Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Welcome back wildebeest!

The migration normally arrives sometime in July but this year it looks like it is already rolling in. A few weeks ago we started to see large herds of zebra and just in the last few days the wildebeest have joined!

The scene last night in our Serena South territory
The migration is early this year due to the drought we are experiencing. With the long rains not coming in April they are here looking for grass (the Serengeti plains have already been depleted). The hyenas will love the extra prey around but the drought means hard times for the local people and their cows. The maize crop this year was also horrible and many Maasai are worried about their ugali!

Happy hyenas: Boomerang bringing a wildebeest skull to the den yesterday morning. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

How I got my ear damage!

We showed up at the North den a few days ago to find these two! This little black cub was climbing all over this adult. At first we thought the adult was TRex because of her ear damage. TRex is currently the only hyena in North with a right B slit which is very handy in id-ing her. However, TRex already has fluffy cubs with spots that are seven months old, and the sacked out adult’s behavior just did not match what we would expect from TRex (or any adult hyena who was not this cub’s mom). The adult was being so patient with the cub as the cub was throwing himself at the her, dive bombing her, and running all over her.

We have not seen this cub nurse from anybody, so we are not quite sure who its mom. But we think his mom is Ink. We have seen Ink at the den quite a few times since the little cub showed up. Sure enough, when this adult got up we could see it was Ink. She had new ear damage, her ear was still slightly bloody! I caught this little guy doing this to her!

He probably did not give her the new ear damage. I have seen quite a few cubs enjoy chewing on their mom’s ears and nothing ever happened, but you never know…!!!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Aftermath of the poisoning

In some ways, the aftermath of the poisonings has been even harder than the event itself. We knew beforehand that we wouldn’t be able to find all the bodies, but it has been taxing to keep a daily tally of who we have and haven’t seen since the poisoning. The first time we see a hyena is a tremendous relief, but as the days have worn on and we still haven’t seen many members of the clan, it’s beginning to set in that we have lost a large number of animals.

We now suspect that the poison claimed the lives of at least 19 hyenas, and there are several more that we still haven’t seen but we think (or hope) probably weren’t in the area at the time. Among the ones that we’re now fairly convinced are dead are Crimson, yet another new mother who was a consistent presence at the den; Argon, an older, low ranking mother, and the sister of Xenon; Loki, a higher ranking oddball female; Galapagos, the reigning princess of the clan, and one of my favorite hyenas because I’ve watched her come into her rank just during the time that I’ve been here; Wellington, the high ranking immigrant male whom we joked was “married” to the alpha Helios because he always followed her around; and Mork, another immigrant male with striking spots and a slightly goofy disposition.

At this point, it seems very clear that whoever was responsible for the poisonings will never be caught. Whether this is because of a lack of resources and expertise, or simply a lack of interest, I don’t know. The high expectations I had after the professional KWS post-mortem have fizzled by now, and it leaves me feeling even more dejected about the whole situation.

Part of what makes the poisoning event hard to cope with is that it is so emblematic of the deep problems in this area. While I still think poisoning a carcass shows an unforgivable level of stupidity, I can understand the reasons why a herder would do it. Especially after traveling around Kenya a little more, I can see that this community along the reserve is probably worse off than a lot of other areas in the country. And right now, people are struggling even harder than normal because the rainy season that was supposed to support crops and livestock is extremely late. The bottom line is that the local community receives too little benefit from the reserve for them to see the value in protecting wildlife.

Understanding part of why the poisoning happened doesn’t make it less difficult to deal with, however. The hardest part for me has been the repercussions of all of the mothers that were killed. Hyena cubs rely on their mother to nurse them, to help them learn their rank, help them find food, and protect them at carcass sessions until they are about three years old. There is a huge amount of maternal investment involved with raising a cub, which may be why it is extremely unusual for another mother to help raise a cub that isn’t hers. This means that without their moms, the cubs whose mothers were poisoned have been slowly starving to death, and it takes them much longer to die than I would have expected. Instead, we have watched them get slowly more and more lethargic and skinny. While their peers with living mothers play and run around the den, they just sit there and waste away. Lazy and Rage, Argon’s cubs, even got abandoned at the old den site and simply spend their days huddled against each other, waiting for a mother that will never come back. Each day we expect to find some of them dead, but they only look skinnier. It’s likely that they will crawl into the den before they finally die, so we may never find their bodies either.
Starving cubs by the den

Crimson’s cub Cyberman is the only one that seems at all likely to survive. She is fighting so hard to stay alive that it both breaks my heart and gives me a small spark of hope. She is still so small, but we’ve seen her following adult hyenas very far from the den to join in carcass sessions. Her best trick yet, however, seems to be annoying Ted into nursing her. Ted is another young mother with just one cub (we think she originally had two but lost one early on), and through sheer obnoxious tenacity, Cyberman has been managing to nurse fairly regularly from her. She will follow Ted around and squitter constantly (a squitter is an obnoxious, squealing noise that a cub makes when it’s hungry), essentially ensuring that Ted will get no peace unless she allows Cyberman to nurse too. I don’t know if it will be enough to help her survive all the way to adulthood, but her will to live is so strong that if any of our orphans can do it, she’s the one.

Cyberman squittering at Ted

A Grieving Giraffe?

We saw something very strange on obs this past week. One morning, we found our hyenas running in and out of the thicket around a tall female giraffe. Then we realized that she was standing over a juvenile giraffe that was lying on the ground. We couldn’t tell what was wrong with the juvenile, but it was clearly dying. It was sprawled out on its side and every once in a while it would twitch its head and kick its legs out uselessly. We couldn’t see anything visibly wrong with it but we assumed it must have broken something critical or gotten sick. The hyenas circled excitedly at first, but the mother giraffe kept standing over the juvenile, sometimes running at the hyenas until they backed off. Ripkin, one of our youngest subadults, kept sitting down in the bushes next to the juvenile, watching it hungrily.

We stayed for a long time until it became clear that the giraffe wasn’t going anywhere. So we left, planning to come back that evening just in case she was still there.

That night, we made our way back, mostly expecting not to see anything since it had been so long. Instead, as we drove up, we saw the mother giraffe’s head sticking out above the bushes. She was still there guarding her calf, which was still alive, but unable to stand or move much at all. There were lots of hyenas in the bushes, waiting for her to leave. They were just resting patiently, waiting. The giraffe, on the other hand, looked very stressed. She had strings of saliva hanging from her mouth and kept walking away from the juvenile as if she was about to leave, and then running back as though she’d changed her mind. We were surprised that she was still standing guard, especially since her calf was clearly not going to make it, and she was unable to eat much herself while she guarded it.

The next night when we returned, the mother giraffe was still there, but the juvenile was dead and partially eaten. The hyenas were still mostly keeping their distance but something, probably hyenas or a lion, had managed to eat out some of the internal organs. The mother giraffe either hadn’t comprehended that her calf was dead, or didn’t care, because she continued to keep guard over its body, chasing away any hyena that inched too close. However, after two days of vigilance, she was clearly getting tired; it was taking her longer to run back to the carcass every time she swayed away. Every once in a while she would go just far enough that a few of the hyenas would crawl up and start feeding, but then she would run back and chase them away again. We couldn’t understand why she was still expending so much energy and risking starvation for a calf that was clearly dead. We guessed that it might be a grieving response similar to what scientists have observed with elephants, and it makes me wonder whether and how the hyenas might be grieving for their lost clan members after the poisoning event.

By the next morning, there were no signs that there had ever been a giraffe in that clearing at all—not even a bloodstain was left. All we found were two hyenas, Alice and Kyoto, sniffing hopefully at the ground.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Hyena is a Hyena, No Matter How Small

There are four species of modern day hyena.  We study the spotted hyena, so we use hyena broadly to mean the spotted hyena.  However, there are still the brown hyena, striped hyena, and aardwolf that make of the hyena family.

In the field, I’m conducting experiments to test (spotted) hyenas’ boldness in response to an intruder (spotted) hyena, modeled by a life-sized spotted hyena archery target.  Recently, I was conducting one of these Target trials with Ojibway in our Happy Zebra territory.  Unfortunately, Omaha appeared (how do hyenas hide on a wide open plain with short grass?!?) and interrupted the trial, which kind of flustered me as I was trying to keep track of what both hyenas were doing.  I kept my camera recording the trial, hoping to get some data from Ojibway, and she was actually interacting with Target.  I was very focused on my camera on Ojibway, and eventually, I noticed another hyena-like figure out of the corner of my eye coming the from the direction we had seen Tempe 15 minutes earlier.  I said to Emily, who was in the car with me, “Good grief, here comes Tempe too.”  Emily briefly looks and says that she thinks it’s a jackal.  

What is that?!

That is when I realize the scale out of the corner of my eye was totally off, it’s actually a smaller animal much closer than I thought.  As I’m focusing on this new interloper, I briefly think that that’s no jackal, it looks a bit like an alien (I have no idea what made me think that, maybe the halo around it as the sun was shining through its fur) and shout, “What on earth is that?!”  Then it turned...


“Oh my god, that’s striped...aardwolf!”  Yes, an aardwolf, the smallest hyena species, interrupted my trial...  I proceeded to stammer about not knowing what to do; aardwolves are really rare for us to see, and I was already trying to keep track of too many things.  Luckily Ojibway and Omaha were leaving, so Emily and I just stared at this amazing aardwolf sighting.  My only previous aardwolf sightings were of them running away into the distance, but this guy was just standing there staring at Target; apparently the aardwolf was confused by the “intruder” too.

So, of all my ruined target trials, this one is probably my favorite.  The constant surprises of field work!

He was very interested in Target...

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The car is not food!

Yesterday morning I drove up to our Happy Zebra Clan's den and was greeted by ten little cubs running around and playing. Most of the royal family, Pike and her daughters, were there as well. I was having a lot of fun watching the adults in play with the youngsters and thought it was really cute how excited and playful everyone was acting. That was until they turned their attention to the car. Frequently, the cubs will play around and under our car or at least come up and check it out. If we hear them chewing we can hit the car door or turn the car on, and they will stop and run away.

Blue Band (Clov's daughter) chewing on what seems to be their favorite part of the maruti, the back bumper. 
This group of Happy Zebra cubs seems extra naughty. There are many bold cubs that don't seem to care at all if I am banging on the car door or even revving our engine. They just keep on chewing. Yesterday morning I tried all of the techniques that I knew to get them to stop, and nothing was working! Astacin, Silkwood's three month old son, came sprinting out from under the car with something in his mouth. When I looked closer it was some electrical stuff from one of our broken tail lights. I think I actually yelled, "No, we need that!!!" even though I was the only one in the car.

This is Astacin and the part he ripped off the car right before Pike took it. 
I was going to try and retrieve it, but I wasn't fast enough as Pike quickly approached Astacin and became the owner of the plastic and wire 'toy'. Just as that happened Claymore, Pike's sub-adult daughter, started pulling on our bumper! I (and our suzuki maruti) had had enough! Clay is huge now and I was not risking another part getting torn off! I had to drive away, carefully, from the den to get them to stop. When I drove back to try and get the wire I found Pike playing with it across the little stream behind the den, making retrieval impossible.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science