Saturday, June 27, 2015

How high?

After seeing and mourning the destruction caused by the flood, we wondered just what had happened to allow the river to catch us off-guard. While we moved as swiftly as possible once we realized what was happening, we were certainly not expecting a flood that night. There has been only one other major flood in the twenty-seven year history of the hyena project, during January 1998. This one, however, was much higher than the last, and occurred during what has historically been the dry season in Kenya.

Our friends Chris Dutton and Amanda Subalusky at The Mara Project have data loggers positioned along the Talek River, which allow us to see what actually happened on that fateful night. At the beginning, the river rose 2.5 meters (8 feet!) within an hour. At that point, it breached its banks, so while the volume of water continued to grow exponentially, its height changed more slowly. In total, the river rose 5 meters (16 feet) that night, which explains how so much of our camp was underwater within the span of a few hours.

A graph of the Talek River depth including
the night of June 13th (from MaMaSe)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Great Flood of 2015 Part II: The Carnage

After the adrenaline ran out and the exhaustion set in, everyone filed back to his or her tents to sleep.  Some of us, who became refugees without tents, shared a dry tent. 

As the sun rose the following day, everyone was shocked to see the destruction that the daylight revealed.  I ran into Joseph on the path, and I said, “Joseph this a terrible terrible thing.”  All Joseph could do was nod in agreement.  We both knew that many hard days were in front of us.

We all assessed the damage that the flood had raged upon Talek camp and were very thankful that it wasn’t any worse.

The remains of the storage tent.

The destruction within the lab tent.

The majority of the day was spent salvaging and drying equipment in hopes that the water hadn’t destroyed it.

In the afternoon the cavalry from Serena camp, Eli and Heidi, arrived with water and food.

Consuming much needed food.

Our temporary kitchen was behind KAL with our oven that amazingly survived the flood.

By the end of the day we had recovered from being shell-shocked from the flash flood and we were contemplating the amount of work needed to bring camp back to even a fraction of its former resemblance.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Great Flood of 2015

As some of you may have heard, Talek Camp suffered from a flash flood on the night of June 13th, 2015. It was a crazy, terrifying night for all of us in camp, but the end result was not as bad as it could have been: everyone survived without injury, and we didn’t lose any important data or samples. Although nothing absolutely catastrophic happened, we lost a lot of equipment and are left with a shell of the camp that we once had. Of the 15 tents we had set up in camp, only three of them survived the night without being flooded. Here’s what it was like:

It rained a bit that evening, enough to prevent us from going on evening obs but not much more. When I left my tent to check the rain gauge, I saw that the river was very high, and I went out to take photos.

The normally peaceful Talek River, now with rushing rapids
Acacia trees that are not usually underwater
The river overflowing its banks by the kitchen tent
The night guards (who had been through a flood before) did not seem worried, so we didn’t start to evacuate for another 30 minutes. At that point, we began a steady evacuation of the kitchen tent, which turned into a swift retreat once we realized the water was rising at an incredible rate.

By the time we had finished evacuating the kitchen tent, the lab tent was flooding, even though it was on higher ground. At this point, we began the frantic task of trying to save all of the hyena samples, digital and paper data, and other lab equipment. Everyone in camp was amazing – we carried sample tanks, hyena books, centrifuges & vortexes, cameras & GPSes, giant solar batteries, and more equipment back and forth to the cars through water that was eventually up to our waists.

When we decided that anything left in the lab tent had already been ruined, we left to check on the other tents. At this point, the water had risen so high that the food supplies we had moved to higher ground were underwater. The storage tent had also already flooded, so we dragged the surviving boxes of supplies above the waterline, but unfortunately much of the tent’s contents had already been soaked. The solar tent was in danger, so we frantically evacuated those batteries and saved what bedding and books we still could.

At that point, there wasn’t much left to save. We stood by the cars, and watched the kitchen coolbox, followed by Target, a fake hyena, followed by our brand new tent, float down the driveway in the flooding waters. We began to worry about the whole of camp being flooded, with no place for us or the cars (full of data!) to survive. Not knowing when the water would stop rising, we decided to drive out of camp to higher ground. By this point, almost everything in sight was now part of the Talek River, and the water was high enough to cover the headlights of the cars in some places, leaving us blind. As luck would have it, the first car to try was the new car, KBY, which ultimately drowned in Putrid Crossing near camp. Everyone inside moved to the car roof and was able to wade (in chest-high water!) uphill to drier ground, but the car and all its contents spent the night mostly submerged in the rushing water. The snorkel, which all Land Cruisers are equipped with to enable cars to drive through high water, is apparently decorative instead of functional. Thanks, Toyota. The second car, full of most of the data, was far enough behind to witness KBY’s demise from afar and stick to safer areas.

About 10 minutes after KBY drowned, the waters stopped rising. We waited by the car, put on dry clothing, and started to process our experience. Some of us napped, some of us cried, and others just sat and waited.

Within an hour, the waters had receded to manageable levels, and we began to survey the damage.

Debris on the dining table
Chase investigating the waterline in our food cabinet 
The inside of the lab tent, full of ruined supplies
and overturned furniture
The waterline on the lab tent
The bread that Joseph had baked that night
survived by being placed on top of a cabinet,
and we all gratefully devoured it around midnight.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Hippo Banquet, part II

This is a continuation of Eli’s Hippo Banquet blog.

The next morning, we returned to the hippo carcass to see how the hyenas had fared. Hyenas are never ones to turn down a feast, so there were still dozens of hyenas feeding at the hippo. They’d done some serious damage, however – the carcass was completely opened and the majority of the internal organs and other soft bits had been consumed.

As you can see, the hyenas are all covered in a uniform coating of hippo slime, making it very difficult to ID them. Even the little ones seems to have gotten inside the hippo overnight and rolled around for a bit. Couple that with numerous alien hyenas, and we struggled our way through IDing that morning. When Heidi typed up her transcription, it turned out that we had seen 34 Happy Zebra hyenas and 15 aliens within those few morning hours that we spent at the carcass.

What was interesting to us was the relative peace between the Happy Zebra hyenas and the aliens at this carcass. Apart from the typical feeding aggressions, there was little to show that two different clans were harvesting the same food source. Even more intriguing was that the Happy Zebra hyenas allowed the alien males to feed in peace, but the alien females received far more aggressions.

When we returned that evening, the carcass was decimated.  All that remained was a pool of hippo slime, a piece of skin, and the hippo skull itself.

Hyenas searching for left-over scraps in a puddle of hippo slime. 
Euchre chowing down on some hippo skin. 
An alien female gnawing at the hippo skull.
Rum Gone feeding on the hippo skull.
So here’s the final score:
The lions had control of the carcass for 48 hours, and managed to eat part of the face off.
The hyenas had control of the carcass for 24 hours, and consumed the entire thing.
I know who I'd bet on in a hippo-eating contest!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Hi, my name is Benson Pion

Hello all! My name is Benson Pion and this is a blog about how I joined the group as a Fisi camper. The Hyena project is actually one year older than me. I never even thought I could work with the project. How great!

When I was just a young boy and before I joined the project, I would look after cows along the Talek river inside the reserve. But, I would run and hide in the bushes every time I saw Hyena research vehicles. That is because our hyena project cars are mostly land-cruisers, and they closely resemble county council park rangers. I thought it was park rangers coming to punish me! I had no idea that people were studying hyenas here!

The day I arrived, I was welcomed to Fisi camp by two gentlemen named John Keshe and James Kerempe, who work as kitchen and camp maintenance staff. The camp is along Talek river. The tents are spread out under big trees called Fig trees, bicolas shrubs, ever-green trees, and Acacias. All these made it really difficult for me to find camp, until I called James and John to help me find the way. John and James took me around and gave me a brief tour of camp. I enjoyed it and I liked the camp very much.

A few months after, I got a call from James saying that I was welcomed to Fisi camp to work. What an exciting day! When I arrived here for the second time, John had left and it was just James and Joseph working here. Following that, I met a wonderful girl known as Leslie Curren who was a research assistant at that time. She was very friendly and I even learned a little Spanish (pocito espanol!) from her.

My work at that time was to make camp as clean as possible and learn from James and Joseph on how to cook and prepare different meals for research assistants. After a few months, James left. Then it came to a moment that I had to improve my skills and learn quickly to help Joseph on meal preparations. Joseph was pretty new too by then, so we both worked hard.

“Practice makes perfect,” and so I soon became professional on meal preparation (thank goodness!) But, I had always been interested in wildlife studies. So, after a year and a half as a cook, and I began to apply for a field work to study more.

That was the day when I sat down and wrote an application letter to my boss, Kay Holekamp. I applied for a job as a research assistant. I was happy to receive my approval back and I suddenly became a research assistant in June 2011. Thank you to Tracy Montgomery and Brian Lunardi who were research assistants at that time, for a great welcoming to a field of hyenas and teaching me a lot!

Being a cook and being a research assistant are different experiences. Even though I loved cooking meals with Joseph, I enjoyed observing and recording hyena behavior much more because I have a dream of receiving an undergraduate degree in the future, and I thought field work in science would be the first step to gain knowledge.

Since I started observing and recording hyena behavior, I have learned more about wildlife in general. In fact, I have passed wildlife examinations and could teach you a lot about East African birds, mammals, trees, and flowers. So I am happy working in the field because it is giving me a clear view on what to study in the future. 

Let me take you back to my first paragraph. Look at this! Right now, the little boys who look after cows seem to always get scared and run away when they see me driving around looking for hyenas. They think I am a Park ranger on a patrol similar as what I was used to think. What a great life moving forward.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Hippo Banquet

A few days ago, we found an adult hippo dead near a watering hole in Happy Zebra territory. What ensued was many hours of hippo related fun for a group of lions and one and a half groups of hyenas. Below you will find installment #1 of … Hippo Banquet!

Heidi and Spencer first found lions feeding on the hippo carcass on the way back from obs one day. The next evening we went back and found that the lions were still there, munching ineffectually away at the carcass. They hadn’t made much progress on consuming the hippo; bits of the face had been eaten, but aside from that the carcass was nearly completely intact!

24 hours later and we were back at the hippo carcass, only this time the hyenas had found it. The lions still had the carcass in their control, although there was a mountain of hyenas sleeping in the tall grass around the carcass. The lions still hadn't managed to open the carcass, but the putrescent smell indicated that the microbes and invertebrates were succeeding where the lions had failed. We noticed a number of hyenas lift their heads to the breeze and take long sniffs, eyes closed with pleasure. We couldn't share their appreciation for the smell, but the action was such a familiar one that it was hard not to take some vicarious pleasure from watching their expressions. As darkness began to fall, the hyenas all began moving about and showing interest in the carcass, and we hoped that their turn at the table had finally come. 

Two hyenas warily approach the hippo carcass 

As dusk settled in, the hyenas took control of the carcass. The lions had stopped feeding and moved a little ways off, and the hyenas knew the time had come to make their move. The hyenas would begin feeding on the carcass, only to be chased off a few minutes later by the lions. After a while, however, the lions simply gave up. As the lions retreated into the night, dozens of hyenas descended on the carcass.

Unlike the lions, the hyenas appeared to have no problem whatsoever getting the carcass open. Pretty soon all of the hyenas were completely covered in hippo, at which point they all turned the same shade of “hippo-goo brown.” We left after a few hours of observation, but we could see that the hyenas were far from finished…

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Final Countdown

Recently I was visiting the cho (hole in the ground toilet), when I felt a squirming in my sandal. After leaning down and plucking what I thought was a beetle, I realized I had found a rather huge ant with massive mandibles (pincers.) To think it found me when I was most vulnerable. Ah, it’s the little things I’ll miss about Fisi camp!
Luckily it was only one ant that crawled across my foot and not a whole mess of these guys.
So this began my spiral into nostalgia, especially when I also began writing...dare I say last blog entry.

After flinging many used tissues into the trash and brushing away countless tears I decided to just post some pictures. Below are some of the memories that showcase my one year experience with all the Fisi and Fisi friends alike:

Pondering the mysteries of car problems with Benson and Wilson.

Teamwork camp maintenance. 

Helping out on a research project (milk trials for Sarah Jones and Eli Strauss.) Even if there were failed attempts...

For example, when Bonnet kicked her cub (our target individual, who's hiding in the den in this picture) off the milk pile. 

Or when a slender-tailed mongoose distracted the cubs from the milk pile and then jumped in when they left to eat the rest.

Other memories include...

Counting tour cars from the roof of the car twice a month.

Some of us are better at counting than others...

Spotting the spots up in the tree snacking on a kill.

Spotting the spots on the ground, slinking around the Mara plains.

Setting out Agathe's box experiment and crossing our fingers as we waited for the learning to commence.

Jumping, kicking, running around the soccer field.

Transcribing carcass sessions (especially when the hyenas drag the meat into a lugga!)

Holding my breath when Parcheesi was trapped in her natal den, surrounded by a group of eight lions.

Seeing my first and only black rhino in the Mara.

Surprising baby jackals in their den.

Interspecies stare-downs.

Or even watching the sunset with Snaggletooth and her cub Otto.

In conclusion,
Thanks to all for a great year!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science