Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Final farewell

It’s difficult to eloquently sum up the experiences one has after spending a year in a place as magical as the Maasai Mara, and it’s even more difficult to put the feelings one has upon leaving into words. I have many memories I could choose from to answer the question “what was your favorite thing about the past year?”. I could choose between seeing a cheetah tackle an impala at full speed 15 feet from our car, knowing I was one of the first humans Ygritte and Margaery ever saw as they wearily emerged from their natal den for the first time in our presence, driving through herds of thousands of wildebeest and being immersed in their weirdly necrotic smell, having a month long stand-off with a hyena adamant on stealing the socks I used to seal the hole in my tent zippers, the smell of mandazi in the early morning coming from the lodges along the Talek river, the list goes on and on. But if I had to choose, I think I would say my favorite memory from this year would be how the Mara said goodbye to me.
            The morning of my last day in the Mara I was on solo obs, sitting with a group of some of my favorite hyenas; Epic, Gothic, Pisces, Tiramisu, and Baked Alaska. I spent about 10 minutes with them as they came up and investigated the car, chewed the mud flaps, aggressed on each other, and gazed at me curiously with their big, brown eyes. They were so close that I could see my reflection in Pisces’s eyes. The lighting was perfect, each hyena was slightly backlit, the edges of their fur seeming to glow in the morning sun. After they had all simultaneously lost interest in me they started to wander into the nearby bushes. I called out to Epic, hoping to get them to turn around one last time so that I could get a photograph of their face. Epic ignored me, as did everyone else. It was almost like I didn’t exist to them. I watched them with a bit of a heavy heart, their tails swishing to ward off flies, as one by one they got further away from me until they all disappeared into the bushes. And just like they there were gone – the last group of hyenas I would see that morning.
            Initially I was really hurt; being blatantly ignored by some of your favorite animals on your last morning isn’t an easy thing to stomach. I wanted to leave them on my own accord, not the other way around. I sat there alone for about a minute, my voice cracking as I recorded their location into my DVR. After I stopped the track I was hit with a totally different feeling, a feeling of thankfulness, appreciation, and deep humility. How lovely is it that in the end, I mean nothing to the animals I’ve come to care about and love so much? How lovely is it that my presence, or lack thereof, has absolutely zero impact on how they conduct their daily lives? These animals, while they are habituated to our presence, are wonderfully wild, and have every right in the world to remain that way – and nothing I do should change that. While we are all supposed to be researchers emotionally removed from the animals we study, I know it’s difficult for all of us to not become emotionally attached and begin to view these animals as a little less than wild as a result. It happens to all of us whether we want to admit it or not. I think we all want to believe that they begin to see us as more than a weird, hairless, ape (if it even goes that far) attached to a loud metal tank that routinely comes to hang out uninvited at their house.
            But the reality of it is, while my leaving the Mara will mean so much to me and be a defining moment of my life, my leaving the Mara will mean absolutely nothing to her or her inhabitants. Life there will go on unchanged. The hyenas will not miss me, and while I’ll remember them for years to come, the chances they’ll even remember me in a month are slim to none. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m so thankful to the Mara for the final lesson she taught me and the way she decided to bid me farewell. Without this project, and the last five years I’ve spent with it, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to experience that, and for that I’m extremely grateful. I couldn’t have asked to spend my last five years with a more intelligent, wonderful, and determined group of people and wouldn’t be who I am now without everything they've taught me. Saying that leaving the Mara and leaving the project has been a bittersweet emotional roller-coaster would be a dramatic understatement. While I have absolutely zero clue what I’m doing next, whatever ends up happening, I’ll be taking everything I’ve learned in the past five years with me to wherever I end up.

Thank you to everyone, human and hyena alike, for everything.

I love you all.

Atacama, Epic, and Gothic. While Atacama wasn't there my last morning, she's too important to leave out. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Who cares about hyenas? Aren't you bored of them?

Anyone out there enjoy people watching? Me too (Disney World is the best place for this FYI). I’m now an avid hyena watcher as well.

A bunch of cubs...people watching.
This morning I was hanging out with five hyenas, SAMI, SLIM, TOBA, HONR, and PALA, and had a moment (or ten) of complete and utter gratitude.

All the time people ask me, why hyenas? Don’t you get so bored watching them day after day?

It was 6:15am when I stumbled upon this group of five. SAMI (a hyena who I feel knows me personally) immediately came up to investigate the car. TOBA joined her for the car investigation. I watched as TOBA acted submissive to SAMI, pulling her ears back and grinning as she approached. TOBA used to be one of the highest rankers in the clan until her mother, the matriarch, died. SAMI then walked over to her mother, PALA, to engage in a traditional hyena greet. The two of them, joined by TOBA, then aggressed onto HONR, the lowest ranking female of the bunch, who squealed and backed off. SLIM, an immigrant male, ran away after that...probably scared he’d be next. I recorded all of this into my DVR. They then all sacked out...besides SAMI who tried to chew on the car. We sat together and watched the sunrise. I felt so grateful.

A coalition bristle tail stand-over onto an individual who
ears back grins and carpal crawls in submission.
It’s an incredible thing to witness a hyena mother step in to assist her cub who is getting beaten up by a lower ranking hyena and show him his rank. It’s really neat to watch 12-week old babies, who have learned their rank, beat up on 8-year-old moms. Just the other day an adult female, MDRK, blissfully walked up to the den only to be instantly attacked by five tiny cubs. These babies didn't hesitate for a second before they were on her with bristle tail points, lunges, snaps, and even a few bite shakes. I smiled because I knew their mothers taught them they could and should act in this way.

But it’s not all so black and white. There are some hyenas I rarely see aggress onto anyone. The old matriarch of North clan, WAFL, was one of the most peaceful ever. Contrast her with PIKE, matriarch of Happy Zebra clan, who is a stone-cold b****, to be frank. Some cubs are the same size, like SGL’s babies, RBG and NSH, indicating they nurse pretty equally, while baby NAUT is about half the size of ARGO, indicating ARGO beats up NAUT pretty good when it comes time to nurse. SAMI and ROUG are some of the most curious hyenas I’ve come across -- always running up to the car to look me in the eye before nibbling on the front bumper. LOBI, my absolute favorite hyena, has taken it upon herself to be the guard of North den. Whenever someone new arrives she walks over and rustles them up a bit before escorting them to the den. I always feel a little bad for the immigrant males who try to come around because LOBI scares them off before they get anywhere near.
KRAB (a north clan cub) is very aggressive to her sibling RNTN.
When I first came out here, I wasn’t already head over heels for spotted hyenas (a reason I came was because it is an opportunity to return to the African savanna and study a large carnivore—a very rare opportunity). Now, I’m 100% here for these bizarre matriarchal creatures that exhibit amazingly complex social networks and intelligence, not to mention their remarkable immune resistance. In how many species do you have a female who has evolved to be more aggressive/larger than her male counterpart while also being a completely devoted mother to cubs that require intense care? I watch mothers that just single handedly took down a large antelope get on her back and roll around with a six-week-old cub.
It is a miraculous thing to be let into the world of another species. So the easy answer is, no, I’m never bored when I’m hanging out with hyenas. Over the past eight months I’ve built such a relationship with these weirdos. Hyena culture is so rich and multifaceted – always something going on, something changing.

So, I sat this morning with a full heart, feeling so small in the world with the thoughts swirling in my mind of all the complex societies that exist all around us, and thankful to those five silly hyenas for the reminder.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Over and Out

It's been just about one month since I've left the Mara and my heart is heavy. But it's also full. I've had time to reflect on what this last year has brought me and to say that I'm overwhelmed is an understatement. I've met countless awe-inspiring people that have motivated me to aim high and work hard, taught me that it's never too late to try new things and start new hobbies, challenged me with thoughtful, engaging, and wonderfully complex conversations, and most of all provided me with lifetime friendships. Two such people are my co-research assistants for the year, Jessica and Erin (pictured below). I can't imagine this experience without them.

Enjoying the views from a popular picnic location in the Mara Triangle Conservancy (Pictured from left: Erin Weingarten, Katherine Steinfield, Jessica Gunson)
At Kichwa Tembo Lodge to give a presentation on spotted hyenas (Pictured from left: Katherine Steinfield, Jessica Gunson, Erin Weingarten)

Before moving to the remote Serena camp, I was preparing for the level of social isolation that usually goes hand in hand with living in a camp of six people. But in fact, I was welcomed with open arms into the Mara Triangle community where I had the privilege of meeting my amazing Fisi Camp family, fellow researchers, rangers and park management, local lodge staff, safari guides, photographers, film crews, and even tourists, all from different backgrounds but sharing one thing in common: our love for wildlife. Through these friendships, I honed my photography skills, I practiced Swahili at the conversational level, I learned so much about the various cultures and ethnic groups that call Kenya home, I became an amateur birder, and I had the pleasure of accompanying several of these individuals at their places of work to learn more about how a wildlife conservancy functions. For all of these "once in a lifetime experiences," I am eternally grateful.

However, nothing fills me with more gratitude for my year than the time I spent with the hyenas. When we tell people what we do, it's usually met with disbelief that we could be studying such an unpopular species, and generally we get made fun of a lot for our outspoken and undying love of hyenas... but holy cow! They. Are. Cool. Not every researcher can say they get to see their study species up close and personal not once, but TWICE daily. If you follow this blog, I'm sure you're aware of many spectacular hyena facts. But let me list a couple of my favorites. Hyenas are so incredibly intelligent! They can understand each clan member's rank in a strict linear hierarchy sometimes reaching over a hundred individuals. As Emily recently shared, mothers will go through hell to raise their cubs (giving birth through their pseudo phallus, painstakingly nursing their young all day, carefully teaching them the entirety of their territory, guarding their cub's place at the carcass while they eat, all the while keeping them out of harms way). And last but not least, they can eat virtually anything (so jealous). My last morning spent at the North clan den was bittersweet but it's time for the next round of research assistants to have the most amazing year!

While leaving the Hyena Project is hard, I'm looking forward to the future. I managed to avoid the polar vortex for another year and have happily accepted a position continuing work in a Savannah ecosystem in central Kenya. Cheers to an unforgettable year, and another fantastic one to come! I'll leave you with some of my favorite photos of the famous "Ugly Five" because if we're being honest, these guys are the cutest.
Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)
Blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)
Marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer)
Rüppell's griffon vulture (Gyps rueppelli) and African white-backed vulture  (Gyps africanus)
Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

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