Thursday, June 13, 2013

Happy Zebra clan takes down a buffalo calf.

Saw my first hunt and kill a few nights ago and it was incredible! We (a grad student, IRES undergrad student, and I) left camp at 5 just hoping to find a hyena that we could do a research trial with. However, the game plan changed quick when we had a hyena come loping past us fast, cross the road in a blink and continue on. Hoping to get an ID shot and see where he was heading in such a rush I turned off-road and revved up to 25 kilometer per hour to follow him. Lucky for me this area was very flat with short grass and no rocks so we were able to keep after this hyena who was flying to the west. He kept up the pace and we soon saw another hyena loping in the same direction on the opposite hill. A few minutes later two more appeared from other directions. Now it was getting exciting!

With at least 6 hyenas visible all heading towards one spot we hurried along until it started getting rocky. Forced to go down into first gear I maneuvered the toyota through the flat patches until the rocks disappeared, but now the grass was long and obstructing our visibility. Luckily (notice how many luckily’s there are in this post?) the GPS indicated that Sneaky crossing was about 200m northwest of us. A crossing meant that someone had driven over here before and found a good way across the lugga that separated us from the opposite hill where most of our lopers were. So I made my way over to Sneaky crossing and thought it was soggy it didn’t have any ruts or visible obstructions, so I backed up, put the car in 4 and revved across it safely. 

Now we could see a massive herd of buffalo at the top of this hill (at least 200 individuals). We counted about ten hyenas who had a group of maybe 7 adult buffalo and 1 calf separated off from the rest of the herd. We got as close as we dared (the buffalo were riled up) and started filming. A hunt in process! A group that fluctuated between 3 and 5 hyenas were test chasing this small group of buffalo and chasing some of the adults. We were wondering why this small group didn't go back and join the main group and it wasn't until later on after analyzing the video that we learned that the hyenas had already injured a young calf before we arrived that was unable to get up. It only gained its feet for a few minutes before it collapsed back down into the grass.

Its mother was trying to defend it and we kept confusing the injured calf with the uninjured calf. The hyenas sparred with the buffalo for fifteen minutes, taunting and teasing the adults while trying to draw them away from the injured calf. Eventually all but the mother had rejoined the main herd. The mother seemed to know that she had already lost her calf but every time the hyenas started to dive in on it she would try to drive them off again. Finally, long after we could see any movement from the little calf, she gave up and rejoined the main herd. Almost instantly the hyenas converged on the calf, which if it was not dead already, was dead very shortly.

The speed with which the seven hyenas on the calf were drenched in blood was astonishing. Two subs were trying to get in there but we repeatedly aggressed on while males and low-rankers hung out around the periphery waiting for scraps. The grass was not too bad and we had a good view. We were able to ID some of the hyenas while they ate but with the blood soaking everyone from the shoulders up it was hard to pick out individuals and only later using the video did we ID all the hyenas present. Eventually the subs split the carcass and there were more furious growls and bristling tails and snaps of aggression. The matriarch Pike and her daughters Boom, Arbalet and Eremet controlled the kill along with a few other high ranking females and their subadult cubs while the immigrant males and low-ranking subdaults hovered on the edge.

A massive thunderstorm was building behind us and all the hyenas were on edge, trying to eat as much as possible before any other predators (namely lions) could show up and take the kill. The storm was a very ominous orange/brown color at one point and you could see lightning flashing in the distance. The buffalo herd disappeared into the fading light while the hyenas' fur became redder and their bellies became bloated. Eventually the rain started splattering down and we could hear the hyenas were alarm rumbling between rumbles of thunder. Likely some of the alarm rumbles were false alarms so that the subs and low-rankers could steal a bite, but everyone looked nervous. 

Within an hour the carcass was reduced to just a few spread out pieces that various animals were munching on. This was probably the most amazing thing I have ever seen, the bright red of the blood was stunning and stark and the air of energy and excitement was palpable. Darkness and rain forced us to leave and by then almost everything had been devoured. This was a night to remember.

It is a common misperception that hyenas are solely scavengers, stealing food from lions and other predators. However, as we could see that night hyenas are very efficient hunters and will hunt alone or in groups. They can quickly reduce a carcass into nothing but bits of bones in a very short time period. A hunt and kill is not something one gets to see to often and we were very lucky to have Saw, an adult female hyena, cross our path early on and lead us to witness this amazing event.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science