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!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science