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.)