Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Serena Team

Hi all,

As you may know, I’m currently the only research assistant in Serena camp. However, this doesn’t mean that I’m alone out here, so I figured it was time to introduce the team that makes hyena research possible in the Triangle:

Philimon, Moses, and Stephen

A couple weeks ago, I was on a video call with my mother when she asked me if it was worth giving up all the comforts of life in the States to study hyenas in a remote research camp. The answer: absolutely! But more importantly, I don’t actually feel like I had to give anything up (besides hot showers). Why? Philimon, Moses, and Stephen. Affectionally referred to as “the guys,” they make sure that camp life runs smoothly, and that I can focus on my research without having to worry too much about camp upkeep. Usually by the time I notice an issue, they’re already fixing it. And they absolutely spoil me while I’m out here! When Philimon realized last year that I only like bananas and red apples whereas Lila only likes mango and green apples, he started making us separate fruit bowls. When I accidentally got the Cruiser stuck in a big puddle on our driveway while heading out on obs, the guys immediately filled the entire puddle with rocks. By the next afternoon, every single puddle on the driveway was filled with rocks (to allow for traction in the mud). Last month, Philimon realized that I never eat the bottom crust of our burger buns (something about the texture, don’t judge) – since then, he’s been cutting it off beforehand… I honestly have so many stories of how the guys go above and beyond to take care of me!

Moses, Stephen, and Philimon (from left to right) with Matthew and I on our last night in camp before the pandemic.


Benson is the long-term research assistant for Talek Camp, and boy, are we lucky to have him on the team! During the pandemic, Benson was in charge of both camps, all Nairobi trips, training new Kenyan assistants, and so much more… all while taking classes to finish his degree. Whew! Even now, Benson is a huge help to Serena camp. I text him almost everyday with questions, concerns, shopping lists (with the pandemic, we can no longer get fuel, vegetables, or eggs in Serena, so we meet frequently to exchange supplies), etc. and he always tries his best to help me.

Benson with Abby (former Talek RA) and I on my very first Nairobi trip.


Need to be towed from the middle of nowhere at 6 on a Saturday morning? Stuck in a big hole in the middle of a swamp? Weird noise coming from your car? Lerijin is your guy! As the head mechanic in Serena, Lerijin knows Cruisers inside and out, so he can fix most of our car issues pretty quickly. He’s usually the first guy I text in the morning and the last guy I text at night. Although our texts are the (slightly) less romantic “Hi, can you fix this?”, “Yes, come over after breakfast” version.

Lerijin and his guys installing a new u-bolt after our old one broke while out on obs in South.


Geemi is my favorite neighbor out here! He’s also my only neighbor out here, but that’s beside the point. As the main researcher for Yale’s Maji Camp (Water Research Camp), Geemi has plenty of experience living (and driving) in the Mara. He’s the first guy we call when we need help freeing the Cruiser. When Lila and I were still relatively new to the Mara last summer, we somehow managed to get the Cruiser stuck in a lugga. Really stuck. Geemi came immediately and helped us look for rocks, dig out our tires, and push the car for almost two hours. That morning was actually the first time I met Geemi and we had some great conversations while driving around in his Land Rover in search of some rocks. Although we ended up having to call Lerijin for help (who pulled us out in less than 5 minutes!), Geemi has gotten us unstuck multiple times since then.

No picture for Geemi since we’re usually too busy collecting rocks and digging through mud!


The man who allows all of this to happen in the first place: Brian is the CEO of the Mara Conservancy, which manages the Mara Triangle. Although Brian loves to refer to the hyenas as “vile creatures,” he always sends me adorable videos of his hyena encounters, lets me put up trail cameras wherever I want to track hyenas, and even tried to burn Happy Zebra’s territory for me earlier this week. Unfortunately, it was a little too wet for a good burn, but I’m hoping that the new growth will finally lure some prey back into their territory (most of the Happy Zebrans I’ve seen so far seem to be struggling right now). Plus, Sue, Brian’s wife, is in the Triangle full-time while Nairobi is in lockdown which means lots of delicious dinners at their place, game drives, and other social events.

Game drives with Brian always include a stop for some good chai and baked goods.


KAS may not be a person, but I generally spend six hours with her every day, so she’s one of my most important coworkers. Tall grass, rocks, holes, buffalo wallows, swamps, curious hyena cubs… KAS has to deal with a lot in Serena. And she handles it like a pro.

KAS after off-roading through South territory for 2 hours.

Honorable mention: Lila

In case you haven’t noticed yet, not only am I the only American out here, but I’m also the only girl out here right now. Luckily, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and WhatsApp let me talk to Lila (my old co-RA) pretty frequently. Although she is currently finishing her Masters’ in Ireland, she knows about *everything* that happens in Serena camp and always lets me spam her with adorable hyena content, helps me with naming the new cubs, and listens to my venting sessions. She’s currently working on returning to Africa (potential field work in South Africa for her Masters, a job interview later this week for a position in Tanzania, and hopefully a visit to Fisi camp to relive our glory days) so send her some good juju.

Weekly Dose of the Mara

Master of disguise - I accidentally drove right past him the first time.

A jackal perusing the dinner menu before deciding against the monitor lizard special.

TWO LEOPARD CUBS! Unfortunately they ran into the thicket as soon as I pulled up.

High quality sighting, low quality pictures.

A jackal and fox fighting over access to a mound (I think... I only study hyena behavior).

After lots of hissing and growling, they decided to share the mound.

Mating lions - he was ready to go again, she was not.

Family portrait before the new babies arrive.

Pretty bird! One day I'll actually ID all of my bird pictures.

TULA (Tarantula) crossing from Happy Zebra into North to take advantage of all the prey hanging out in the area that Brian burned last month. 

BILJ (Billie Jean) relaxing in North.

Finally a good leopard picture! Spotted while out with Stratton, a fellow researcher who works with martial eagles and other raptors.

One of Stratton's martial eagles.

More lions...

FOXE, Waffles' surviving cub, chewing on an old plant stem. He loves playing with FIVE, who's now visibly smaller than him despite being ~2 months older.

ZIMU stopped by the communal den the other day to say hi to his mother, JUDE (Hey Jude), and younger sister, JARO. Liz had lots of fun playing with him.

Like mother, like daughter. LIZ knows how to get comfortable at the den.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

North Cubs!

Hi all,

One of the best parts of this job is the opportunity to get to know the individual hyenas. Since we spend a lot of time at the communal dens, we get to see the different personalities of all the cubs – and after a while, we also get to know the moms, subadults, and males within each clan. There are even a couple of hyenas in each clan that we can identify based on their ~vibes~. Of course, “vibes” are not very scientific so we always confirm IDs with spot patterns, but 99.9% of the time, the lone male standing 30m away from the communal den in Happy Zebra, staring wistfully at all the cubs he could potentially befriend if females weren’t so scary is NYC, the old lady sleeping without a care in the world for the entire obs session at the North den is WAFL, and the stocky mom excitedly approaching the car in South is SAMI. Since I only have the North communal den right now, I wanted to share some of the personalities in the current cohort of cubs:

SAMI saying hi to the hyena research team (aka me) this morning!

ARIA – Bulgaria, daughter of CHOW (Clam Chowder)

ARIA’s unofficial cub name was Trouble – for a reason. Within five minutes of pulling up to the communal den on my first day back in the Mara, ARIA was already chewing on the Cruiser. The other cubs were still looking around vigilantly, ready to dive into the den hole at any moment in case of danger. She also loves the saliva stick (we collect saliva from cubs for DNA and hormone analysis) and wouldn’t let any of the other cubs near it at the beginning. However, although ARIA is the biggest and highest-ranking cub at the den, she has been behaving rather submissively over the past couple of weeks. CHOW always interferes on her behalf if one of the lower ranking cubs or mothers aggresses onto her, but when CHOW is not at the den, even little FIVE will successfully aggress onto her. Quite strange!

LIZ – Dr. Liz Wilson, daughter of GARF (Garfield)

LIZ is GARF’s first cub and she’s a little spoiled in the motherhood department. Not only is GARF at the den most of the time, but her aunt MUTT also loves to stop by to hang out with her (although MUTT can get a little pesky at times, especially when she wants to play with LIZ while LIZ is trying to nurse). Personality wise, LIZ is one of the more cautious cubs at the den – I pulled up to the den a few weeks ago, and her right ear had a big tear in it (no worries, GARF fussed over her all night to ensure that she was okay and the tear is healing nicely). Since then, she’s been sticking a little closer to the den hole and her mom than the other cubs.

JARO – Jaro, daughter of JUDE (Hey Jude)

JARO is cheeky! JUDE is honestly one of my favorite moms in North – she did a great job with RBYE and AVIV last year (two of my favorites from their cohort) and JARO is always plump. Nonetheless, JARO takes any chance she can get and will try to nurse from GARF as often as possible. Usually GARF will aggress onto her within a second or two, but sometimes she can nurse for 10+ seconds before GARF realizes that it’s her and not LIZ nursing. JARO also loves the saliva stick and is content chewing on the rope for 20-30 minutes at a time (we usually hope that cubs will chew on it for 1-2 minutes so that we get enough saliva).

LBRA – The Body in the Library, son of CLEV (Clever Girl)

LBRA is the dominant cub in CLEV’s current litter. As one of the lower ranking moms in the clan, it seems like CLEV doesn’t like to spend a lot of time at the den. The other moms will usually aggress onto her when she shows up, so she rarely does. However, this means that her cubs are struggling. Even when CLEV is at the den, she’ll stand around or sit at an awkward angle, meaning that LBRA and FIVE have to nurse while standing or wriggle their way towards CLEV’s nipples.

FIVE – Five Little Pigs, daughter of CLEV (Clever Girl)

FIVE – poor, little FIVE! I love to root for an underdog, and FIVE is definitely one of them. As the dominant cub, LBRA still manages to nurse enough to grow bigger. At this point, however, FIVE is smaller than FOXE (Waffles’ cub who is two months younger than her). It’s not uncommon for the submissive cub to be smaller than the dominant cub (ARGO and NAUT in Happy Zebra and BCKT and GOOB in North also had very considerable size differences last year) and FIVE may still make it to adulthood. She does strike me as a survivor as she has a streak of feistiness in her – I’ve seen her aggress onto ARIA quite a few times. Best of luck, little one!

Your weekly dose of the Mara:

Still lots of lion sightings!

A jackal surveying his freshly burned home.

Munch munch.

A European Roller - I think??? Lila and Matthew were the birders....

Right before a baboon chased it away!

Have I mentioned that there are a lot of lion sightings right now?

GAZR doing what males do best: awkwardly standing at the edge of the communal den.

Last night's sunset over Happy Zebra territory.

Bat-eared foxes always look either incredibly goofy or incredibly grumpy.

A rare sighting of a serval that's not completely hidden in the tall grass.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science