  My first thought (much to my disgust) is usually "Aww, how cuteeeee!"  But once I get over this weird, giggly, maternal feeling, I find myself wondering who it was, and what's going on.

By now I feel fairly well assimilated in to this new type of "normal" that is living in the Mara.  Serena camp felt like home within hours of arriving and I am SO glad to be here.  I have to thank everyone - Kenna, Steph, Andy B, Camille, Tracy, and all the guys - for making the transition so transparent.  I was not too worried about how I would fare out here in the bush, but it feels so much better starting a new chapter of my life with such great and welcoming people.

Now that I've got the boring me stuff out of the way, I can move on to the reason why I'm here - hyenas!  I've been very lucky so far - I've seen a hyena kill AND a hyena mating already.  It's been amazing to say the least.  These events and more will be featured in future posts, but now it's time to sleep before the alarm goes off and it's back to work!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

lions & leopards & bandits. Oh my!!

Submitted by Camille Yabut on 12 September, 2010

Alright, I admit it, I'm not the best at keeping current on these blog things. To make it up to you, I've got 3 entries coming up in quick succession. There's been a lot of craziness going on, so yes, it'll probably take at least that many entries to catch you up.

First things first, I'll tackle all the (relatively) recent camp and Mara excitement in this post. Top of the list? Bandits! About a month and a half ago there was a shooting here in the Mara Triangle. Some bandits attacked one of the tent camps, robbed the tourists, and then shot three of them. Two of the victims had to be airlifted to a hospital in the city, and the last one died too soon for medical attention (someone told me that one was shot in the head, but I don't know if this is true). The bandits ran away on foot, and a huge manhunt was organized to find them. The Conservancy put most of their rangers on it, plus poacher sniffing dogs and the local police!

The tent camp was pretty far away from our camp, and we're located very close to the Conservancy headquarters and ranger barracks, so we felt pretty safe. Unfortunately, one of my hyena clans has a territory that reaches all the way up to that area, so we had to restrict evening obs for a while. We were asked to avoid being out after dark until the shooters were found, for our own safety. The Conservancy also offered to station a ranger at our camp until they caught the shooters, but honestly I feel more antsy when there are strangers in camp, so I declined.

Anyway, at the time we had been having elephants in camp every night what better bodyguards could you have than a herd of elephants? They'd trample anyone who came close AND you can't take them down with a few measly bullets. The downside to this was that we spent several mornings in a row trapped in our tents because the elephants would forget to leave, but all in all it seemed a fair trade.

They eventually caught one of the bad guys, persuaded him to talk, and I think they caught the leader based on the info they got. I find myself speculating as to the methods used to make him talk, but mostly I think, "Good riddance!" One of the victims was a 70-year-old man who was just celebrating his birthday with some friends. Bastards.

Next up, more lions! (And why is it that I have so many stories about lions?! I'm a freaking HYENA researcher. Maybe if I pretend like I'm studying lions, I'll see more hyenas?) Before I came to the Mara, there was apparently lioness who decided to take up residence in the Serena Lodge compound and raise her 2 little cubs there (Serena Lodge is the closest lodge to Hyena Camp, only about 5 minutes away). In the process, she went and got herself completely acclimated to humans -- she's absolutely not intimidated at all.

She disappeared for a little while, only to turn up again last month.... in the middle of Hyena Camp. Oh dear.

I was in Nairobi at the time, so I missed the really exciting bits where she strolled through camp in the middle of the day, but read the post by Andy Booms here to get the full story.

By the time I got back to camp she was still hanging around (one day she decided to take a nap up by the choo/toilet, WTF?! We need that!) but mostly I just bumped into her skulking around the edge of the thicket that our camp is in, whenever we'd leave camp for obs.

She's disappeared again now, but I'll keep you posted on whether she comes back again.

And to close off this post, the last bit of camp fun I'll leave you with is: leopards! It's usually really hard to spot leopards out here. They're ridiculously shy, plus they're nocturnal, so you'll pretty much only see one by sheer luck. We at Fisi Camp don't actually have a problem finding leopards though, and that's because the leopards really prefer finding us. They just have to take a stroll straight through the middle of camp, every night.

They usually start at my end of camp, come up by the lab tent, stroll past the kitchen tent, meander up by the cars, and then end their jaunt by walking past the staff's tents. While on their walks, they like to bat at the edges of our tarps, shred helpless tea towels, and sneak up to tents where people are innocently sleeping and then VOCALIZE REALLY LOUDLY. Ok, to be fair I hadn't actually fallen asleep yet, but I was close! Also the leopard got so close to my tent that I could actually hear his paws as he stepped on the grass and leaves -- and if you know how quiet cats are while walking, then you know how flipping close that had to have been. I'm still a little bit pissed about that whole deal, but then it's hard for me to be charitable when something scares the living daylights out of me.

So, that wraps up the recent in-camp adventures.

Kenya Mpya! Katiba Mpya! (New Kenya! New constitution!)

Submitted by Steph Dawes on 28 August, 2010

Yesterday was a major day in Kenya! After years of discussion, Kenya has finally not only voted in its new constitution (that was on August 4th, if you remember I said that I was going to post about the referendum… I am not, this is much more interesting. Short story: the referendum passed and Kenya has a new constitution and the entire country is excited to be moving forward! GO KENYA!) but they have started celebrating the change that is coming and implementing the changes…and that was what yesterday was all about- celebrating the new Kenya!

So, yes it was a public holiday.

No, I was not aware during the entire day that I was out vulturing… but, when I got back, Benson and Joseph (our camp staff, amazing men, both of them) made me well aware by informing me and telling me that there were surprises and plans for a celebration later that evening… and well, I am always up for Fisi Camp celebrations!
So, how did we celebrate? Why, how any good group of Kenyans and Americans should celebrate such a momentous occasion- with celebratory home and handmade flag pins, homemade cake and nice dessert-table conversation! Yes, while the girls were out on obs (and I was running and reading in my tent. I am Legend is a GREAT book, btw) Benson and Joseph went way out of their ways to prepare celebrations.

As dinner finished, Steven, Lesingo, Joseph and Benson and us all gathered around the table singing “Kenya Mypa! Katiba Mpya!” (New Kenya, New Constitution!) happily… and we proudly wore the home MADE Kenyan flags and enjoyed two homemade cakes- one with wheat for the wheat eaters and one Steph-safe and gluten free! My cake said “HAPPY NEW KENYA!” painted in Chocolate icing….mmmm all around (and of course, soda for those interested!) As we prepared celebrations, we all sat around the table- the whole crew, Lesingo, Steven, Benson, Joseph, Laura, Tracy and myself. We talked about the new constitution and how Kenya would change from their perspectives… some of the highlights:

1.The new constitution will hold land owners and land holders responsible for their land. What this means is that many government leaders have seized land over the years… and now, they will be held accountable and land will be returned to those who rightfully own it.
2.The youth 9all young people, even young married folk) will be empowered with jobs and opportunity so they can better protect their assets (in Maasai land, that means ways to protect and care for their livestock and families, most often.)
3.The government will be reorganized to enable more representation in parliament. Provinces broken down into counties which will each have a representative that will hold town meetings and report to higher and higher levels of government. Also, the youth and citizenry will be invited into parliament (not sure how the details work there) but the constitution indicates wanting the common man involved in running the country.
4.Free primary education (and secondary) will really become FREE. That means cutting down on corruption and better budgeting of finances to fully supply schools so that everyone has access to good education.

In listening to Joseph and Benson, I garnered the following about the celebrations in Nairobi: Apparently the celebration was held in Nyayo Stadium and there were representatives of 7 different African countries and the UN present. In addition, Kofi Annan was there for the day. There were speeches all day from dawn until dusk! Prime Minister Odinga was not even able to get to his remarks because everyone was so busy celebrating the constitution and his role in it! Everyone who could make it to Nairobi did…and it was a day of happiness, hope and celebration…

It was the same at Fisi Camp in the Mara. Good luck, Kenya!

A day with vultures

Submitted by Steph Dawes , 27 August 2010

So, I know that I have been trying to get caught up on blog entries, writing of events of the past, but I have decided that for today’s (or… rather, yesterday’s) entry, I am going to actually talk about yesterday because it was pretty different than most days at Fisi Camp… mainly because, instead of being a Mama Fisi, I was a Mama Vulture! Yes, that’s right. Yesterday, I took a day OFF of hyena obs to spend the day driving around with Corrine (PhD student at Princeton), John (Kenyan research assistant), and Richard (Ugandan Researcher here to learn how to trap vultures), searching for carcasses on which vultures were feeding so that we could trap them and hopefully give them backpacks with tracking devices, very similar to the collars we use…

Out goals for the day: To trap and backpack two vultures… in order of preference: 1. Lappet- Faced Vultures (they are HUGE and have red heads, though the redness of their heads seems to depend more on their aggression and excitement levels rather than the amount of time spent in the sun; they also have very strong beaks and tend to be the vultures that tear carcasses open) 2. Adult white- backed vultures and 3. everything else (which we were NOT settling for yesterday.)

We left around 645am, after a drop off at the Talek Gate and started on our way. We drove out of the park and all around searching for carcasses. So, when we came upon a carcass our first step was to census the vultures- what species, what ages, and then… what was the carcass? from there, we could make an educated decision about setting traps… or not. If the answer was yes, we would do a drive by. John would basically position the car so that the birds were on the opposite side from the carcass and then Corrine and Richard would quietly and stealthily get out and set the traps (basically thick fishing wire that the vulture should step into and pull closed when it moves away…like a slip knot.) They tie the traps onto the carcass. GROSS! and then would sneak back into the car…we would drive away and watch for signs of a vulture struggling to fly, and failing. At that point, we would close in and attack!

I think overall we set traps out 7 or 8 times throughout the day, but did not catch a single Lappet! Turns out they are sneaky, suspicious birds who (once the carcass has been messed with) are very hesitant to return. Don’t blame them. What would you do if you were feeding quietly and contentedly (with the occasional squabble over the best tail scrap or anal meat?) and a car drove up for a few minutes and when it left, there were pieces of black plastic everywhere over your lunch? Luckily, the day was saved by us catching one vulture – a Rupell’s vulture. This poor vulture was caught early in the morning…around the neck… which is exactly what we DON’T want to have happen. BUT it did… so when that happened we rushed in. Seriously, throw stealth mode out the window! We were in. Blanket over vulture. One person steadying his body. The other holding his neck (they are really long… so they can poke and prod very lithely… or lethallydepending on how you look at it.) Then Corrine approached and grabbed blood from the leg. It was awesome to watch how quickly and effectively they worked. Then Poof! the bird was free and in the air, never to land near a car ever again.

That was pretty exciting… probably the best part of the day… the rest of the day was, as I explained above…spent driving around and hoping to catch a lappet-faced… almost and missed calls on so many accounts…

My overall impression, after talking to the team and experiencing part of their work, is they are doing GREAT research… imagine what you can do with conservation if you are able to determine vulture territories, land use and feeding habits? They are a vital part of the eco-system as they prevent carcasses from just sitting there and enabling a dangerous spread of disease (among others). However, as interesting as the research is… I could never ever hold a job where I spend all day every day driving around in a car unable to really move around. That was an important lesson for myself. That I need to have time to move around. Should I ever engage in field work again, I imagine it will have to be moving and outdoor oriented! But, I respect and love the vulture project. I can hardly believe that the species I am coming to respect the most in this Mara eco-system, are those most misunderstood and dis-respected in pop culture.

Narok Supply Run 2010 (June 28- 30th, 2010)

Submitted by Steph Dawes on 18 August, 2010

**Please note: This story is a true story. Nothing has been fabricated and no names were changed. It is real from start to finish and as honest as possible with slight positive twists. Be prepared for this brilliant next installment of "it's just life in the Mara." Please enjoy:**

So, we drive up to Narok (the last main town before the Mara.. its three hours away from camp, just about…pending road quality and car problems along the way) and spend the whole day shopping. “Three hours?” you scoff… “That’s Nothing!” Well, you might have considered it a simple drive, but then you would have needed to know that not only was I driving Marc, Kenna and Siri, but we also had three Kenyans in the bed of the truck: Joseph O, who has been doing small labor for us (used to work for Kay.... he is mentioned in a Primates Memoir as the Kenyan who rolled in white dirt a long while back and sort of went crazy working for white women. Interesting character), going back home in Narok, James ( he worked here until he got fired because he was cheating us in Talek...had a whole scam running...well, he seems to keep coming back to camp- and even asked Kay for a rec letter- which she wrote... but insisted people call her for more details. Yikes. would not come back and stay at a place that didnt want me around.)and Benson, one of our amazing current team members who is getting married next month!, who was going home to visit his family. And the road condition (picture American rocky, dirt road on steroids plus HUGE pot holes that not only you but the entire CAR would fall into and NEVER be seen again. Yeah. No exaggeration there.). Bahhaaaa. Long drive. Dusty. Bumpy. Normal. ::Sigh:: So, we make it to Narok around noon, having dropped James at one of the gates on the way out...and we have some food at the Kenol.

Note on the Kenol: It is a gas station…but behind it is this very secret and beautiful oasis that has pretty decent food. Fisi camp reveres it for its Samosas… but they have basic 9very basic, like mall basic) Chinese food and other snacks which are good to eat… picnic benches, grass, trees, flowers… idyllic hide-away in the midst of the dusty, dirty, trash ridden Narok, that we all have come to love.

So, we then start our epic shopping trip. First to market day to get fresh, cheap fruits and veggies... check... in large large amounts... double check... plus paw-paw…yes, I finally found papaya! Mmmm... check. Then to Naivas (grocery store) for everything else. Check. Then back to the Kenol to pick up samosas cause thats what Kay wants for dinner (30 of them.. .haha…half veg and half meat) check! I am doing that while the crew is getting diesel from a cheaper gas station (up the hill). They pick me up. Marc at the wheel. Clutch starts sticking. He can't easily up or down shift. Pull over to side of road. Steph (that’s me!) gets in driver seat. Drives. Hard to up or down shift-- getting to impossible (starts of easy and just gets worse and worse). Pull over. Kenna tries. Nope. Ok, we've broken down in Narok. Call Kay.

No panic but unhappiness- we need a mechanic and we need a mechanic now. Get back to Kenol and explain prob. Their mechanics get to work. Call Chris and Amanda (water researchers who stay at Serena Camp when in the Mara. Awesome people. Starting grad school at Yale in the fall but totally not the stereotype. Have a house in Narok, where they base) and find out they are just getting back into town and are heading to the Kenol now. (THANKS FOR SAVING US). Kenol mechanics look at car and decide that the gear box oil has been leaking (probably true. There is evidence of that. ) They fill up oil and explain issue. Say "we are sure we fixed the problem. We take great care of our customers." Kenna and Steph test drive car around Kenol. No good.. Can’t shift. KEnol guys make excuse that they would have found the problem if they had more time and try to way over charge us. We refuse and pay them reasonably for their labor. Don’t lie to us. We may be women and American, but we are not stupid!

At this point. Chris and Amanda have brought their mechanic. Kay has also called our NBO mechanic. It is around 6pm. We are able to make it to Chris and Amanda's house where we can safely leave our car for the night as we figure out what to do next. Maina (their mechanic) thinks it has to be a gear box problem and/or clutch or pressure plate issue. So does our NBO mechanic, Ian. Maina gamely agrees to look it over on Tuesday (it was late in the day…sun setting is not a good time to investigate car problems outside…) Chris and Amanda offer us a place to stay for the night... mattresses in their front room. Totally perfect...


Side note: It is amazing. The golden spoon. They have a veg kitchen and a non veg kitchen and it was some of the best Indian food in Narok (not saying much, but it was impressive… not the best in Kenya by any means, but it held its own. ) Now, Side note 2: We stopped at the Golden Spoon on our way up to NBO to do the Kay and Pat epic switch, and apparently the non- veg food was less than desirable. New news. Apparently knowing the owner and chef (and him being there) is VERY important (he was there the first night with Chris and Amanda and I think was putting on a bit of a show for us…). I stopped there with Pat on the way down to the Mara and though no longer the best ever… it is still very delicious. If you ever eat there, go veg!

Crash back at Chris and Amanda’s place. Next morning...feel like sh** due to lack of medicine for any of my special conditions and cold. But,optimistic. Not much happens during the morning, but the afternoon was great. ** Maina discovers that the pressure plate was completely cracked and the clutch plate was worn down. We were able to order parts and get them from our connections in NBO, so the car was fixed, test drove, and humming by 5pm. Too late to head back to the Mara, but early enough to feel good and have a fun night in.

**During the day we basically explored Narok and did some shopping basics. It was pretty fun. Taught Marc and Siri how to bargain... had a great show down with a lady making some beautiful Maasai jewelry (It was about time to start looking into Maasai handicrafts, given that I am living in the Mara this year. Perhaps someone will get lucky J ) It was epic : (as is everything, apparently. Best adjective EVER)… Then got back to Chris and Amanda’s and made homemade pizza. We even found Amarenth flour (which is perfect because I am now eating gluten free… and feeling a million times better!).... go pizza and hangout night!

The next morning, anti climatically (thank goodness)...we left and made it back safe and sound to the Mara... to find out that the green cruiser was leaking oil though a tire and the white cruiser's alternator was going. Yikes. Fun car week that week. Seriously. When it rains, it pours out here, or so I am learning. Thursday then, we had the opportunity to take both the HILUX (yes, the same car that we had taken to Narok and had fixed just a day before)...and the green cruiser into our mechanic at Sarova (a nearby lodge. He is our Mara mechanic.) What an insane couple of days!

Luckily now, months later… all of our cars seem to be holding up ::knock on wood::. I am ever thankful for that. Yes, we have plenty of minor set backs, but I am thankful for the opportunity to learn about cars this year, our weekly car checks, our nearby mechanics and everyone else who plays support to our vehicles and project :) And of course, our friends in Narok and around Kenya who consistently come to our rescue. And for adventures with memories to last a life time!

Over and out—

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Super MOM!! A mongoose rescue

Yesterday, I was sitting at the lab tent table, minding my own business, eating lunch. All of a sudden, I saw something streak by a meter away from me. It was obviously our resident slender mongoose but it was carrying a large ball of some sort. I immediately thought she was carrying a baby and got very excited to have her reproducing but, by this time, she was long gone so I went back to eating. Until I began to hear a strange noise, coming from the bushes that the mongoose had run out from. It was a noise I had never heard before, so I went to investigate. Lo and behold! I found this little guy!
He was sitting there calling for his mom incessantly.
I kept an eye on him and sure enough, Mom came dashing to the rescue!
She picked him up,
and whisked him away to safety!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

New Neighbors

There’s often debate among the Fisi Camp researchers as to which camp, Talek or Serena, is best. While I won’t get into the specific pros and cons of each, I do think that a lion family looking to move into camp must reflect the desirability of that particular camp. Such is the case with Serena.

It all started yesterday around noon. I was sitting at our dining table just in front of the lab tent, doing some light reading, when I heard the snorting of impala out on the plain just below camp. No big deal. A few minutes later I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the long, tan legs of an animal strolling into camp about 35m away from me. My first thought was that an impala had wandered into camp, which would make it the first I had ever seen actually IN camp. Taking a closer look, I noticed very large paws and a long, swishing tail. Not an impala, but a full-grown female lion. Not quite the same thing.

She came to a stop about 22m from me and, looking at me the whole time, half sat down in a way not unlike a housecat that’s preparing to spring upon an unsuspecting toy. Perhaps I was this lion’s unsuspecting toy. She continued to stare at me while I sat there wondering what options I had (not many). At the time there was only one other person in camp, Moses, one of our all-purpose staff guys. Luckily, he was sitting down at the kitchen tent, so I called out to him, “Moses? SIMBA.” Yes, just like in “The Lion King”, “simba” really means “lion” in Swahili. Moses, previously unaware of the situation, crouched down and peered around the corner of the kitchen tent and saw the lion. “Ah, she is hunting.” Not shocking, but not the words I hoped to hear from him.

Hearing Moses, the lion turned her gaze from me and looked in his direction. Then back at me. I was just preparing to slowly stand and back into the lab tent when she stood up, turned, and walked out of camp the way she had come. Crisis averted…

Around 5:30pm yesterday I was again doing some light reading at the lab tent while Moses did the same down at the kitchen tent. Needing a break, I stood up and walked to the rocks near the fire pit (just in front of the lab tent also) to have a look out onto the plain. Suddenly, I heard Moses say, “LION, LION” in a loud whisper. I ducked down and looked to see the same female walking past the kitchen tent just 5m from Moses. She walked around the tent, skirted the brush at the edge of camp (just 20m from me), and paused to lie down and stretch at the storage tent before leaving camp through the brush again. Not good to have a lion hanging around/in camp for the day.

After two close encounters I was a little disappointed to have not been able to take any photos. At the same time, I didn’t want to be one of those people you’d read about in the news who watched through the lens as a lion ran up and put the hurt on me. But, as you’ll see, I was able to get a few photos after all (otherwise this would just be a long, boring story for you all).

I reached the safety of my tent trouble-free last night and slept soundly, as usual. I awoke this morning, around 6:45am, to the sound of light footsteps on the leaves near my tent. As a group of dik diks likes to sleep in camp at night, I naturally assumed it was one of them. Since it was close, I decided to sit up and have a good look at it out my window. Again I was fooled. It was not a dik dik, but the same female lion, walking just 5m from my tent. This time she was trailed by two small cubs. The three of them circled my tent, just 2-3m away the whole time, and then started to walk back to the woods at the edge of camp. As they were walking away the female caught the sound of Moses unzipping his tent and she paused, growling. She stared Moses down in obvious maternal defense mode. Like yesterday, Moses crouched down behind the tent. The female and one cub continued walking to the edge of camp, where she again stopped to stare at Moses. At the same time, on the opposite side of the tent, I heard a high-pitched squeak. I went to the window and looked, and there was the second little cub, apparently lost and calling for its mom. After about 10 seconds the cub regained its wits and ran around my tent and off to reunite with its mom. Together again, the three of them walked into the woods and away from the tents.

It’s been 2 hours now without seeing them, but it’s a safe bet that they’re not far. I’ll certainly be taking great care not to get myself between mom and cub as I walk around camp today. It’s funny to think though, as I look out onto the plain, off all the tourists driving endlessly in search of lions (they always want to see lions and cheetahs) when we’re here in camp and the lions come right to us (whether we like it or not).

Sorry for the long-windedness, but I hope the photos make up for it. I apologize for the quality; they were shot through my window screen and I was not about to step out of my tent for a better shot.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Hyena Playtime

A few weeks ago, just as the migration was starting to show up, the hyenas worked themselves up into a bit of a frenzy for a few days. We had some crazy mornings with 2-3 kills a morning and some massive border patrols. One morning, we were out for our usual morning obs and came across a few hyenas in the morning darkness. We followed them and realized we had our work cut out for us when they joined a group of thirty hyenas. We automatically assumed that they were gearing up for another border patrol. As the sun came up and I mentally prepared myself for a difficult morning of data collection, the hyenas began trailing off in a line in typical border patrol fashion. They crossed the nearby lugga, began social sniffing and pasting all over the place, and then, much to my surprise, crossed the lugga again, went right back to where they had started, and began sacking out. A few hyenas seemed interested in a herd of zebra and some even made a few convincing lunges but, before we knew it, they were all play romping.

Usually play romping is done by cubs at the den so we were pretty surprised to see subadults and adults running around acting like children. The sheer number of hyenas playing was impressive to see. Even our oldest hyena, Navajo, got in on the play time.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science