Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Jambo from Kayla Fowler!


Jambo! My name is Kayla Fowler, and I’m here to tell you a little bit about the time I spent this past semester with the Mara Hyena Project.

I always knew I wanted to work with animals. Living in Chicago meant frequent trips to Brookfield Zoo, and I would spend the entire day just watching the animals do what they do (sorry Mom and Dad I know you probably didn’t want to spend an hour watching the zebras!). I grew to love and appreciate the animals, especially large mammals, and it became my dream to see these incredible species in the wild. In high school, I wanted to become more involved with Brookfield Zoo, so I joined their King Conservation Science Scholars program. Through the program, I was able to participate in some pretty amazing opportunities, including a week-long field research experience with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program in Sarasota, Florida. That trip sparked my passion for animal behavior research, and as high school was drawing to a close, I directed my college search toward universities where I could continue to explore that passion. And that’s how I ended up at Michigan State!

At MSU, I am majoring in Zoology with a concentration in Animal Behavior and
Neurobiology, with additional minors in both Documentary Production and Spanish. My goal is to one day combine everything I’ve learned to produce nature documentaries and other conservation-focused educational materials in a variety of languages. I started working with Dr. Kay Holekamp (you know who she is...) in January 2022, helping her compile data from research papers on the density and feeding ecology of spotted hyenas across Africa, and editing chapters of a book she is writing. I was so interested by what I was learning and wanted to get more involved in the animal behavior analysis, so I reached out asking how I could get more involved. (To be clear I was envisioning myself reviewing videos of hyena behavior and helping analyze that data.). She took me completely by surprise and responded with an offer to spend my spring semester at the Mara Hyena Project’s field lab in Kenya. I was ecstatic! As only a sophomore, it was an absolute (and unexpected) dream come true.

I spent four months at the Project’s Serena Camp with Jana Woerner (who many of you already know from previous blog posts), and I can confidently say that the experience changed my life. Waking up every morning and being surrounded by such an incredible diversity of untouched nature and wildlife was a gift, and the work was so fun to be a part of (...although I could have done without mashing up stinky fecal samples. Yuck!). I worked with Jana to do the regular behavioral observations that the Project is responsible for year-round, and was also lucky enough to help with a special collaring project (which you can read about in the previous post) with the hyenas in South Clan.

Beyond that, I was able to take a couple of different brief trips to see other parts of Kenya, and was just stunned by the beauty everywhere I went. I’ve included some of my favorite moments from the experience below I already miss it and can’t wait to go back! For now, I’ve returned to the States and will continue my studies at Michigan State in the fall. I will be continuing to work virtually with the Mara Hyena Project and hope to be back in Kenya sometime very soon.

At the risk of sounding like a long-winded Oscars speech, I’d like to thank a few people before I end this post:

First, Dr. Kay Holekamp thank you. Thank you for offering me this once-in-a-lifetime experience, and for trusting me, supporting me, and encouraging me to follow my dreams. Thank you for being such a role model in the field of conservation and research, and for paving the way for students like me to follow in your footsteps. You are an inspiration. It has been such an honor to work with you, and I’m looking forward to what next year brings.

Jana Woerner what can I say? You were the best research mentor and field buddy I could have asked for. Thank you for putting up with my ridiculous excitement at seeing all the animals (I promise, you’ll never have to stop for another impala for me again) and for being so supportive of my passions for photography and film (I know you didn’t want to spend 10 minutes with lions or a random elephant, but thanks for sticking it out). Thank you for all the uncontrollable laughs, your guidance and advice, and being such a good friend. I’m not sure what I would have done without you!

Thanks especially to Dr. Eli Strauss, Dr. Andy Gersick, and Dr. Frants Havmand Jensen, for all your insights into field research, conservation, and academia I learned so much from you all during your time in camp and I look forward to continue working with all of you! Whenever I think of our hilarious conversations at dinner or the unfortunate situations we got ourselves into (like fishing a hyena collar out of a den), it always makes me smile.

Thank you to everyone who made me feel so at home during my time in Kenya. It can be isolating to live in a remote research camp, so I deeply appreciated the time we got to spend with these individuals and more. Thank you to Brian and Sue Heath, for graciously hosting us for dinners and taking us out on game drives; to Benson Pion and Junior Pion, for always cracking me up at the drop-offs and being such great friends and co-workers; to our guys Philimon, Moses, and Stephen for everything you do for us and Serena Camp (I’ll always remember the special birthday cake you made for me you guys are the best!); to the Talek staff Joseph, Samwell, and Chief for always being so kind; to Warden Alfred Bett, Rakita, and Benson Ketere, for giving us some incredible sightings (including my first leopard, my first cheetah, and Risasi and her cubs); to Aruasa David, for the laughs and fun times over dinner and drinks; to Jake Wall (Mara Elephant Project) and his family Christina, Willow, and Wolf for being so kind and welcoming, and for being so receptive to my interest in MEP’s research; to Shachar Gelbart, for his hospitality and giving us such cool experiences with the balloon safaris; to Lenaipa Daniel Losieku, Robert Lemaiyan, and our ranger for making my time at Sarara Camp in Samburu so unforgettable; and especially to the groups that we had the pleasure of talking to throughout my time in Kenya your interest in the Mara Hyena Project was so appreciated and we loved answering your questions!

Signing off for now
nitarudi tena! (I will come back again).

Tiny Kayla was always so happy to see the zebras at Brookfield Zoo!

One of my all-time favorite moments darting KNIN (South Clan) to remove her collar. I was so excited!

LORI, a South Clan cub, having a photoshoot moment.

The sunsets in the Maasai Mara are just so beautiful!

The sunsets in the Maasai Mara are just so beautiful! We were so lucky to see a newborn Thomson’s gazelle as it took its first steps.
Lots of cubs at the Happy Zebra den!
Lots of cubs at the Happy Zebra den! We were able to see Risasi and her cubs during a controlled burn, which made for a stunning backdrop.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science