Thursday, March 12, 2020

An ode to Lila...

Hi all,

Contrary to the picture above, it’s a sad, sad time in Serena Camp right now… After spending ten months together, my co-RA Lila is heading back home. During our time together, Lila has taught me a lot, including what lion paw prints look like (they were actually hippo prints) and how to sex zebras (she showed me a “female” zebra that weirdly enough had a fifth leg?). Unfortunately, she did not teach me how to write poems, so please enjoy this list of 5 things I wouldn’t want to do with anybody else instead of a thoughtful ode:

1. Create a free judgment zone. Ever heard of Planet Fitness? Well, we decided to take the opposite approach. From questionable hygiene, to even more questionable fashion choices (patterns on patterns on patterns) to mumbled sentences that made absolutely no sense at 5 in the morning, we always found something to judge (in an affectionate way).

2. Get lost while accidentally off-roading in the Mara. It was a beautiful day in the Mara, so two young researchers set out in their Maruti to rediscover old tracks that were lost during the rains. “This looks like the track we’re looking for, let’s check it out!” said one of the young researchers (note: it wasn’t me). “Sounds like a great idea,” I replied. It was not a great idea. At one point, we accidentally started following an animal track that looked like it was a part of the track. Needless to say, by the time we had realized our mistake, we were already hopelessly lost in the middle of grass that was taller than the top of our Maruti. Luckily, we slowly found our way back to the track, using a clump of three bushes to orient ourselves (after frantically texting Matthew to come rescue us).

3. Eat pasta every other day. Much to my dismay, Erin, the senior RA who was in camp when I first got here, was having some stomach issues and tried to avoid pasta as much as possible. This meant that we usually had rice, beans/lentils, and vegetables for dinner during my first month. However, Lila and I went a little crazy once we were alone in camp; at our lowest point, we had pasta for dinner 4 or 5 times in one week... Since then, we had to make a conscious effort to limit our pasta intake to every other night (although Matthew swiftly got us back on track with lots of rice, beans, and veggies, much to the gratitude of my own body). 

4. Become identical replicas of each other. It all started when Lila found some scrap pieces of fabric in our lab tent and decided to get some pants made by our local Fundi (Swahili for tailor). Shortly after, I also decided to have clothes made at the Fundi, and soon Lila was buying tons of fabric for the both of us in Nairobi. Then, Lila decided that she’ll go to Ethiopia and Egypt for her vacation. Shortly after, I also decided to go there. Then, Lila decided to get a hyena-related tattoo. Shortly after, I also decided to get a hyena-related tattoo (she got an entire spotted hyena skeleton, I got four paw prints). Then… well, I think you get the gist by now… Not only can we complete each other’s sentences at this point, but we can actually say the exact same sentence at the exact same time, stopping at the exact same time half-way through to look at each other before continuing on at the exact same time. If synchronized speaking was a sport, we’d be winners.

5. Exercise the power of veto. This one ties back a little to number 1. When you’re stuck in a secluded research camp with only one other person for 10+ months, it’s important to nip annoying behavior in the bud. This means that Lila will quickly veto all of my original nicknames for the hyenas (Gin-gin is barely acceptable for GINI, but I’m no longer allowed to refer to WSKY as Whisk-whisk). Meanwhile, Lila is no longer allowed to dance awkwardly while sitting at the lab table.

Good luck with your transition back into real society, Lila. May your hair always be clean, your conversations always revolve around “normal” topics, and your wine glass always be full.

Lila when she realized that she’ll never have a coworker as cool as her current one... unless... see you in Antarctica??

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Rain Rain Go Away, We Want to Get Out Again Some Day

Back in 2016 I participated in the Behavioral Ecology of African Mammals study abroad course at Michigan State University. That was the time I knew that I had to come back to Kenya. I had to experience more than just three weeks of the beautiful scenery and lands that Kenya had to offer, specifically the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Now, as I write this, I have been in Kenya for nine months. Within the past nine months I have experienced lion-hyena interactions, hyena kills, rhino sightings, leopards mating, lions mating, hyenas mating, a clan split, the Great Migration, clan wars, many new hyena babies, and a whole lot of rain.

Below you will read about some of most vivid experiences that I will remember forever.

October 9th, 2019 – Lions and Talek West
It was a normal morning of observations, where we get up and leave at 5:30am, drive to one of our clan’s dens, and then go explore that clan’s territory. When it was time to go back to camp for breakfast, we had a surprise waiting for us. We were about to cross one of our most used crossings, “15 Years Crossing,” when all of a sudden, we heard multiple giggles and whoops coming from our Talek West Clan. We sped down “Hyena Highway” and to our amazement, we saw 5 lions (2 lionesses and 3 subadult males) pacing back and forth, and multiple members of the Talek West Clan circling these lions. This was my first lion-hyena session to transcribe and I was racing with adrenaline. The lions had an old wildebeest carcass in the bushes and the Talek West Clan were denning about 200 meters away. There were cubs at the den, and when lions are close, this can be very dangerous. Due to interspecies competition, lions will kill hyenas. An interaction was bound to happen, with lions on a carcass and being too close to the hyena den.

The interaction began with one hyena whooping to call for the others, and within seconds all the clan members came running from many directions. The hyenas began to form a coalition and mob the lions, approaching with bristle tails and giggling. By this time, our hyenas were trying to obtain the old carcass and push the lions away from the area. Two more subadult male lions came to join the fun, but they just walked around the area slowly, being careful of the hyenas. At one point in the session several hyenas mobbed at the lions and they responded by growling and roaring. When this session was all said and done, one hyena CRST* was left with the last piece of the wildebeest carcass, the spinal cord. The lions slowly walked away to go lie down and nap for the day. The rest of the Talek West Clan scattered to go back to the den to be with the cubs. This busy session only lasted for about 30 minutes and once it ended, we drove back to camp to go about our own daily routines.

When the rains started
On November 19th, 2019 the rains began. We were stuck in camp for about four weeks because the Mara landscape had too much water and mud. When it rains we do not want to be out in the field and damage the habitat with tracks from the land cruisers, and we do not want to get our cruisers stuck in the black cotton mud. The days we can’t drive into the field, we do a variety of chores in camp. We will inventory supplies, help our staff clean camp, make sure that the tents in camp are protected from rain, do accounting, and will print off updated pictures of the hyenas. We will study hyena pictures to memorize spot patterns and when we have any down time, we will color and listen to podcasts.

We were able to get back into the field again in the beginning of January. Once we drove into the field, we noticed a whole change of scenery. The rains have caused the grasses to grow to the height of the hood of our cruisers. It has been difficult to find some of the hyenas and their dens, but we were on the search. Our Pond Clan had a large baby boom while we were away and we now have 10 new cubs to keep track of. Sadly, the rains are still occurring on and off, but we attempt to get out whenever we are able to.

January 25th, 2020 was a night we were able to get out to the field, and we were not disappointed. Although it was sprinkling a bit, we were optimistic about going to the field. I was driving and Tori Hanley, my coRA, was transcribing. I was heading to Nairobi the next morning, so two Serena Ras, Matthew McBride and Lili Afifi, were along with us for obs. We were on our way back to camp when we spotted some hyena friends near a landmark called Croton Island (an area of bushes made of Croton bushes). KNOT**, LYON***, and CLEE****.

We noticed more hyenas were walk arriving from the South, with being stuck in camp for multiple weeks, we were thrilled to finally see our Talek West Clan again. All of a sudden, we see this darkly spotted hyena sprinting after a Thomson’s Gazelle. It was raining hard at this point but we had to see what was going to happen. CLEE saw this darkly spotted hyena and started to lope after it and help with the hunt. Finally, this darkly spotted hyena slowed down the Thomson’s Gazelle and was able to catch it. This hyena was CHLD*****, a subadult hyena. CLEE was right by CHLD’s side eating dinner when MDSA******, an adult female came along to join the fun. She took this kill from CHLD and CLEE, and ate it for herself. Higher ranking females will obtain the food for themselves, even if they don’t make the kill. This was an experience I will never forget. Watching CHLD run down this gazelle at full speed, was incredible. We had to head back home due to heavy rains but the Mara will always give us a treat when we are able to get out to the field.

Hopeful with good spirits
I have a few more months in the Maasai Mara, and to say that I am emotional would be an understatement. The staff, my coRAs Benson and Tori, have become my family. I am soaking in every moment I have left here, whether we are able to get out to the field or not. These past nine months have been magical, with ups, downs, and all arounds, I have fallen in love with the country of Kenya and its magic. Here is to my last few months in the Maasai Mara National Reserve!

Image may contain: grass, sky, outdoor and nature
This was taken at Lucky Leopard Den in Pond territory. This a normal occurrence at these dens, a bundle of cubs and few adults lounging around.

Image may contain: sky and outdoor
I was on solo obs back in January, when I came across this leopard sitting in a tree.  

Image may contain: sky, nature and outdoor
An elephant making his way through the Maasai Mara landscape

*CRST = Cristo Rendentor
**KNOT = Knot
****LYON = Lyon
*****CLEE = Cleveland
******CHLD = Child's pose
*******MDSA = Medusazoa

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science