Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Return of the Blog

Sorry for the lack of updates to the blog after our faithful contributor, Zach, left! I’m Deanna, the new research assistant here, receiving training from my very patient and helpful fellow RA, Noémie. In my few months here, we have already had many memorable experiences, both good and some less so, and one thing I’ve quickly learned to love about Africa is that incredible memories are the norm and every day brings a new adventure!

It’s been awhile so I’ll start with an update on our hyenas here at Serena Camp. First, both here and at Talek Camp, we witnessed a rare event of hyena infanticide! In our South Clan, the dominant female, Clovis (CLOV), had recently had only 1 new cub, Nali. Clovis’ second-ranked sister, Slinky, had just had 2 cubs, Rastapopulos (RAST) and Makuta (MAKU). Well this did not sit well with Clovis, who waited until a day when Slinky had left her cubs unattended at the den, and then she killed Makuta as he/she was playing with Rastapopulos and Nali! Nothing goes to waste among hyenas though, and Clovis fed the dead cub to her older subadult cubs, Ranch and Cheese Whiz. Within 10 minutes, there was nothing left of poor Makuta, but Clovis fulfilled her role as dominant female and loving mother quite well! They have since moved their den and are split between 2 new dens, making our jobs very difficult. One den is surrounded by bushes and a semi-dry riverbed. The other is on the opposite side of the riverbed and surrounded by a field of various-sized rocks, making it impossible to get closer than 100 meters and aptly named by Noémie as Nightmare Den.
 Clovis: the biggest, the meanest, the smelliest

In Happy Zebra clan, we have an overwhelming amount of cuteness at their den, with 13 cubs (theoretically, although 2 have not been seen in at least a month) play romping around and occasionally forming an indistinguishable pile of fur on chilly mornings. As exasperating as it can get, trying to ID and keep track of all the interactions between these cubs and other hyenas at the den, they make up for it in adorable moments.

In North clan, we have had some interesting interactions, indicative of a rank reversal. Three rough-looking lower-ranking females (Peepers, Waffles, and Eleanor) banded together and chased away the dominant female (RBC). In subsequent observations, RBC has displayed submissive behaviors (ears back, giggling, presenting her rear for inspection, being chased) to most of the other hyenas and their cubs, as though she has fallen from the top to near the bottom of the hierarchy. Many of the North hyenas are in pretty bad shape right now after an alleged bout with lions over a hippo carcass. Hooker is slowly regaining use of her left eye and has gained weight after looking frighteningly anorexic. Many hyenas had open gashes, bad limps, and puncture wounds, but they are healing quickly by human standards!

We were also fortunate enough to see 3 cheetah cubs at 8 weeks old with their mother and hear the famous cheetah chirp! However, the following week, the Mara Conservancy manager, Brian Heath, alerted us that the cubs’ mother was missing (probably killed by lions). We were privileged enough to accompany him and the rangers as they captured the 3 cubs. They are currently residing in an enclosure in Brian’s camp. The Mara has had bad luck with cheetahs since 2008, when the wildebeest migration brought a bad case of mange here that reduced the cheetah population by almost half. The Mara has not had a litter of cheetah cubs survive to adulthood in over 2 years, which makes these 3 cubs’ lives very important to the future of cheetahs here! Thankfully they will be guaranteed food and safety until they reach adulthood and can be released back into the reserve.

I am a bit of a cheetah fanatic so I apologize in advance if I become more focused on cheetahs than hyenas in the future, but I will try my best!

Noémie and I are also inadvertently becoming learned mechanics. We have yet to go a week without some sort of issue arising with either of our vehicles and have had to employ a hydraulic jack on several occasions, even before leaving Nairobi to come to the Mara! We have also spent some of our free time attempting to learn Swahili from the Masai men who help keep camp in order: Moses, Philimon, and George. It’s more impressive coming from Noémie, who is from Switzerland so she translates between French, English, and Swahili! As they say in Swahili, tuna jifunza pole pole (we are learning slowly, slowly).

Among the more memorable of our many nightly adventures, Noémie had a giraffe trip over a guy line of her tent one night and almost take the whole thing with it. We have had hippo and buffalo wars waged in the bush surrounding camp, elephants grumbling their disapproval of our campfire one night, lions mating on the plains in front of camp (and keeping us awake all night!) and rabbits racing for their lives from hyenas and genets but not succeeding as evidenced by clumps of rabbit fur the next morning.

We’ll try to keep contributing updates to the blog! Thank you for your patience, it was a steep learning curve in the beginning but we’re finally getting into as nice a routine as Africa will let us!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science