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A Living Nightmare

I just got back from Blanket’s necropsy. I’m not sure how to communicate exactly what happened or how I feel because the details of both those things are still a little hazy right now. Blanket is the fourth hyena since the beginning of April who has been killed by poisoning. Idi, Honey, and Endor were all poisoned while Julie and I were on our trip to Lamu, but this is a new poisoning event, and this one happened inside the park, not all that far from the den.

 

Hadley and Benson found Blanket dead at the end of obs this morning. He had a sticky pink substance coming out of his anus, and was bleeding from his mouth, nose and eyes. When they brought his body back to camp, it looked like he was crying blood. The necropsy was fascinating in a very awful way; whatever they used to poison him was a disturbingly potent substance. The flies that landed on Blanket began to die, littering the ground around him with their twitching bodies. His internal organs, especially the liver, were discolored, and had a blotchy, irritated look to them. The inside of his stomach contained the remains of a calf that looked like it had been doused in a pink substance akin to pepto bismol, though it had a decidedly less friendly effect. We’re all still in shock. We haven’t been able to find the carcass that was poisoned, and we know that the casualties will probably include a lot more than just this one subadult.

 

In retrospect, maybe I should have seen this coming—hyena-human conflict only seems to have intensified since I’ve been here. But this isn’t something you anticipate. The sheer idiocy of a poisoning event crosses the line from retaliation for livestock predation into the realm of recklessly dangerous stupidity. Historically, it’s probably the most destructive thing a single person can do to in one instance to an entire hyena clan, yet most people here know better than to try. This is because poison is indiscriminant and creates a huge amount of collateral damage.

 

When a poisoning happens, it usually occurs after a hyena has killed a cow. The herder chases the hyenas away, puts poison on the carcass, and then leaves it for the hyenas to finish. However, any poison strong enough to kill multiple hyenas is strong enough to kill basically any other living thing (keep in mind that hyenas are able to shake off black mamba bites, diseases like anthrax or rabies, and wounds that would easily be fatal on other animals). Usually, when a carcass is poisoned, it kills scores of hyenas, a few lions, lots of jackals and vultures, and even domestic dogs. What is even more concerning is that the flies that died around Blanket clearly demonstrate that the poison remains deadly even after it is consumed, which means that it can spread secondarily to an even broader swath of the ecosystem. To add another level of concern, when an animal is poisoned, it seeks out water to drink. This means that they can also spread the poison to an aquatic ecosystem, which in an area where most people get their drinking water from rivers could actually end up harming humans as well. The probable and potential effects of a poisoning event are extremely serious and disturbingly wide reaching.

 

This isn’t even considering the fact that any substance that is that deadly is also almost certainly illegal, or that whoever is using it is probably a local herder, which means they probably have a large family and lots of small children without a safe place to store deadly chemicals. And then there is also the concern for those of us who have to handle the contaminated carcasses—both Benson and Wilson, who are usually fairly cavalier about safety precautions, were very concerned about the possibility of us being exposed to the poison while doing the necropsy. But even without these side notes, the basic idea is that poisoning events are very serious, not just for hyenas, but for any living thing that comes into contact with it, even secondarily.

 

This is a concern that is shared by Kenya Wildlife Services and most local community members. I asked Benson and Wilson about the last time a poisoning occurred some time around 2010, and they said that when KWS found the man who did it, they put him in jail and fined him 500,000 Kenyan shillings (almost $6,000), which is enough to pay for a car, a dowry, or 50 calves.

 

***

 

The widening circle of effect from the poison is turning into a nightmare. Just a few hours after I sat down to write about Blanket, we got a call about more dead hyenas. I had been hoping we might get a day or so before other bodies turned up, or that maybe the calf in Blanket’s stomach was too small to kill many others, but there’s practically no way to kill only one animal with poison.

 

In the car, we all expressed some of our feelings about the situation. Benson said that the local people here should be the stewards of the reserve, not trying to destroy it. It seems clear to me that they don’t feel as though they are benefitting from the reserve if they are taking such drastic actions. However, Wilson made a very good point that what the people should do instead of killing animals is demonstrate in front of the gate and demand that the park revenue be distributed more fairly (something that has happened in other areas of Kenya with what sounds like a surprising amount of success). Hadley cautioned that the people here may not have the education to know that they have a right to demand benefits. It’s still unclear to all of us whether whoever did this fully understood the repercussions of their actions. On the one hand, previous poisonings have been big news that most people would have heard about, but on the other hand, they still might not know that even a small amount of poison can have such giant effects because of the way that ecosystems work.

 

As we drove towards the area where Hadley and Benson found Blanket, we kept an eye out for any dead animals. Then we saw a strange shape in a tree, a tangle of cream-colored wings sticking out at odd angles from the branches. As we drove up, we saw it was a dead tawny eagle hanging off its perch. Above it, there was another eagle that was panting and struggling to fly away. We managed to get the dead one out and when we looked at it, we saw pink goo oozing from its mouth and the stain of pink on its feet. Tawny eagles are a bit like vultures in that they will also congregate at a kill to eat the meat. And apparently they will eat it poison or no poison.

 

We had to climb on the car to get the tawny eagle out of the tree, and as we looked across the plain, we realized that there were more small bodies scattered across it, from a variety of species. Even before we got close to each of them, I felt a sense of horror seeing the scale of effect laid out before us.

 

The first animal we drove to was a lappet-faced vulture that was still in the process of dying. I had never seen a vulture lying on its back before, and up-close it looked huge compared to when I’d seen them soaring over the plain. That vulture was one of the most upsetting things I saw all day. It was struggling so hard just to breathe, and every once in a while a spasm would rack its body and cause it to clench its talons. It was so clearly in pain, I couldn’t watch it.

 

As we made our way towards the dead hyenas that we could see lying on the plain, we found a dead black-backed jackal that something had started to eat. By now, we recognized the signs of the poison—bleeding from the mouth and nose, pink paste and blood coming out of the anus, and dead flies all around. Next to the jackal, a tawny eagle was stumbling around, trying to fly and falling on its side, clearly dying. We realized that the eagle had been trying to eat the jackal and had been poisoned secondarily. At that point, we decided to collect the bodies and put them in one place so that no more animals could get killed.

 

The first hyena we found was Mousetrap. She’s the bossy older sister of Parcheesi, the hyena I first saw take down a wildebeest. They both had matching ear damage, but Mousetrap had one of the most distinctive spot patterns of any hyena in the clan. She had just had her first cub, Earl Warren (Ewar for short), who is a rambunctious mischief-maker and is too young to survive without her. When we found Mousetrap, there were two strings of dried blood coming out of her nose, coated in dead flies, and the same telltale pink stains on her fur.

 

After that we found another black-backed jackal. That raised our non-hyena casualty total after just half an hour to three tawny eagles, one vulture, and two jackals. We knew that there were probably more that we would never find, because there was a dense lugga (thicketed area along a stream) nearby where most of the dead animals would have sought out as they died.

 

The next hyena was Xenon. She was another beautiful young first time mother. We had just finally confirmed seeing her nurse the night before, and hadn’t even given her cub a name yet. Her cub is also too young to survive without her. Xenon was in the best shape of the dead animals we’d seen so far, and hadn’t bloated as much, but she had the same signs of poisoning as all the others.

 

As we moved all the animals into the shade to slow down the decomposition process, we met up with a warden and James, a county council ranger who happens to be related to two fisi camp staff members. They told us that KWS vets were on their way. It was helpful to know that everyone was taking the situation very seriously. We decided to split up and look for more bodies.

 

Wilson had the good thought that some of the hyenas might try to get to the den as they were dying, so we made our way towards it. Benson and Wilson scoured the bushes around the den and found another hyena in the creek. It took us a while to get her out of the water and the tangle of bushes, but when we laid her out we saw it was Obama. Obama is yet another first-time mother, and her cub Sycamore Fig is also too young to survive without her. Because she died in water, Obama was a very grizzly sight. Even though she only died the previous night at the latest, her skin was coming off her face and belly, and the flesh around her phallus and anus was eroding away.

 

Finding Obama highlighted just how difficult it will be to know exactly how many animals were killed by this single event. If others also went into water surrounded by bushes, we may never find them. It was also a very heavy blow that all of the hyenas we found were young nursing mothers whose cubs will not survive without them.

 

***

 

After we got all the carcasses together in one place, we waited for the KWS vets to arrive. When they got there, a group of about 10 vets, vets in training, assistants, wardens, and rangers, got out and took in the scene. In a sad way, it was helpful to hear the exclamations of “Ah! Mbaya sana!” (Oh how bad) as they walked among the corpses—it at least showed that the officials were as struck by the death toll as we were.

 

At that point, we basically let the KWS vet Dr. Limo take over. I was glad to give control over to KWS, partially because I was exhausted just from collecting all the dead animals (and sick of the smell of so many corpses and the strange smell the poison added to the mix), and also because I knew they were our best chance of actually catching and sentencing whoever did this. David the KWS ecologist collected the information we had (GPS locations and total number of deaths that we’d seen so far), and asked a few questions. They collected tissue samples and then decided to do a post-mortem on Xenon.

 

It was morbidly fascinating to watch Dr. Limo work. He clearly had a lot of experience, and was able to point out the ways in which the poison had affected Xenon’s body. He explained that the bleeding from the nose and mouth was due to hemorrhaging in the trachea and lungs. He cut a chunk of lung off and showed us how it sank rather than floated, demonstrating that the air pockets had been filled with blood. There was hemorrhaging in the intestines and other internal organs as well. The most telling moment, however, was when he cut open Xenon’s stomach. The smell was awful, an intensified wallop of the sweet chemically decomposing stench that we’d been smelling all day. Inside were the remains of a cow that were stained an otherworldly neon pink and purple.

 

By the time we were done with Xenon’s post-mortem, it was nighttime and we still had to figure out how to dispose of the bodies in such a way that nothing else could eat them and die. After debating the merits of burning, the vets decided to bring the bodies back to KWS and put them in a covered cement trash pit where they could decompose without anything getting to them. However, first we had to burn the bloodstains off the grass where we’d done the post-mortem because even that amount of poison residue was deadly. So Wilson drove back to camp to get petrol, and we took the opportunity to chat with the people from KWS. It was really neat to talk with Kenyan researchers who felt as passionately about conservation as we do.

 

Finally, Wilson returned and we collected a few small samples from the hyenas and then loaded everything in the back of the car. Then we poured petrol on the bloody ground and set it alight. There was something about the fire that felt distinctly cleansing after our very long day.

 

After that, we drove the carcasses to the KWS research station. It was a long drive, and the smell of so many dead animals was enough to keep me with my head out the window almost the whole way (luckily, there was some magical plant around the KWS station that smelled somewhat like sage and helped my nose out tremendously towards the end). I didn’t like dropping Mousetrap, Obama, and Xenon into a deep cement pit as their final resting place, but the toxicity of the poison meant that it was the best possible option. They covered the opening with a cement block, we said goodnight and thank you, and headed home.

 

***

 

Despite the sincere concern expressed by those officials present at the post-mortem, we were a little worried that no real action would be taken as a result of the poisoning. Although KWS is carrying out the analyses of the poison, the County Council owns the reserve and so are the ones in charge of the actual investigation. We were worried that they might not consider it as serious as we did, or that the usual issues with corruption would slow investigation. We were very wrong about that. I am not sure I have been as pleasantly surprised by anything else in Kenya as I have been by the County Council’s response to the event so far.

 

Apparently, park rangers convened a meeting in town the day after the post-mortem and told the community that they had acted badly—the rangers had allowed them to graze in the reserve, and in return someone was killing wildlife. So the wardens said that no one would be allowed to graze their animals in the reserve until the person responsible came forward. They gave the community four days to bring forth information on the culprit before they called in the General Service Unit (a national brute squad that has a reputation for power abuse of the shoot-first variety). We’re actually hoping that the last bit was an empty threat, because calling in GSU would be very scary and even in my opinion an overreaction, but the ultimatum itself was far more than we ever expected the officials to do. Even more encouraging, it sounds like the people in the community are eager to help the rangers in their investigation.

 

That night, the Mara was unlike anything I have ever seen. There were no cows. Not a single one. We couldn’t believe it. We met James that night and he said there were 42 rangers all along the Talek River stopping herders from entering. There has not been a single night since I’ve been here that we didn’t see cows in the reserve, so it was very different to drive around and not see them. This is a huge reaction and I am very hopeful that even if it doesn’t ultimately catch the person responsible, it does send a strong message to the herders that poisoning is not an appropriate response to livestock predation. It is also a tremendous help emotionally to know that we have support from officials and the community. This whole event has been achingly horrific (whenever I go to sleep, I keep having nightmares about finding dead hyenas) but the one positive piece is that I honestly hadn’t thought before that so many people actually cared about the wildlife in the reserve, and now I can see that they really do.

Since it’s harder to do field work during the rainy season, Julie and I decided to take a small vacation after Jackson’s wedding to travel around and explore a new part of Kenya. We decided to check out the coast, but since things have been a little dicey in that region, we limited our travel plans to the island of Lamu.

 

We took a tiny 11-passenger plane from Nairobi to get to Manda, the island adjacent to Lamu. It was by far the smallest airplane I’ve ever been on; we were all in the same compartment with the pilots, who passed around a container of mints at the start of the flight. As soon as we touched down, a hot, salty breeze welcomed us to the coast.

 

Lamu is a small tropical island town that survives on fishing and tourism. The town has a fascinating history due to its location along trade routes that has mixed Swahili, Arab, Portuguese and Indian cultures in a colorful blend of people, traditions, and architecture. The town brags that it has only two cars yet 6,500 donkeys, and the streets are certainly narrow and winding enough that even getting around by donkey can be a squeeze. I haven’t heard any estimates about the number of boats, however, which is the most common mode of transportation between the various islands in the region, as well as up and down the length of Lamu itself. Everything about Lamu orients towards the ocean—the streets draw you towards the seafront with the flow of traffic and the downhill flow of water from the narrow sewage channels that run alongside the alleys. Most of the men and many of the women seem to spend their time (both working and relaxing) along the jetty, manning boats for tourism and fishing, relaxing in front of mosques, running open air restaurants, or loading up donkeys with coral blocks and metal poles for construction. Around the seafront, there are a lot of Rastafarian men who view Bob Marley as a prophet, not a musician, and take the “pole-pole” (slow or easy going) lifestyle seriously. They add dreads, ripped jean shorts, and the rasta red green and yellow to the mix of colors and people along the water’s edge.

 

The people I met on Lamu were very friendly, and the first few days everyone we met wanted to tell us why they love Lamu and its laid-back lifestyle so much. By the end, however, there was a certain cast of ten or so men that kept dogging us, trying to get money (offering anything from Swahili dinners to donkey rides to bracelets), that we started to feel pretty harassed. The unrest in Mombasa has really hurt tourism in Lamu, so a lot of people were very desperate to make money off of the few tourists who were there. It’s a very small town, so you start to feel like you know people quickly, which can be nice when they are genuinely friendly people, but less so when they are conmen trying to make an easy buck.

 

One of the first activities we did was a walking tour of the town with a man named Abas. He took us through the winding streets full of stray cats and women wearing buibuis (long head coverings that sometimes include a full Muslim hijab or burqa—also note that I don’t actually know what most women in Lamu call their various kinds of head coverings, but buibui is what the Lamu museum called them). Many of the houses on Lamu are very old, some built up to 800 years ago, though very few remain in their original state. They are often built out of coral with tall open courtyards for airflow. It was very impressive to climb flight after flight of stairs to a beautiful rooftop balcony and think about what an architectural marvel the structure must have been when it was first built. The more modern constructions are actually less well built in terms of natural cooling because they are low to the ground and made out of cement, or still tall but with less space inside.

 

Lamu is a very beautiful place. Somehow, even with all the cement and trash, the colors come through. The people especially have a striking mix of cultural styles that makes it a treat just to sit and watch passersby. Women congregate in mixed groups, some wearing coverings that reveal only their eyes, some in flowery t-shirts, chatting away. Abas explained that while the majority of people here are Muslim, they are proud of their tolerant attitude that embraces differences. I don’t know how much of an ideal fantasy that might be, but I definitely saw very different groups of people hanging out together. I think, given the mixed cultural history, Lamu has to be a slightly more tolerant place than it might otherwise have been. Even the head coverings come in a variety of styles—some are a gauzy black, some are beaded, some are brightly colored or made out of patterned kangas. I’m so used to the stereotyped images of Muslim women in burquas that it was fun to see groups of schoolgirls wearing glasses and colorful headscarfs, goofing off together, or even a woman wearing a full head scarf with only her eyes showing but on top of a sleeveless beach dress. Lamu is a place where different cultures come together and change, and people get to pick different parts that they like or that they consider most traditional. I wished I could have been braver asking people for photos, but it’s such a small community and the physical spaces are all so tight that it felt personal and invasive, so I mostly kept my camera in my bag.

 

***

 

Snapshot observations:

 

There is a woman around the corner from our hotel who sells fruit and has a beautiful smile. She always laughs and greets us as we go past and asks us if we want to buy a mango.

 

Julie and I got skirts made at a local tailor because it was too hot to wear pants. He was a very friendly man who was interested in learning about hyenas, and he told us about how he once hand-raised a baboon.

 

Things stay fairly lively after dark, with lots of people out once it gets cooler. In the Mara, everything shuts down as soon as it gets dark, so it was fun to get to walk around at night. It feels surprisingly safe here since there are always so many people around.

 

The culture, weather, food, people, and everything else are so different here that it feels like a different country from the Mara. So I was surprised to find that there are a small handful of Maasai men who live part-time on Lamu to sell crafts. When we met them, they explained that there was a drought in the Amboseli area a few years ago that killed off a lot of their cows, so they started selling crafts on the coast as a way to make ends meet. A lot of tourists cruise along the coastal circuit and never go inland, so they can make good sales to groups that otherwise wouldn’t see the famed Maasai. I would imagine that they get fairly homesick in Lamu, however. The food in particular is very different, especially since most of the people around Talek don’t eat fish and don’t like spicy food. The Maasai we met said they buy a lot of cow and milk and go home every three months to visit their family.

 

***

 

One day, we decided to take a donkey ride to Shella beach, just a short way from Lamu town. The donkeys were surprisingly comfortable steeds named Shakira and Puff Daddy (although depending one which person was talking the second one sometimes had a different name). The man leading the donkeys explained that most of the property in Shella is owned by foreigners now, and it’s changing the dynamics of the community a lot.

 

We hung out at the beach and swam a little. The sun was just starting to edge towards the horizon and the water was warm. As we got out of the water, a rasta guy with bleached dreads came up and handed us beautiful white tropical flowers. As we tried to communicate our thanks, it became clear that he couldn’t hear or speak. He wrote words or questions in the sand, which I answered by writing my responses next to his. His name was Lali, and he worked on the boats. We all sat on the beach and watched the water, and I started sketching with pastels that I had brought with me. I gave Lali a piece of paper and he drew a fish while I tried to capture the coastline. Then I drew a picture of the flower he had given me and gave it to him. He asked me to draw a lion, so I did my best and gave him that drawing too. By then, it was starting to get dark and the tide was going up, so we started to head back to the docks. Lali led the way along partially-submerged paths and helped us find a boat back to Lamu, coming along for the ride to point things out along the way. It was fun to watch the scenery on the way back, because the road we’d ridden along with the donkeys was now underwater. In a few places, the gates that led up to houses opened right on the edge of the water.

 

***

 

I think the highlight of the whole vacation for me was the two dhow trips we took. Dhows are the traditional sailboats that the people around Lamu use. We took a trip on one to visit the Takwa ruins, the remains of a religious site and small settlement built around 1500. It was a fun trip, and we got to meet some other tourists from Australia, France, Sweden, and Germany. We swam at a beach, ate lunch, and then made our way through the mangroves to the ruins, which can only be reached at high tide. The ruins were interesting to learn about, and beautifully shaded by baobab trees. It was really neat to hear the guide explaining that the people who lived in the ruins ate baobab fruits, so that many of the trees around the ruins probably grew from the discarded seeds of previous residents. The guide also showed us part of the large coral and stone walls that used to surround the village to keep out the soldiers of neighboring Pate island as well as the lions, buffalo, and other large animals that used to roam the island of Manda. That was an interesting side note, because the island today hosts very few animals besides domestic cats.

 

We took another dhow trip on our last full day on Lamu, this time to go snorkeling at Manda Toto. Our captain Baji was very friendly, and told us a lot about local conservation and politics. He explained that the Kenyan government wants to build a giant port on Lamu even though the local people don’t want it because of the radical changes it would create for the area and the ecosystem. The government wants to blast out one of the smaller islands to make a channel for larger vessels, and put a wharf along the entire length of the island. Baji explained that even without the port, there have been a lot of issues with unsustainable fishing practices. He said that even though he and other captains try to explain to the other fishermen that net fishing in the mangroves, the nurseries for the reefs, will cause a collapse in the fish populations, the practice is still increasing. Baji said he tried to ask them to think of their children and grandchildren, but they just reply that they’ll deal with it when they run out of fish. I don’t imagine those sort of practices will decrease with the influx of large commercial fishing vessels either.

 

The reefs themselves were very interesting. They were in no way pristine, but there still seemed to be a good number and diversity of fish, although the distribution was patchy and the coral itself looked pretty banged up (though when there’s an island full of people using coral as a construction material I can’t say I’m surprised). It was interesting to see so many animals that looked familiar yet different from what I’d seen when I was snorkeling in Belize, and it definitely made me appreciate how special South Water Caye was by comparison. Nevertheless, it felt wonderful to snorkel again after so long. I’m not much of a swimmer, but I never get tired of exploring the strange undersea world along reefs. It’s just so colorful and strange that everything is exciting to look at.

 

While we snorkeled, one of the other guides caught fish with a spear. He caught parrotfish, large angelfish, groupers, and even two stingrays. I had decided before coming to Lamu that although I am usually a vegetarian, my conscience could handle one week of eating fish, especially where the seafood was renowned and (more or less) sustainably caught. So it was a special occasion for me to get to eat such fresh fish, and it was the tastiest meal I had in Lamu. They made coconut vegetables, and cooked the fish with spices on a small grill on the boat. I figured as long as I was eating an animal, I wouldn’t waste any of it, so I even ate the fish heads and Baji showed me how to eat the eyes. For desert, we had fried bananas with white chocolate. It was an incredible meal.

 

One funny thing we saw during that dhow trip was a boat full of dogs, the only canines I saw the entire time on Lamu. Baji said the men on the boat were going to go hunt on the mainland, which was why they had the dogs. It was very funny to watch an entire boat full of dogs go speeding past.

 

***

 

Our last night on Lamu, we met a man from Nairobi who installs solar panels. We talked a lot about conservation and politics in Kenya, and he mentioned a story about a clinic called Mbirikani. The name sounded familiar, so I asked him for more details, and realized it was the clinic I visited with SFS near Amboseli. I remember being extremely impressed with the facilities there: they had an entire electronic medical records system, all the doctors had trained in the US, and they were fast, efficient, clean, and seemed to know what they were doing. From what I’d seen, it looked like they did an impressive job of serving the local community in a sustainable way. So I was very sorry to hear that it had closed recently, when the woman who ran it couldn’t keep up with all of the bribes she had to pay to corrupt officials just to get supplies in. Corruption is crippling Kenya in so many ways, it’s very frustrating to watch.

 

***

 

We flew back to Nairobi from Lamu. Things have been troubling in Nairobi lately, with bomb scares and concerns about terror attacks by Al-Shabaab. Uhuru’s response to the attacks and the way in which he is targeting Muslim Somali refugees reminds me uncomfortably of Bush’s response to 9/11 and the Patriot Act, but I know he needs to do something to help Kenyans, and the tourists that Kenya’s economy relies upon, feel safe. It’s a very interesting time to be in Kenya, but we didn’t particularly want to spend much time in the city and were anxious to get back to our hyenas.

 

On the matatu back to the Mara, I had a very curious interaction with a man from Mombasa. He worked in a girl’s home on the coast, and had never been to the Mara before, so it was strange to meet a Kenyan who knew less about the area than I did. He had come to the Mara trying to find a young girl in a photograph whose name was Tangawizi. Apparently, there was a little boy in the US who had seen her photograph online and was so sad to see that she didn’t have a bed that he raised $6000 to buy her one. Somehow, they had contacted the organization from Mombasa, and now this random guy was trying to find an unknown Maasai girl that he knew nothing about so that he could give her a bed. He didn’t even know where she lived. He didn’t even know if she wanted a bed. Actually, I don’t think he could actually know for certain that she didn’t already have a bed. When he showed me the photo of the girl, her roomed looked just like the inside of every single boma I have seen in the area. “I pray god that I can find this girl and help her,” he told me. The whole thing was so completely ridiculous that I couldn’t think of anything to say except “good luck.”

Jackson’s wedding

After much complication and planning, Jackson, one of the men who works for us in camp, was finally having his wedding. It took us a while to figure out who could go and when, but finally, we packed the car full of people and bags, and drove off for Naivasha.

 

Julie, Hadley, and I decided to spend a couple days before the wedding seeing Lake Naivasha and Hells Gate National Park. It took us a while to find a place to stay after a reservation mix-up, but we ended up in a nice low-budget banda camp on the lake. As we drove to the camp, we passed miles of industrial greenhouses. The main industry of the area around the lake is commercial flower growing. Tropical flowers are grown in massive farms here and then shipped to Europe. It’s a bit disappointing that the flower companies and private places to stay mostly block lake access, but we were lucky enough to be staying where we could actually see the water.

 

The camp by the lake was very beautiful. We saw lots of interesting birds (including hoopoes and a long-crested eagle) as well as crabs, and the view of fog curling up off the surface of the lake in the morning was striking.

 

The next day, we visited Hells Gate. The main draw of the park is that visitors can walk or bike through it, something that is rare in most nature areas of Kenya due to the presence of large carnivores, elephants, etc. Hells Gate, although it served as some of the scenery inspirations for the Lion King, is too small to support lions, elephants, or other dangerous wildlife except for a few buffalo. It was very novel to bike next to baboons and warthogs, and see eland and zebra up close, but I was forcefully reminded that it has been a very long time since I’ve ridden a bicycle, and by the end I was really wishing that the seat was a little more padded.

 

The topography of Hells Gate is drastically different from our area of the Mara. The rock formations are volcanic and create all sorts of interesting shapes. We biked to the gorge that is a main attraction of the park, and hired a guide to hike through it. Brian was a local Maasai who explained the geology of the region and some of its cultural history. One of the strange aspects of the park is that there is a geothermal power plant inside the park with a huge new paved access road. It was very disconcerting to be biking along a dirt path beside zebra one moment and then hit tarmac the next. However, Brian spends his days guiding tourists through a gorge that has been carved by the steady force of volcanically heated mineral water, so he sees things on a more geological scale. When we asked him about the road, he said that it wouldn’t last long. Erosion will carry it away, just like the rocks of the gorge.

 

***

 

The morning of the wedding, we got a call from Jackson. He’d forgotten to buy a wedding cake and rings and was wondering if we could pick some up for him in Naivasha. This was one of the many indications that this was going to be a very different wedding than we were used to. We didn’t even know where to begin finding those sorts of things, so we were grateful when Benson agreed to pick them up on his way to meet up with us.

 

After many hours of communicating between all the different groups by phone, and pushing the start time of the wedding back farther and farther, Benson finally met us and we all headed out to meet up with the rest of the wedding party.

 

Part of the difficulty in timing hinged on the fact that Jackson and his bride Evelyn (and half the wedding party) were traveling all the way from the bride’s house in the outskirts of Nairobi to the church near Joseph and Jackson’s home, which was a few hours outside of Naivasha. This is a long drive to begin with, but with all the people involved it took even longer, so by the time we even met up in Naivasha, it was past noon.

 

When we saw the wedding caravan, we finally realized just how big the celebration was going to be. There was an entire retinue of cars, including a giant purple bus, bedecked with purple and yellow streamers, piled with family heading for the wedding. In a long line of vehicles, we made our way out of the central Naivasha area and onto the muddy dirt roads to Jackson’s wedding.

 

After very long last, we got to the wedding. It was in a picturesque country church, on a green sloping hill with a view of Lake Naivasha far below. As soon as we arrived, people started streaming into the church, and the ceremony hurried forward. It was more of a traditional Christian wedding than a traditional Maasai one (Benson and Wilson were definitely more lost than I was), but even so, most people were dressed at least partially in Maasai clothes and even Jackson wore beads over his suit. It was a very interesting wedding because everything seemed very familiar, but also completely different from what I was used to.

 

After the ceremony, we all made our way up to Joseph’s house as the light began to fade. The wedding party continued there, giving way to more traditional maasai customs. The young men of Jackson’s age cohort (and us mzungus) all gathered in the main house and began singing. Traditionally, it’s up to them to choose a new name for the bride. This will be the name they use when talking to or about her, so it becomes her new name within her community. They spent a long time singing, and Evelyn and a few other women joined. Joseph’s daughter Gloria fell asleep holding my hand, after resolutely refusing to go to bed. After a long time of beautiful, throaty singing, Wilson informed us that they had chosen the name: Evelyn. Evelyn had refused to respond to the new Maasai name they’d given her, so they’d decided just to keep her old name after all.

 

***

 

After the wedding, we spent a day hanging out at Joseph’s house and seeing his and Jackson’s home area. We went to see one of Joseph’s brothers who helps to run a community bee project. The drive to his house was breathtaking, with rolling hills that were greener than anything I’d seen in months.

 

Joseph’s brother is quite the innovator. We came there to see the community bee project, but it turned out that he had plenty of other projects going as well. His house was large, and while the construction materials were mostly non-traditional (wood, tin, and cement), he managed to keep the familiar feeling of a boma in its layout. He showed us how he had diversified his income by planting multiple different crops (including award winning snow peas) and fruit trees, as well as investing in an entirely different breed of cow. These were much larger than the cows we see around Talek, and produce an incredible amount of milk. Because they produce more milk, he can own fewer of them and graze them in a smaller pasture. He also supplements them with feed so he can use the rest of his land for crops and bees. Not only that, but he’s even installed a bio-gas collection system for whatever manure he doesn’t use on the garden. World Wildlife Fund partnered with him on the bio-gas project and was going to help him buy refining equipment for his honey, but the machinery had to be shipped from Europe, so it ended up being too costly of a venture.

 

Finally, we went out to see the bees. We took a short walk, soaked in the scenery, and after a while arrived at the hives. Some of the men who work to collect the honey explained some of the factors they use in figuring out where to place the hives (it mostly has to do with the distance from water). Then they built a fire and one of the men put on the bee suit while the rest of us moved farther away up the slope.

 

It turns out that a lot of the guys we work with really don’t like bees. There was a mix of bravado and nervousness as we headed to the hives, with Benson and Joseph insisting they didn’t want to get anywhere near the bees, while Wilson made fun of anyone who was hanging back (but then ran away faster than any of the others once the bees started swarming). I wasn’t so keen to get close without proper clothes, but I did seriously underestimate how far bees will go to protect their hive. We were far out of eyesight of the hive when the guys who had been closer ran past us, already getting stung. Joseph told us to lie down on the ground so that the bees would fly over us, but even doing that one of them stung Dave. Joseph told us that once one stings you, the others will try to go after you too, so after Dave got stung, we all decided to make a break for it and ran off up the hill. We all congregated at the top of a rise, and for a while all was good, until another group of bees found us and we split up and ran in all directions. I decided to walk back to the opposite side of the slope and wait until someone gave the all clear, and just took in the view of the valley below for a while. Finally, Benson found me and handed me a fresh piece of honeycomb and we all headed back to the house. It was the best honey I have ever eaten, still warm from the inside of the hive and packed with flavor.

 

That evening, we hiked to another one of Joseph’s brother’s houses. James was actually one of the few people I’d met before the wedding, since he works at Talek Gate and sometimes comes by camp to visit. The hike up to his house was steep but fun, and the view of the lake below just got better and better, even with the oncoming darkness. The volcanic soils glittered in the light of our headlamps as we walked.

 

James’ house was very nice, and he even had a TV, something I’ve never seen in a Maasai home. The walls of the living room were covered with the sort of posters you might see in an elementary school (letter and number charts in Swahili and English), and it emphasized just how different the Maasai are in this area compared with Talek. Education has clearly been a much bigger emphasis here, as has the investment in small-scale farming to supplement livestock raising. There are more people experimenting with new ways of doing things and innovation seems to have paid off because in general, the people here seem to live much more comfortably than they do around Talek. It’s hard to know which aspect came first, but now they all feed into each other—education helps people innovate and secure good jobs, which helps pay for education so that their children can take projects one step farther. Meanwhile, the people in Talek are stuck in the opposite cycle—no one can pay for education, so no one values it, and people are stuck in ways of living that don’t make enough money so that they can afford to do things differently. I can’t help but wonder whether a more equitable distribution of resources from the reserve might be the little extra that it takes to set Talek on a different trajectory.

 

We ended our stay at Joseph’s house very full of good food, happy to have finally met his and Jackson’s families, and with a lot to think about in terms of the differences between their area and Talek.

Wasps really like our lab tent. It seems like every few days one starts trying to build a new nest on the tarp, on the bookcase, in the solar battery housing, or inside the water pump. I feel mixed about this because on the one hand, it is an open-air tent, we are in their natural habitat, and they are not very numerous or aggressive; on the other hand, they are giant, brightly colored wasps that apparently have a very painful sting, and we sometimes have people coming through camp that are allergic to them. Therefore, my policy has been that if a large, threatening-looking wasp is building a nest inside the lab tent, we will get rid of the nest and they can build it somewhere else. So when I saw a large black wasp with yellow stripes on its legs constructing its little mud tubes on the side of a binocular case, I sprang into action. As soon as it left to find more mud, I started breaking off the nest.

 

The wasp had already constructed two sealed tubes of mud about an inch or two long, and was working on a third. At first, I thought it was constructing a new one because spiders had infiltrated the others. As I broke the mud tubes open, they were full of an array of brightly-colored and strangely patterned arachnids. I quickly realized that the spiders were dead and the mud tubes must be food caches for the wasps’ young. When I saw how much work it must have been to catch all those spiders and construct a storage system that wouldn’t dry them out, I felt a bit guilty for unceremoniously crumbling the wasp’s work. Next time, I think I’ll try to move the nest instead of destroying it.

 

 

***

 

Last night, I went to pick up my toothbrush and found a grasshopper foraging in the bristles. This is not the first time this has happened.

 

***

 

About a week ago, Hadley and I got a reminder about the unpredictable nature of our job. We had just figured out the timing of how we would get to all three of our clans, finish up some tent repairs, and run errands while we still had a lull in the rains, when Wilson got a call about a dead hyena. All carefully laid plans were dropped, and we headed out immediately.

 

Joseph Kidogo, one of the local guys who sometimes works in camp, had gone to wash a car in a lugga on the edge of town, when he saw the hyena in a ditch. He called us and stood watch over the body until we got there. It was a male that had been freshly killed by herders. In this case, it wasn’t so surprising since he was well outside of the reserve, only about 300m away from a boma. The viciousness with which the herders mangled the body makes me wonder if he had been trying (or had already succeeded) in killing a cow.

The unknown male that was killed in Talek Town

The unknown male that was killed in Talek Town

Wilson and Joseph drag the hyena up from the river

Wilson and Joseph drag the hyena up from the river

 

As we started the necropsy, children started to come over to watch. Soon, we had a crowd of children around us, trying to read the necropsy data sheet over my shoulder, and asking what we were doing. Wilson liked joking with the kids, telling them that we were going to make the hyena into soup and eat it, but also explaining what we were really doing too.

The damage to the head

The damage to the head

where the male's neck was sliced open by herders

where the male’s neck was sliced open by herders

 

Joseph and Wilson retrieve the head while schoolchildren watch

Joseph and Wilson retrieve the head while schoolchildren watch

***

 

Sometimes, even living on the edge of Talek town, our social group can feel a little small, and usually consists of married men, both Kenyan and foreign. Even after so long of living here, I have had very few connections with other women outside of camp. So it was a really wonderful treat for Hadley and me to get to meet Kayla, a researcher studying Maasai women’s role in milk production. It was really interesting to get to talk to someone who is studying the human part of the same ecosystem. While we work inside the reserve and get to see the daily life of a hyena, with only glimpses of the herders as they bring their cows in and out, Kayla works outside at the bomas and sees the daily life of the Maasai, with only the scars or wounds on the cows to communicate the hyena’s side of the story. It was really fun to take her on obs and introduce her to the hyenas, while she pointed out different cows and showed us how we could tell which family they belong to.

 

***

 

We have had some very exciting nights in Talek West territory lately. We’ve entered the baby boom season, and there are more cubs than we can keep up with. It feels like every time we go to the den, there are more new cubs we’ve never seen before. And we keep discovering new natal dens as well.

 

Ted and her cub nursing at the new den

Ted and her cub nursing at the new den

When a hyena gives birth, she usually keeps the cubs at what’s called a natal den, which is smaller and more isolated than the main communal den. A female will keep her cubs here while they are still small so that they can grow up a little before she introduces them to the rest of the clan. Since Talek West is such a huge clan, there can sometimes be two communal dens going at once, but there can be any number of natal dens dotted across the territory.

 

Roosevelt and Lyco (Roosevelt is the one with her ears sticking out of her natal den)

Roosevelt and Lyco (Roosevelt is the one with her ears sticking out of her natal den)

One exceptionally packed night, Wilson and I found two natal dens in addition to our two communal dens. We also got a very special surprise at Aqua’s natal den. At first when we pulled up, we didn’t know that it was a den, and we thought Aqua was just resting. Then, as we inched forward, we suddenly realized that there was a miniscule cub nestled against her side nursing. Neither Wilson nor I had ever seen such a young cub. It’s ears were pinned back, and it’s belly, phallus, and pads of its feet were still a bright pink. Wilson estimated that it was two days old. Its paws and tail were impossibly small, and it looked like it wasn’t very mobile yet. We quietly took some photos and videos, and then finally tore ourselves away. It’s very unusual to see a cub this small, and we both kept enthusing about it to each other the whole night.

Aqua and her tiny new cub

Aqua and her tiny new cub

Let’s talk hyenas

Since Artemis’ death, I’ve wanted to do more for conservation in our area of the Mara, so I was excited when Hadley set up a hyena talk at the local primary school. We weren’t quite sure what to expect: we didn’t know how many students we’d be talking to, whether the teachers would tell them ahead of time who we were and what we were going to talk about, and whether the students would initially be interested at all. We planned out who would talk about what, and what we would do if the students were too shy to ask questions. Wilson was looking forward to teaching the kids hyena whoops and giggles, and he was also excited to use this as an opportunity to teach young students about our relation with the natural world. As we were preparing for the talk, he told us about how the Maasai used to have a different attitude towards the natural world, and that their previous nomadic lifestyle had less of a detrimental impact on the ecosystem. It was a lesson that I had heard many times with SFS, but it can always be re-stated. It’s hard to remember when we see cows clogging the savannah, but people and pastoralists are not completely incompatible with a healthy ecosystem—it’s all just a matter of degree.

 

One hot afternoon, the four of us (Benson, Wilson, Hadley, and I) packed the car with presentation material: a hyena skull (to explain about morphology), a lion skull (for comparing relative jaw strength), a giraffe femur (to demonstrate what hyenas can chew through), a radio collar, one of our ID books, and a snare. The snare, a metal strangling trap that herders leave wherever they think hyenas might go, felt particularly relevant since Benson, Wilson, and Hadley had removed it from Bruno, one of our males, a week earlier (I missed out on that particular adventure thanks to typhoid); it probably saved Bruno’s life, but he will likely always have a hole in his throat which makes him incapable of vocalizing the way other hyenas do. After we packed the presentation materials, we climbed into the car and made the drive into Talek.

 

The primary school is a mixed boarding and day school for children that appeared to be anywhere from first to twelfth grade (though they measure grades differently in Kenya). I’d driven past it almost every time I’d been to Talek, but I’d never been inside. It was surprisingly pretty, with a new gate and tall shade trees framing white cement and tin-roofed buildings packed with children in their red and white checkered uniforms, walking between classes or playing in the short grass. We met Elijah, the head teacher, and he took us to the cafeteria. It was a long, dark cement room attached to a kitchen with a platform on one end where we could stand and speak. Elijah said that lessons were almost over, and that the teachers would tell the students we were here and anyone who wanted to could come listen.

 

We set the presentation examples out and waited as students started to filter in. They clustered into the front seats, dragging benches closer and squishing together to fit as many as possible on each one. And more kept streaming in. The room was packed with over 200 students when Elijah finally stood up and introduced us.

 

The talk was wonderful. The students were clearly very excited to hear us speak, and had tons of questions. I was especially touched at how excited Wilson was to talk to kids—he’s an extremely animated speaker, which works wonders with students. I was also very aware of how much more it meant to have Benson and Wilson, two local guys (not some weird mzungus with strange American accents), explaining about the biology and conservation of hyenas. They were able to translate things like “gestation period” or the complexities of a hyena hierarchy into Swahili so that everyone was on the same page.

 

The students asked some very sophisticated questions, such as how long it takes a hyena to grow up before it can bite through a giraffe femur (approximately three years), how many babies a female will have in her lifetime (varies immensely depending on rank and random chance), what the biggest threats to their survival are (humans, followed by lions), and what they should do if a hyena kills their livestock (a bit more complicated, but essentially, report it to KWS and don’t kill the hyena—Wilson encouraged them to view it like a future investment in tourism that will benefit everyone).

 

In the end, there were so many questions that we couldn’t answer them all before we ran out of time. One of the school board members made a speech about how knowledge is power, and that the only way we can conserve wildlife and benefit from it is if we first understand it. Then they thanked us and the students slowly filed out as we collected back the presentation materials. Elijah encouraged us to come back, and asked us if we had any videos or photos of hyenas we could share. He explained that the school has nearly 1000 students, so there were still more we could speak to, and clearly this first group hadn’t exhausted all their questions yet either. We were all immensely excited, and even as we drove home, we started planning for the next time.

 

***

 

We finally found the Prozac den! It’s in a very dense thicket near the river where hippos like to graze, but even with low visibility it’s a beautiful spot. As soon as we found it, we realized that there were at least six new cubs we’d never seen before. Then, as we were sitting watching the cubs play, Benson spotted a very unique bird. It took me nearly five minutes to finally see it; it was almost the exact same shade of green as the leaves, but when it flew, its wing feathers flashed a bright red. It’s called a Hartlaub’s Turaco, and is a very rare and special sight. I took it as a good sign for the new den. I just hope the impending rainy season doesn’t prevent us from going back.

 

One of the many new Prozac cubs

One of the many new Prozac cubs

***

 

The rainy season is finally here. We have gotten an incredible amount of rain in the last few days, too much to even contemplate going on obs. It’s frustrating because it feels like I’ve only just recovered from being sick, and now I still can’t go out. However, I know the Mara needs the rain so I’ll just have to learn to be patient and find other things to do with my time; Currently, that means working on my Swahili, but my head is already so mixed up with different verb classes and new conjugations that I can’t get a single word out right.

Moonrise over Lone Tree Plain

Moonrise over Lone Tree Plain

We’ve had several visitors come through camp lately, which has given us a great opportunity to re-examine what we enjoy most about this job. As much fun as it is for the person visiting, we also love getting to show off our lives to new people. We also get to benefit from something we call “visitor’s luck.” This is a phenomenon whereby as soon as someone new comes to camp, we see really cool things. In reality, I suspect this is mostly due to the fact that we take extra time and attention to look for animals, but regardless, it’s always a treat. The visit from Haldey’s friend Sita was no exception.

A very tired lioness that we saw with Sita. She was feeding on a eland.

A very tired lioness that we saw with Sita. She was feeding on a eland.

 

On a sundowner with Sita

On a sundowner with Sita

IMG_7244

IMG_7310 IMG_7287

I was still recovering from typhoid when Sita arrived, but even the few times I got to out with her, we saw an incredible range of animals, including cheetahs, lions, and the first rhino I’ve ever seen in the Mara. We also enjoyed some beautiful sunsets and scenery and generally soaked in and appreciated the breathtaking wonders that surround us daily. We took a morning game drive and had a ton of fun birding. The Mara is famous for its mammals, but for me, birding holds a bit more challenge, and at this point often more excitement as well. We saw coucals with their sharp red eyes, swallows zooming past the car in giant flocks, kingfishers with impossibly bright bills, funny-shaped waders called crakes, and many, many more.

 

A pied kingfisher

A pied kingfisher

A dark morph tawny eagle that was eating a dead black-backed jackal

A dark morph tawny eagle that was eating a dead black-backed jackal

A light morph tawny eagle

A light morph tawny eagle

IMG_7747

A rosy-breasted longclaw

A rosy-breasted longclaw

A grey-crowned crane

A grey-crowned crane

Blacksmith plover

Blacksmith plover

bateleur eagles

bateleur eagles

Not a bird, but still a cool flying animal

Not a bird, but still a cool flying animal

***

 

East Africa is the staple of nature documentaries. I’ve spent so many hours of my life watching Planet Earth, Nature, or the Animal Planet, yet there is always something new and unexpected to see or learn out here. In fact, some of my favorite observations are ones that might not be considered appropriately majestic enough to make it to TV. Two examples of this are processes by which rhinoceroses pee, and hippopotamuses poop—or as we call them: “the water gun” and “the shit paddle.”

 

When we saw the rhino with Sita, we observed very interesting phenomenon, which immediately prompted further research. When a male Rhino pees, he swings his tail up over his back, and then emits a high-powered jet of urine, much like a fire hose or a super-soaker. Rhinos can shoot their urine 3 or 4 meters (roughly 9 to 13 ft). Males do this to mark their territories, and females are also capable of this impressive feat, although they only do so when they are in estrous.

IMG_7368

The way a Hippo poops is carefully designed to maximize the spread of its feces. So when they defecate, their tails whirr into life like a motorized propeller, spraying their poop in a wide arc around their backsides. Males and females both use this method of poop dispersal as a means of olfactory communication, though seemingly for different reasons. Sometimes males will go butt-to-butt and spray each other with dung as a form of competition, though I have yet to see this in person. Most of the time, hippos feed on land at night and then poop in the river during the day, effectively moving resources from one system to another. Underwater, the shit paddle spreads their poop out and provides a fertilizing base that fish eat and insects eat, and can actually form the base of a riverine food chain; however, concentrated hippo poop, which can accrue during drought times or with the creation of small, artificial watering holes, can also be food for toxic cyanobacteria that can actually turn small pools of water into poison.

IMG_5784

***

 

This morning when we went to the den, things were fairly quiet. The smallest cubs were playing out of sight in the bushes, and only a few adults made an appearance. We left the den soon after the sun rose to find darting targets, and only saw three hyenas on Lone Tree Plain, which is where the clan has been hanging out lately. At first, it seemed like it was going to be a slow morning. Then we spotted a group on the other side of the lugga, and as I drove around, we found about twenty hyenas bristled-tailed and looking ready for action. It was almost the entire “royal family” (our matriarch Helios, her daughters, and their cubs) plus Helios’ favorite males. There’s always a palpable energy surrounding large groups of high-ranking hyenas when they’re getting ready to go on a border patrol or a hunt, one which reminds me of athletes pumping themselves up before a game. The other animals seem to sense the difference too, and keep much farther away than they normal would.

 

We followed this group for an hour or so as they made their way south. The hyenas would occasionally stop to play, greet each other, social sniff and paste stalks (paste is a smelly substance that hyenas secrete from anal scent glands and rub on grass or branches, presumably to mark their territory). Essentially, they were doing things to cement social bonds and remind all other carnivores that in this territory, Talek West hyenas reign supreme.

 

Finally, the territory-marking party started loosing steam and Helios’ eldest daughters, Amazon and Atacama, must have gotten hungry, because they just started loping haphazardly at any nearby gazelle or Topi. At first I didn’t think they were putting much real effort into it, but then Amazon got lucky—she scared up a tiny baby Thomson’s Gazelle from where it had been hiding in the grass. Amazon immediately began chasing it down, her sister trailing excitedly behind. Thomson’s Gazelles are fast—an adult Tommie can run almost as fast as a cheetah and sustain that speed for much longer, but the young ones don’t have the same amount of stamina, so the gap between the baby and Amazon kept growing and shrinking with every burst of speed. Then the gazelle’s mother came careening in, trying to run alongside her young and urge it on, and then running in front of Amazon to throw her off. But the little Tommie simply didn’t have the strength, and after a few minutes of intense chasing, it finally stumbled and fell. I was at least grateful that since it was so small and fragile, it died almost at once.

 

Amazon wolfed down the baby gazelle with the gusto of a college student devouring a pop tart. It was gone in roughly 15 minutes. The other hyenas (Helios included) didn’t really even try to steal it from her, though I wasn’t sure whether their lack of effort was due to the small size of the snack, or Amazon’s tendency to maul anyone who tries to get between her and her food. I remembered watching a cheetah take down a young Thomson’s Gazelle and how the big cat had needed to rest for over ten minutes before it could catch it’s breath enough to start feeding, and I couldn’t help but admire Amazon’s toughness—she looked as if she could have chased down ten more before getting tired.

 

Amazon with her snack

Amazon with her snack

When I first started this job, watching a hyena take down such a young animal would have really upset me (after all, baby Tommies are certainly one of the cutest animals out here), but now, while I was sad to see how hard the mother fought to try to keep her baby alive, I also have to admit I was rooting for Amazon. There is no shortage of Thomson’s Gazelles in the Mara; meanwhile, Amazon has cubs to feed, and she needs all the help she can get. The short rains were even shorter than usual, and the long rains have yet to arrive, so if the animal numbers in our prey transects are any indication, the ungulates are spreading out to find more food. We seem to be finding more bone in poop samples lately as the hyenas (especially the low ranking ones) start to rely on lower-quality food sources. We can also tell from the GPS collars that some hyenas are now wandering far outside the territory to find food, but Amazon doesn’t have the same level of mobility while her cubs are still small. Hyenas are survivors, and I know they’ll be ok, but even a small Thomson’s Gazelle helps the hyenas a lot right now.

Summary: This is a shorter post about Hadley and me interacting with herders over a dead cow, my experience with Typhoid Fever, and tracking down a hyena on foot.

 

Almost a week ago, Hadley and I were returning from a very uneventful Fig Tree evening obs, when we drove into a mass of Talek West hyenas not far from their den. They were running around in the dark, and it was a very familiar chaos—snatches of eye shine, and glimpses of bloody hyenas running past the headlights. We could see herder’s flashlights close by, and we both wondered aloud if they might have killed a cow. We were planning to ID as many as possible and just continue home, but then I turned the car around and the headlights came to rest on three men and two little boys standing next to a dead cow.

At that point, I knew it would be rude to leave, but Hadley and I had never dealt with this sort of thing on our own. So I took a deep breath, and drove up to them. We said hello, shook hands with the herders, and got out of the car to look at the cow. They said the hyenas had just killed it, but even so it was already mostly eaten, everything inside the ribcage cleared out. Judging by the number of eyes staring in at us from outside the radius of light, I wasn’t that surprised—hyenas have to be fast eaters if they don’t want lions to steal their kill.

One of the herders spoke English, and he told us that hyenas had killed the old man’s cow and then asked us, “What are you going to do about it?” It’s not uncommon for the herders around here to ask us to compensate them for the cows that hyenas killed, and it always makes me angry—not with the herders, really, but with the entire situation. The Maasai herders will always feel that they have the right to graze their cattle here, no matter if it is a wildlife reserve or not, and I suppose I can’t blame them; in terms of the history of their families grazing cattle, the reserve is a relatively new obstacle. In addition, they don’t seem to understand that for a hyena, meat is just meat; hyenas don’t know the difference between a cow and a wildebeest except that cows are much easier to kill. But even more than that, Kenya Wildlife Services is supposed to compensate herders when wild animals kill livestock, and while we always tell the herders this when they ask us for money, I know that the KWS compensation process is arduous at best, and nonexistent at worst. At the end of the day, I know how much each cow means to these herders and if I could, if it would make any real difference, I would personally compensate them. But I can’t, and with the current situation, I don’t really think it would make any difference if I did.

Instead, we offered to help in any other way we could. At first, the one who spoke English kept asking for money, and started to say that the old man who owned the cow was going to poison the carcass. I knew this was probably an empty threat, but it still made me very upset. There haven’t been any carcass poisonings in many years here because by now everyone knows that if they poison a carcass, it’ll kill a lot more animals than the ones they’re targeting (Kay told us about one poisoned cow carcass that killed 16 hyenas, two or three lions, and tons of jackals and vultures), and it’s not that hard for KWS to track down who was responsible, and the fine is far, far more than the cost of a single cow. So I gritted my teeth and explained that while we still couldn’t compensate them, we strongly suggested they not poison the carcass and suffer massive fines that they clearly couldn’t afford.

It soon started to become clear that while our translator was being a little bit obstinate, the rest of the men and boys were more than willing to accept whatever help we could give. A slightly older boy ran up after a while and seemed to get what we were trying to offer. We helped them collect the head (“for supu”) and whatever meat was still good and put it into plastic bags. Then we helped them wash the cow guts off their hands and agreed to drive the old man back to the rest of his herd and take the others home with the meat.

Any inspired notions I’d had before that night about Maasai herders having an innate sense of direction and place were shattered when they directed us to the wrong herd three different times and argued incessantly about which was the right way to go before finally finding the right one. In the end, we were only able to get them as far as the nearest crossing over the river, since our car clearly wouldn’t have made it down the bank. The one who spoke English tried one last time to get Hadley to give him her watch or a maglite while the rest of them shook our hands and thanked us in Maa, Swahili, and English.

I felt very mixed about the whole ordeal. I was upset that they had lost a cow and I could even understand the old man’s threat about poisoning the cow since he was upset, but I was irritated at the man who kept repeatedly demanding that we give him things we clearly couldn’t. However, I was touched that even during the terrible loss of a cow, they were all still grateful for our help. Most of all I was glad we’d helped because I felt as though we had siphoned off some of their anger at the hyenas. By the time we dropped them off, I felt as though the entire energy of the interaction had changed for the better.

***

Earlier this week, I started to feel a little sick. I got stomach cramps that kept me up all night and as the stomach pain faded the next day, it was replaced with a headache that made me gasp in pain whenever I bent over or turned my head too quickly. Along with this was a terrible thirst. I finally checked my temperature the next morning and realized I had reasonably high fever. None of these symptoms alone would have made me go to the clinic, but since we were going into town later that day anyways and Benson was already planning to go to the clinic for a headache, I decided it was better to be safe than sorry. I had already begun to deteriorate by the time we left, and Hadley said she wasn’t giving me a choice even if I changed my mind and decided to stay back in camp. By then I kept alternating between blazing hot and shivering cold and was glad to be going.

The clinic in town is remarkable for a rural Kenyan hospital, but even so it’s quite different from what we’re used to in the US. Hadley and I were impressed that every new patient received an HIV test and that they had condoms to give out for free. The technician who took my blood sample was very steady-handed, and he opened the needles in front of me to show they were sterile. However, the uncomfortable low wooden benches crammed with sick people (many of whom were women carry infants or children) along the single long cement hall reminded me instantly that we weren’t in the hospitals I was used to. So did the outhouse squat toilets with no soap and barely running water. There were the usual cultural differences as well, as I noticed how people would frequently open the door when a doctor was seeing a patient to tell one of them something, or when the doctor answered his cell phone while I was describing my symptoms.

We waited around for a while to get the lab results that were testing me for malaria, typhoid, and brucellosis. As we waited, I went over the symptoms in my head, and thought that malaria seemed unlikely because I was on prophylaxis, and everyone I’d talked to with malaria had said something along the lines of “it feels like I’m dying.” Brucellosis also didn’t seem at all likely to me. When I got to typhoid, however, I remembered the strange adverse reaction I’d had to the live vaccine. The stomach cramps felt awfully similar to the stomach pain I’d gotten from the vaccine pills. I was vaccinated, but I knew that didn’t guarantee my safety.

Finally, the lab results came back and it turned out that both Benson and I had typhoid fever. After looking on the CDC website, I found out that the vaccines are only 50-80% effective, so I suppose it’s not entirely surprising. At first I figured that we were both just having pretty mild cases that we caught early, which was why neither of us were that sick. When I got a 103.4ºF fever that evening and sweated until my clothes, my hair, and my sheets were completely soaked, I revised my opinion a little.

By the next morning, however, the medicine kicked in and I was feeling shockingly healthy. Antibiotics are an incredible tool and I shudder to think of what typhoid fever is like in areas where it’s becoming resistant (I suspect that’s part of what contributes to the CDC’s figures that list it as 20% fatal in untreated cases). As for me, I’ve been fairly surprised at how mild my bout has been considering that it is the most potentially serious illness I have ever had (not to say that at the worst peaks of the fever I didn’t start to feel a little scared). Mostly I just feel tired, a bit weak, dehydrated, and a little grumpy.

Update a week and a half later: Well, typhoid is getting one last laugh in before it’s finished with me. The first day after I started the medications I felt almost completely better. Then the fever came back one night and I started feeling sick again (though not nearly as bad as before). It’s looking I will have the standard two week recovery period that most people experience with this disease. However, by the time I write this, I am almost done with my antibiotics and can tell that I will be completely fine soon. It just wasn’t quite as mild of a case as I was so quick to declare it at first.

***

Yesterday, Dave texted me to say that Keln, the only Prozac hyena with a GPS collar, hadn’t moved in a few days. This usually means that a hyena is either dead or sitting on a natal den. Considering that we still hadn’t found Prozac’s den, I was anxious to go investigate either eventuality. The only hitch was that I hadn’t been on obs since I’d come down with typhoid a few days earlier. But I’d been feeling healthy enough all day, so I decided to give it a shot, reasoning that riding in a car for four hours and speaking into a voice recorder wouldn’t be all that taxing.

We drove towards the GPS point that Dave had sent me, and soon realized it was on the other side of the river. We put the car into low 4-wheel drive and inched down the steep rock bank. Wilson navigated across the swift, muddy waters that were well above the wheels, and gnawed his way up the sandy bank on the other side. We kept following the point. It started leading us closer and closer to one of the big lodges in the area. I thought this was strange considering that Keln is probably the spookiest hyenas I have ever met and generally stays away from people (one time many months ago when we drove up to the Prozac den, Keln actually whooped at the car as if it were a lion, and ran away). We caught sight of the tiny airstrip and not long after that came across a soccer field. We turned off road and began navigating a maze of bushes as I noted a very strange smell beginning to permeate the area. We tracked the point as far as we could, until we came to a tall electric fence; Keln’s point was 50m farther in and concealed in dense brush. Wilson poked around in the bushes for a few minutes and said there was some sort of a pond on the other side, but we both knew we wouldn’t see anything from our current position, so we loaded back into the car and drove around to ask the lodge for permission to track down a hyena inside their property.

At this point, I was fairly certain that Keln was dead. From everything I’d seen the past seven months or so, close contact with people usually meant trouble for hyenas. The scenario I painted in my mind was something like this: Keln got too close to the lodge, so the askaris (guards) killed her, realized that she had a collar, and so to avoid getting in trouble with KWS, they either cut the collar off and hid it behind the fence or just dumped the body in the pond. I couldn’t fathom any other way that she would end up on the other side of an electric fence so close to people.

When we got to the lodge, however, everyone seemed very willing to help. The head of the guards came with us to help us navigate the area near the fence, which he explained was the lodge’s sewage collection pond (that at least explained the aroma I’d noticed when we drove back there). We unloaded the telemetry gear and headed out. I instantly wished I had on closed-toed shoes as we left the brick path, ducked under low branches, stepped carefully across damp fields of waist-high grass, and scrambled up a pile of loose rocks (every single one, I couldn’t help but notice, was better snake habitat than I’d seen so far in the Mara). We followed the GPS towards Keln’s point, and I soon started seeing piles of old, whitened hyena poop. Then the guard pointed out towards a swampy area where the brush was over my head, and we heard something big running away from us. One of Wilson’s friends who came with us climbed up onto a mound and said he saw a hyena, and the guard said there were two. A wave of relief washed over me, but accompanied by a deep confusion. Why were there two hyenas in here?

We climbed up onto the cement edge of the man-made pond, which was covered with floating, leafy plants (and I assume full of poop) and I couldn’t help but think that this was the most beautiful “waste treatment facility” I had ever seen (I added the quotes because I don’t know enough about waste management to actually know what that area should be called). There were more different kinds of vegetation than I’d seen in one place in a very long time, and even the grasses were twice as long as outside of the fence. Unfortunately for our purposes, this meant we had very low visibility. As we climbed down on the other side of the pond, we suddenly heard a growl from inside the bushes to our right. We all hesitated as the guys tried to make sure it wasn’t a lion, but then decided it was still a hyena. The guard hit the edge of the bushes with a stick to scare it away, and we heard something large go running off. When we searched the area we found lots of old hyena poop and plenty of holes that could be used by cubs. Getting a visual on Keln seemed so unlikely in this terrain that we decided to call it a day and head back before it got too dark.

About this time, I realized that I was sweating through my clothes and that I was terribly thirsty. I almost stumbled climbing down from the edge of the pond, and there were spots in my vision. By the time we got back to the car I was completely exhausted. I know it sounds silly, but I’d forgotten that in the process of fighting off sickness, I’d definitely gotten weaker. Also in retrospect, traipsing around difficult terrain trying to track down a hyena was probably not what I should have been doing when I still had typhoid fever, but it was a comfort to know Keln was probably fine.

That, however, just opened up more questions. What on earth were the Prozac hyenas doing denning inside a lodge? And for that matter, how did they even get past the electric fence? I couldn’t decide if it seemed like an incredibly smart or incredibly stupid move. On the one hand, being so close to humans never seems like a good idea, but on the other hand, it was the sewage area so people didn’t go there often, and nothing else (like lions) could bother them if they were protected by the fence. We asked the head of the guards if he would agree to not hurt the hyenas there, and he did us one better—he told us he’d keep an eye on them and let us know if he saw any cubs. It was a completely different scenario than what I’d envisioned originally, but a decidedly pleasant one. These hyenas never cease to surprise me with their unpredictability and ingenuity.

(Update: Keln’s points have moved since our off-road trek, so we know she’s fine.)

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