Friday, April 29, 2011

The queen is dead.

On the night of 12 April, 2011, the alpha female of the Talek West clan, Murphy, was killed near the den, along with her constant male escort, Fozzie. Murphy had been alpha female since her mother, Bracket Shoulder, died on May 29, 1999.

At that time, Murphy was 3 years old, and the throne by rights should have passed to her younger sister, Carson; that is, spotted hyenas exhibit a monkey-like pattern of youngest ascendancy, in which the youngest offspring comes to outrank its older sibs when the mother takes its side in disputes with the older offspring. However, Carson was only 14 months old when Murphy died, and she was clearly unable to hold her own against Murphy’s greater size and strength without help from her mom. Murphy has reigned unchallenged since then. But on 12 April 2011, it appears that Murphy and Fozzie were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they paid a terrible price.

The Talek West hyenas had been denning at what we call the Plantation Den, which is situated along the north side of the Talek River, inside a small fenced tree plantation managed by local Masai. The Masai living closest to the den reported that lions had killed a zebra that night in the riverbed near the den, and the Masai heard lots of hyena vocalizations, suggesting that the lions and hyenas had engaged in a major fight. The fight might have been over the zebra carcass, or the hyenas may simply have been nervous to have so many lions so close to their den. But in any case Murphy and Fozzie were found dead inside the plantation fence the following morning, each having sustained multiple puncture and slash wounds.

Being somewhat jaded after working here for many years, I initially assumed that Murphy and Fozzie might actually have been killed by local Masai; after all, we have lost multiple other Talek hyenas to spearing by local people inside that same plantation fence over the years. However, the day after Murphy and Fozzie died, my research assistant Brian Lunardi sent our askaris to make inquiries of the Masai who lived nearest the plantation, and the askaris came away from those interviews convinced that lions were the true culprits. Furthermore the pattern of wounding on the bodies of the dead hyenas was most consistent with lion-induced mortality. It is certainly easy to imagine how lions might corner hyenas against the fence, and kill them there. As Murphy and Fozzie were inseparable in recent years, it came as no surprise to find their bodies only 30 meters apart from one another.

During the 12 years of her reign as alpha female, Murphy gave birth to many offspring, all named after gods and goddesses. Her sons (Bacchus, Hermes and many others) have all dispersed to neighboring clans. But surviving her in the Talek West clan are her adult daughters Artemis, Adonis, Morpheus, Pan, Helios, Loki and Juno. When she died, Murphy left a 3-month old cub at the den, but that cub has already vanished. One of Murphy’s youngest adult twin daughters, Loki and Juno, should now inherit the throne. As Juno was the dominant cub within that twin litter, we expect she will become the new alpha female, but we have not yet seen the two sisters interact aggressively since Murphy died, so we don’t know yet what will happen. But in any case, we hope the new queen has a long and successful reign as alpha female.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Welcome to the world!

Tracy and Brian and I were driving home from a foray this morning into the territory of the Mara River clan, when we stumbled upon a female giraffe standing out in the middle of a hug tall-grass plain all by herself. Or so we thought until we noticed a wee head with huge ears poking out of the grass at her feet. This female giraffe had just given birth a couple of minutes earlier; the afterbirth was still emerging, the baby was coated in amniotic fluid, and it couldn't yet stand up. The mother kept scanning the horizon as though on the lookout for potential danger to her newborn. She repeatedly switched between scanning and nudging her infant as though to encourage it to get up. As occurs in many species of mammals, it appeared that this female had given birth at a place and time of day when her baby would face the fewest risks. Although the Mara is teeming with large carnivores that would happily take advantage of a vulnerable infant like this one, none were about on this plain at 9:30 this morning.

We were all thrilled and fascinated to be so privileged as to witness this initial interaction of a newborn giraffe with its world, so we stuck around and watched for awhile. The baby tried several times to stand, but kept tumbling back into the grass at its mother's feet before it finally made it up onto its very wobbly legs. The mother promptly began licking the amniotic fluid off the calf, but that was apparently just too much for it, and the baby tumbled back into the grass again. Finally, the calf made it to its feet again, and this time seemed a bit steadier.

After standing against its mothers' forelegs for a few minutes, the calf began nosing around until, after several minutes, it finally stumbled upon the mothers' teats. It appeared to take several minutes of suckling (quite noisily!) for the mother's milk to start flowing, but when we drove away the calf was happily nursing below it's mother's belly.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

31 March 2011...still a bit late

I am not claiming that I experience an acute sense of awareness either to reality or some state of elevated artistic appreciation at 5:45 in the morning, but let me continue.  The past two mornings, though not spectacular to speak of, have stuck in my mind.

March 30th and we have made it down the High Road and entered Happy Zebra territory.  I am driving a small Suski manual transmission vehicle.  This vehicle has a short enough wheel base to ensure you spend some quality time up off of your seat as you bounce from one destination to the next.  As I drive one hand is dedicated to steering, shifting, and general control of the vehicle.  The other hand and about 95% of my conscious attention floats a full open top mug of coffee with a mix of diligence and desperation.  The road is slicked with just enough mud that the loose tail end of the Susuki does not allow much opportunity for drinking my coffee.  Somewhat predisposed with my commuting frustrations I am abruptly brought out of my sulking condition at the sight of a large yellow mass of fur.  Usually if a large yellowish furry mass if forced upon me in a drowsy state it means my dog, Gunnison, has decided I have slept long enough.  (Ok this may be a stretch...but remotely similar?)
Yesterday the yellowish fur belonged to a male lion sacked out in the middle of the road.  Given little actual choice, but not wishing otherwise, I slowed the vehicle to a stop about 15m from the lion and I think you could say we shared a moment.  You know the kind, similar to most of those drowsy encounters we have around coffee pots and in break rooms in offices and on commutes…a few cups down and complete thoughts begin to form and it looks like we’ll at least make it until lunch.  Soon the sun broke, my coffee was nearing its end and the lion had stood to leave.  As he walked off the road the lion let out bellowing roar (I had no idea you could feel that in your chest when so close by) and I agreed it was time to part…things to do places to be.  But as I drove off I was already anticipating the next time we might share a causal drink; I am hoping an evening beer.
Today it is March 31 and I am the passenger instead of the driver.  Maybe because I was relieved of the responsibility of driving the car, or maybe with this freedom and two available hands I was able to achieve a more caffeinated state by 6:15am…either way I felt more aware today then yesterday.  Cast in the mist evaporating off the river and recently flooded swamp that makes up the lowland part of North territory, I could not see much beyond the hood of our vehicle.  This morning what I saw would impress upon me less than what I would smell.
Carried on the droplets of aerosolized water came an unforgettably familiar smell dating to summers of my past.  Half a world away I could only imagine John Deere, a milk parlor, Holsteins, and a dairy farm tucked neatly into a valley of the Appalachian Mountains.  The catalyst carrying me back to the Reunioun was the smell of bovids; here African Buffalo, and there milk cows but indiscernible to the nose.  Though I enjoyed the comfort of these memories, I wonder…starting the day now as late as 5:30am, have I grown soft with some age.  If I recall milking is underway by 4am.
I had no intention of continuing on with today’s events but then again I also did not invite the lions to camp this evening.  To start evening obs were canceled because of rain.  I began to read “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Dr. Robert Sapolsky.  The book opens with some generalizations about stress responses and how humans and other animals are well adapted to deal with acute stressors.  Sapolsky continues by addressing relationships of the ever more common human (particularly westernized) diseases and stress…the luxury to worry chronically?
This being said, I had begun reading this afternoon/evening as a last resort.  Caught up in complications of my dead computer batter, cloud cover (limiting solar power), and the camp confining rain I was left with nothing but time.  So I began to worry about emailing edits back to co-authors on a manuscript we are writing, the small but ever growing pile of data transcriptions I wanted to type, and a number of other equally trivial personal business matters I wanted to cross off my list.  Not long after reading through Sapolsky’s opening text I was beginning to feel all too familiar with the over activated allostatic compensation which in time would likely be the death of me.  But at last relief.
Sometime after 5pm, what started as distant roars was moving increasingly closer to camp.  Around this time I saw a group of impala out on the breakfast plain (the grass plain which we view from our lab tent) were becoming noticeably aware.  I would soon learn that the worries of these Impala were sufficiently more justified than my own anticipatory anxiety caused by laptop failure. 
Seeing the first two lionesses from where I had been reading I moved to the edge of camp for a better view.  From my new vantage (between 50-100 yds of where the lions were moving up the hill through the thicket) crouched by a bush I saw another lioness.  She also saw me and after making her awareness to my presence known with a stare, she also continued up the hill.  A few other lions passed through and occasionally one would roar but otherwise went by making no disturbance.  As the roaring faded up over the hill I realized my laptop had lost priority.  I think I owe that lioness who took the time to stare at me a ‘thanks’.  On the ground removed from the ‘luxury’ of a safari vehicle I had a glimpse of that adaptive stress response Sapolsky described…acute stressor, HPA cascade, allostatic compensation, and realization that oh yeah it is nice to be alive.  I am not envious of the impala or zebra etc., but I can appreciate the change in perspective that can only come from encounters with the likes of lions and tigers and bears.
As I said the roaring from x number of lionesses and juvenile lions had trailed off into the night and by around 7:00pm so had my thinking of it.  Nearing dinner, Meg the other RA, was making her way down the path to the vehicles.  She was on her way to pick up John and Linda (dog trainers working with the Ranger out post starting a program that would use hounds to track poachers in the Mara).  Little more than halfway down the path, Meg mentions that I ought to come take a look…
                The lions were back, but his time moving silently past the camp shower, the vehicles and a few tents at the east side of camp.  Illuminated by head lamps 7 or so pairs of eye shines made their way through our camp and again out of sight.
                For dinner we enjoyed a fried feast of somosa and french fries in excess, washed down with warm Tusker (an African lager).  John and Linda shared pictures from the day’s poacher camp raid.  Poachers (mostly from Tanzania) in pursuit of bush meat use snares and a variety of other tools to catch and kill hippos, zebras, wildebeest and other animals that happen into their traps.  Snares are made from steel tire cords (the rubber is burnt off) and the poachers use spears for hippos, as well as bows and arrows (tipped with various toxic plant and cobra venom based concoctions).  Once killed bush meat is taken out of sight into a thicket where the poachers camp.  The meat is cut off the animal in haste and laid out on leaves to dry before transport…FDA approved fast food.
Well anyway less I further digress. the five poachers apprehended this day were tipped off by a marauding hyena and the careful observations of John and Linda.  The hyena must have raided the poacher camp and was seen eating a suspiciously symmetrical, geometric chunk of hippo meat.  In short the location of the clepto-hyena lead the rangers to the poacher camp to make the arrest.
                Dinner ended and the night was drawing to a close (it was already 8:30-9:00pm).  Meg left with our visitors to take them home as I carried the dishes to the kitchen tent.  As the car was preparing to leave the driveway, I could not figure out why Moses, Jorgi (camp caretakers) and I were being high beamed in the kitchen tent.
                The group of 7-11 lions had silently re-emerged.  This time they weaved in and out of the trees and on the paths around the kitchen tent.  What struck me was not their numbers or an overt sense of danger or aggression from the lions, but rather their self-invited comfort in our camp.  At times only 10m from the tents they readily helped themselves to drinks of water from our buckets and traveled the trails as it though it was the reason why those paths were maintained.
                I am no lion expert and have yet only seen a small number of lions.  Still compared to the lazy sun bathing kitty cats that have thus been my lion experience, this evenings lions seemed different.  This inclination started when I first met the stare of the lioness initially passing by camp earlier that evening.  My presumption continued to develop finding some confirmation, or at least exaggeration (product of a na├»ve mind conditioned by experiences in safe woods full of Bambi and bunnies back in the US) in the activity of the lions last seen around the kitchen tent.  Their movements, motivated; their stares, apathetic to our presence; and their proximity, though slightly surreal, undeniable.
Apparently ‘simba’ never comes into tents and knows that people are not food.  Still it has been a long time since the buffet of wildebeest last left the Mara.  It is not unreasonable to think one might get hungry awaiting the migration’s return.

Serena Camp

23 March 2011
4:30 in the morning and fast approaching the time we collectively (I mean both myself and the other RA, Meg) gather at the lab tent.  This morning’s rain plays the tarp overhead like a snare drum.  Maybe the running water and a need to part with a previous day’s worth of chai or, the slight discomfort caused by the humid microclimate that is my tent when it rains; I stepped through the zipper doors to better assess the situation.  The problem with the rain is simply its persistence. 
I guess I should back up and explain the daily routine for an RA in hyena camp.  At large my job is the observation and behavioral data collection of three clans of hyenas.  Each of these clans contains 10-20 adult females (the dominant social rank), a similar number of sub-adults, a similar number of adult males (the subordinate social rank), and any number of cubs.  Using distinct spot patterns and facial/ear scars all of the 130 plus hyenas must be known as an individual.  Because of their crepuscular nature, hyena observations occur seven days a week from first light to mid morning and from late afternoon until dark.  In addition to behavioral data we collect “fresh” fecal sample for DNA and hormone analysis, as well as a number of other various data collections aimed to investigate different aspects of hyena condition.   Finally while in the field we conduct bi-monthy prey transects to monitor density of various prey (herbivores from antelopes to elephants), and we are constantly keeping a running list of all predator sightings.  To date I have seen cheetahs, lions, banded mongoose, bat-eared fox, black backed jackal, and of course spotted hyenas.
During the day back at camp data is transcribed, some basic camp chores are carried out according to schedule, and camp finances are maintained.  Serena camp as I inhabit it (in no particular order) looks as follows (see attached photos)

“March 23, 2011 MMW and ZML leave camp at 5:45 am for obs (observations) at Happy Zebra territory.”  “Note at 5:50 slight rain begins.”  “ 6:06 enter Happy Zebra."  "Note: Same minute rain has increased.”  “6:20 leave Happy Zebra; tracks to wet to off-road.”
As I have indicated the biggest problem faced to date has to do with restricted road use and high likelihood that any intrepid driving effort would result in our vehicle stuck in mud. It seems best described as a war between rain and sun.  In a battle played out on the roads leading to hyena dens, the rain is winning and the roads are left a casualty of the opposing forces.  Talk of April’s scheduled rainy season has lost certain appeal.

20 March 2011

As I may have mentioned it has been raining here quite a bit, which is fairly annoying for two reasons.  First it means that my struggling computer battery is most often left wanting in terms of power.  When not plugged in the battery dies in a matter of minutes and I am unable to send emails and otherwise stay in contact.  This coupled with the fact that we cannot go out to do our daily work do to the likelihood of damaging the roads, has admittedly, lent to some boredom. 

For example after a day of reading field protocols and some other various forms of literature, I found myself unable to pull my view from a small toad.  At around 8pm, a termite hatch had begun and seemed destine to cause some annoyance during what would soon be our dinner (the other aspect of camp that I currently most look forward too...and even in the face of events just short of apocalyptic this likely won't change; the food is great and I like to eat.) 

Anyway, the toad also arriving at the table for dinner, began a tireless effort to eat nearly a dozen or so of the flying termites, which were about 1/15 the size of the toad.  In certain order and with some patience this toad collected termites that having about as much grace as a whirly-gig (falling maple tree seeds) inevitably were stuck buzzing and crawling around on the tarp floor.  In their struggle to evade the toad I noticed that some termites were shedding their wings.  I do not know if this is to facilitate dispersal or mating or some other phenomenon.  Either way their success this particular night fell short by the efforts of the toad.  Although I can't speak to its comfort, the fattened toad slipped off into the dark, appetite satiated, sometime during which I was lost in my own gorging of a cabbage dish, chipotte, and curry (peppers, onions, tomatoes, garlic, sweet potatoes, and curry sauce).

After dinner, more tired of reading than tired I made my way to my tent where I was lulled to sleep by the sound of lion roars and hyena whoops.  Today I awoke to a leopard growling in camp (they make this chugging kind of sawing sound), but there was again no chance of going into the field because of rain.  However, provided a brief spell of sunlight I have been able to write about my time the past few days at Serena Camp (located in the Masai Mara).

14 March 2011

My name is Zach Laubach and through a fortunate sequence of events I have I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya on Saturday the 12th of March, to work as a Research Assistant studying spotted hyenas.  By fortunate I mean for a number of reasons: the applicability of this experience in terms career aspirations (I am interested in the behavioral ecology of large mammalian carnivores), the timing of this opportunity fell neatly into place in both my academic and personal life, and I found my way onto a plane that actually landed in the appropriate destination (though I’d just as soon not hash out these particulars unaided by a cold drink!)  Aside from a few airline hassles, the flight went through without hitch and I was picked up by another Research Assistant (RA) working on the Hyena project.  Sunday we went around and began an errand list which was completed today.  These chores included buying groceries and supplies, acquiring research clearance from Kenya Wildlife Service, and car maintenance.  
About the garage where the car got fixed… turns out the owner is a 50 something year old British guy named Ian.  This is a guy I like and will enjoy any opportunity to spend time with.  The proud owner of three female English Black Labs, Ian is an avid bird hunter, dog trainer, and sit back and drink beer kind of story teller.  Apparently there are two hunting seasons for birds in Kenya, spring and fall.  Ian has even duck hunted in Africa… though significant bodies of water limit the opportunities, if located these hot spots have tons of ducks and a few often irritated hippos.  This came about after I saw some paintings of dogs retrieving ducks in Ian’s house, and I ventured to mention Gun (my Chesapeke Bay Retriever).  Needless to say this guy’s stories were tireless, and I think his reluctance to let us go only began to wane after we had set up a tentative time to continue the discussion over beer and photos from First Flight (our duck hunting club back in Michigan).

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science