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 with Endor when we darted him a few months before the poisoning
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.
The first dead tawny eagle we found
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.
The dying vulture
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.
Hadley investigating a tawny eagle that was poisoned secondarily after eating a jackal that had eaten poisoned meat
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.
Mousetrap, as we found her
The growing pile of carcasses in the car
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.
the KWS team doing necropsies
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.
Xenon opened up for a post-mortem
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.
(Correction: Sycamore Fig is not Obama’s first cub. She had her first cub, Acacia, about a year ago, but lost him when she got her snare.)
Obama nursing Sfig