(Note: I suggest reading this in sections since it is so long and it may be a while before I can post again. I will add photos as my Internet allows, which may not be until I take a trip to Nairobi.)
I’ve been in Kenya almost a week and I finally have a moment to catch my breath and reflect on how different my life is in such a short amount of time.
My final month at home was packed with family and good-byes. I took a trip to Washington with friends from college, went to Chicago for Max’s graduation, spent time in Portland with my sister, celebrated the fourth of July with family friends, and got to know my adorable new nephew. It was perfect getting to see the most important people in my life before leaving for so long, but it was also very stressful trying to figure out how to pack my life for the next 14 months into a couple of suit cases.
But after everything, I’m finally here, and I’ve jumped right into the job as a research assistant for the hyena project. I only have a month to learn everything before I’m basically left in charge and at the moment that seems like a nearly impossible task. The hyena project focuses on demography, and the Talek clan we’re studying is the largest known group of hyenas at around 130 individuals. We’re also trying to expand research efforts in two neighboring clans. This means that I have to eventually learn how to identify more than three hundred hyenas based on their spot patterns, and at the moment I know about five. Maybe.
Essentially, the research consists of two different observation (or “obs”) sessions at sunrise and sunset, roughly 5:30-9:30am and 5:00-9:00pm. We drive around the territory to find wandering hyenas and visit the dens to record who’s present where, and collect behavioral data from them. What this means is that we drive around with a radio receiver and whenever we find or track down a hyena, we identify it, describe what it’s doing behaviorally, and take its location. There’s always one transcriber in the car who dictates notes into a voice recorder (and can potentially carry out obs solo), while the rest are either driving, helping with separate grad student projects, or assisting with identification and using powerful flashlights to spot light hyenas in the dark. It sounds fairly basic, but it gets incredibly difficult to identify and keep track of individuals in thick brush or tall grass or in very large groups of hyenas, especially if they’re constantly moving around or it’s very dark out. The behavior work can also be tricky because it takes time to learn what is and isn’t important to record, and somewhat subtle cues, such as whether a hyena has its ears back or not, can often make the difference of whether we record a behavior or not.
This is a hard job but I’m starting to enjoy it the more I understand what’s going on and the more connections I can make. I’m taking a ton of photos to help me identify the hyenas and it’s nice that they don’t have a specific breeding season so there are always cute cubs around (Note: actually, I have a slightly updated opinion of cubs—as adorable as they are, they are actually really frustratingly difficult to ID because they’re always running around and their spots change as they age).
Living in camp also takes a few days to get used to. Everyone has been so busy there was never a real orientation to where things are and how they work, so I’ve been piecing it together as I go. Some aspects I expected and others have been very new. I’ve also been learning a lot beyond just hyena identification, since as a Research Assistant I also help run camp. I’m learning how to drive and maintain the giant stick-shift land cruisers, where we go for fuel or supplies, the importance of community relationships with everyone around us, and where the landmarks are around the territory so I don’t get completely lost. I’m also improving my volleyball skills in my scant spare time, as well as my rock-throwing abilities to ward off marauding vervet monkeys.
Our camp is right in the middle of the bush on the edge of the park, and it’s both exciting and a little frightening to be living alongside wildlife. We have gennets and bushbabies that come to beg for scraps at the dinner table and I quickly learned how to time drinking water so that I don’t have to pee in the middle of the night when elephants or lions are wandering through camp. This morning when I woke up and went outside, I got attacked by a giant mob of biting ants (called siafu) that had relocated right in front of my tent and I was still finding stragglers in my pants hours later. I also found out that the dream I had last night in which an angry talking elephant grabbed me with its trunk and demanded that I divulge the location of the other members of camp was probably inspired by the very real elephants that had been frightened by lions and took it out on the bushes around our tents. As long as I’m smart, I know I’ll probably be safe since they’ve never had anyone get seriously injured out here (which is kind of incredible), but I also know that until I get the lay of the land, I could do something stupid without even realizing it. It’s very interesting to be in an environment where many of the animals you see could probably kill you if they wanted to. And I’m fairly certain that many of those that could really do want to.
The internet in camp is maddening. I expected to be isolated, but I didn’t expect it to be quite this bad. For all intents and purposes I really don’t have internet access at all. And considering that cell phones work best in-country, I do feel a little cut off (update: I found out later that it’s actually pretty cheap to call the states). I don’t mind as much now, but it’ll be very hard if I’m three months in and haven’t even been in good contact with my family. I like how full the camp is right now, with the IRES students (summer undergraduate assistants) and graduate students, but it will be very strange when there’s only four researchers here instead of eight. However, that is one advantage everyone mentions about this camp versus Serena, which is located in the wilder, better-managed half of the park—we get a larger social life in Talek. The camp itself is big, and we have Jackson, Joseph, Joseph Kidogo (little Joseph), Stephen, Lesingo, in addition to the Kenyan RA’s Benson and Wilson. We also get to interact with people in the community. One night we visited a balloon pilot that lives near one of the lodges for dinner, and played with his Xbox Kinect, which seemed out of place but really fun. We often go to town on market day and a weekly poker tournament with the balloon pilots in the area. That at least makes me feel less isolated.
Before I left to take this job, a lot of people mentioned how much they don’t like hyenas. Most people here don’t either, yet it’s clear that it’s a mostly undeserved infamy. They are very complex creatures living in a complex ecosystem surrounded by human impact and I still don’t understand a lot about them, but I thought it would be valuable to explain some of the misconceptions people have about them.
1. Hyenas are ugly.
If you see a hyena cub in person, or even a subadult or adult hyena playing with a cub, this idea becomes ludicrous. Despite often eating dead things and rolling in shit, they somehow smell better than most of the other animals out here (I’m looking at you, you stupid vervet monkeys), and they’re social, curious, and fluffy.
2. Hyenas are scavengers and also steal food from lions.
First of all, I’m not sure why people think of scavengers so negatively; do they really like dead animal carcasses lying around? I’ve seen a few carcasses out here and they smell horrendous. I greatly appreciate any animal that can help clear up that mess and it’s also phenomenally amazing that hyenas can digest bone and even teeth. They’re one of the most efficient carnivores in the world in that respect. However, while spotted hyenas did evolve from scavenger ancestors and are opportunistic foragers (meaning if they stumble upon a dead animal, they aren’t going to waste an easy meal), they are also one of the more successful hunters in East Africa and fully capable of bringing down their own prey. In fact, the old belief that hyenas steal kills from lions is actually the reverse—hyenas are better hunters than lions but lions are bigger, so they are often the real thieves.
3. Hyenas are mean
This one is a difficult one for me because ultimately I feel uncomfortable applying moralistic terms like “mean” to animals, even if the way I often see interactions is filtered through the lens of human social values. How do you define mean on an East African savannah? I’m sure the animals the hyenas prey upon don’t think very highly of them, but that can be said of any predator (and even humans), and other carnivores don’t always end up with the label of mean. Socially, hyenas adhere to a hierarchy that is enforced by aggression and dominance. They use complex aggression and submission social cues, and their interactions are part of why we’re out here studying them in the first place. To me it sometimes seems like a restrictive or aggressive lifestyle, although in reality it probably decreases violent conflicts that might result in physical harm if they didn’t have the social structure in place. Hyenas can also show affection for each other, and they don’t always strictly follow their rank; for instance it’s really cool to watch a low ranking female take on a high ranking one when it comes to defending her cubs.
I did learn that hyenas will very occasionally kill other hyenas; immigrant males, which are relegated to a very low rank in the clan, will sometimes try to kill a weak female, for unknown reasons, and a hyena might try to kill its younger sister or brother since that cub will replace her as the highest rank among its siblings. But just to put it in perspective, whenever a new male lion takes over a pride, he kills all of the young cubs to bring the females into estrous, and we still call him King of the jungle. (In some ways I think lions actually deserve the title, but only when you think unromantically about what medieval kings were actually like). Essentially, what I’m getting at is that applying human morality to animals doesn’t really work, but if we’re going to do it with hyenas, we might as well be consistent. Hyenas being “mean” or “evil” is a bad excuse not to like them, and if you want to say that, then there are a lot of other animals that should probably go on your dislike list.
Ultimately, what I think people are really getting at when they tell me they don’t like hyenas is: why are you studying hyenas specifically? What’s so special about them?
There are a lot of answers, many of which I’m still learning about, so I’ll probably list more reasons as time goes on. One of the first is their social system that I’ve already mentioned a little about. From a pure science and curiosity standpoint, social carnivores give you a lot to research because of the ways they interact with each other and their environment. Add in a changing environment with human pressures and they become a very interesting conservation subject. Plus, the fact that hyenas (compared to other large predators) are doing decently well even in disturbed areas also has huge conservation implications as well as trying to see what allows them to do so. The evolution of their social system, since it is similar to primates, may be able to shed some light onto the evolution of our own social system.
Hyenas are interesting to me personally because they are so unique. They are in their own family, not related to felines or canines, and are outliers socially and physiologically: they are a female-dominant species (somewhat rare for mammals) and both males and females have phalluses. The female phallus plays a large social role, especially when two hyenas greet each other and sniff or groom the other animal’s phallus. The female phallus is actually an enlarged clitoris, and they even have a pseudo-scrotum that is their fused labia. However, this means that the female phallus is also a birth canal that tears when they give birth and often causes them to lose their first litter. Their bodies are also uniquely shaped in other ways as well, such as their immense jaw muscles made for chewing bone, or their strange sloping backs that place their center of gravity low to the ground for stability.
Another factor that makes hyenas so unique is their immune system. They can carry a ridiculous amount of diseases or infections without being affected, including anthrax and rabies. They also heal so quickly it seems impossible. We can see an animal with a large fresh wound or a limp and then a few days later it’s as if it never happened. One of my favorite males, Oakland, got a snare around his neck (snares are used by some of the local people to protect their cows or shoats and are designed to kill hyenas), but by the time they could dart him to take it off, the skin had already grown over it. It’s been years since, and Oakland does just fine, though he does have a very distinctive whoop.
The other part of why I was so excited to get this job has to do with the study itself. The hyena project has been going on since the 80s, so there is a phenomenal history of data. We know the lineages of multiple generations of hyenas in the Talek West clan and have an unprecedented amount of demography data. It is incredibly difficult to fund a study like this that’s looking at animals in the wild for three years, let alone thirty — there are questions you simply cannot answer until you have a large enough dataset, and rare events that you will never see unless you’re out here for this long. For instance, the project recently recorded allonursing for the first time, which is when a cub nurses from more than one female. They previously thought hyenas wouldn’t do that, but it seems that in rare circumstances such as the death of a mother, some will.
The project also looks at so many different aspects relating to hyenas—their demography, their behavior, their ecology, their genetics, their environment, their conservation, their applications to evolutionary theory or human health. It shows incredible wisdom to take such a holistic approach to research and take advantage of the giant dataset that this project has acquired, yet I also admire the main or initial focus on primary rather than applied research, which is of incredible value but harder to get funding for.
A month in, I’m only just starting to feel like I know a little bit about the project and the hyenas. It’s still painfully slow going learning IDs and I’ve had several nights where I’ve almost started crying with frustration because I feel like I should know how to do this better by now.
The camp feels much smaller now that the IRES students have left. My new RA Hadley just arrived and it was wonderful to finally meet the person with whom I’ll be spending the next year. It was also fun getting to show her around and explain things the way I wish I would’ve had things explained to me. She is learning incredibly quickly, and I think she might get the IDs before I do. I really enjoy showing her around the territory and getting excited about “simple” things like giraffes that other people here, especially Benson and Wilson, can be pretty blasé about. I don’t care how long I’m here for, I think I’ll always laugh when I see a giraffe run.
When you get to Kenya, everyone wants to know what you want to see. The big five? Aardvarks? Leopards? I realized when they asked that I hadn’t even contemplated the question before I left and didn’t have a “list” of things I really had a strong desire to see. Except for one: I wanted and fully expected (given the job description) to see a hyena kill. It wasn’t necessarily because I thought it would be beautiful, but because I’d read so much about how their bodies have been adapted for their specific style of hunting—a hyena test chases a herd of animals, picks out a weak individual, runs it to the point of exhaustion, then uses its immense jaw strength (the greatest strength relative to size of any mammal) to grab on and let the animal thrash itself out.
But whenever I mentioned that I wanted to see a kill, people gave me a warning look. One of the balloon pilots spent a long time telling me about some of the intense kills he’d seen from the air and how most tourists (and even he sometimes) cry when they see one. The problem, Dave, our senior graduate student explained, is that they don’t have a kill bite, so the animal does not die as quickly as you would imagine. This made some amount of sense to me, so I tried to remember and recognize that as an animal lover (and a vegetarian to boot), actually watching a kill would probably be hard for me. But I still really wanted to.
Today I got my wish. We saw the whole process from start to finish, and for the first time I think I actually understand the phrase “the circle of life” in a way that doesn’t sound trite or cheesy. We were up on lion hill that overlooks the territory to show Hadley landmarks on her first day transcribing. As we drove down, I spotted the test chases on the plain below and we sped over. Just as we got there, we saw Parcheesi chasing down a small wildebeest as it weaved between groups. It was amazing that she kept track of the same individual even as it tried to mix with the herd. Nevertheless, it was a very brief chase. Within a minute, the wildebeest was on the ground making a deep moaning alarm call as Parcheesi immediately cracked its leg bone so it couldn’t run away and started ripping at the soft flesh at its groin and lower belly. As soon as the animal started crying out, hyenas began materializing out of nowhere to start feeding. As everyone had warned me, the wildebeest took an uncomfortably long time to die. He kept calling out even as three hyenas were well into eating him, but quickly stopped struggling, and eventually fell quiet due to shock. It was impossible to tell at which point it actually died, but it was doomed from the very beginning. Hyenas seem fairly picky about who they actually hunt but once they choose, they have one of the highest success rates of any predator out here.
The ones who got to the kill ate quickly before the highest rankers took over and monopolized the carcass. In less than a half hour there was nothing left except for some ribs and skin—hyenas eat every single bit. We saw the whole thing. In the end, it wasn’t exactly the kill itself that was the most impressive, but the transition from living, breathing animal to absolutely nothing.
I felt fairly prepared for the experience and I couldn’t take my eyes off even though I felt a little nauseous for a while after. It’s very different to watch as kill as a tourist versus a researcher who has an intimate connection to the animals involved. It really helped knowing all of the individuals that were feeding and knowing that the kill was fueling the lives of the individuals I see day in and day out. I might see Parcheesi’s cubs one day. Or I might have to do a necropsy on her when she dies. I watched Buenos Aires feeding at the kill, and perhaps tonight I will watch her nursing her cubs. It’s one thing to watch a kill as a spectacle; it’s entirely different to feel connected to it.
Update: A week after Parcheesi’s kill, the whole event came full circle. We were sitting at a den on a beautiful crisp morning, when Parcheesi came up and started groaning into a den hole in one of the bushes. A few minutes later she emerged holding a small black cub in her mouth, the rising sun bathing her and her child in soft orange light. It was the first cub I have ever seen that young; it was probably only four and a half weeks old. She let it totter in circles for a few minutes before plucking it back up in her mouth and carrying it back to the den, looking around nervously like any other young mom and staring at us intently for a moment before disappearing back into the dark green leaves.
Some interesting tidbits of camp life:
We have three genets and a bush baby that come to beg at the table sometimes during dinner. Usually, I feel weird about feeding wild animals because they can become habituated, the food can be bad for them, and it can lead them into conflict with humans. However, in this case the animals in question only visit at night (we have dinner around 9), they don’t come around every night, and are too darned cute for me to feel terrible about feeding. I just really hope chapatti isn’t bad for their digestive systems. Last night I finally got to feed the bush baby out of my hand, and by the end of the night it started holding on to the side of my chair to grab the food I held out to it. Each time, it approached cautiously, tilted its head from side to side to find the right angle, then stood up on its hind feet, reached out with extremely humanlike mini hands, nabbed a chunk of avocado I held out to it, gobbled it down with a delightful smacking noise, and then licked its fingers to get the green goo off. I kept trying not to giggle so I wouldn’t frighten it off.
Driving is a challenge. The cars have been used so much that they’re probably more forgiving than they should be, and I don’t stall too much, but I’m by no means a good stick-shift, off-road, animal-chasing driver. The sort of driving required for the job means that I have to pay attention to more things at once than I am currently actually capable of (“What, you mean I have to learn how to use a clutch petal while chasing after hyenas, going off road, and not getting us stuck in a giant hole or rock field?!”). A good indication of this was when I was driving for Wilson on obs one morning while it was still dark. We were searching along a lugga (the bushy areas where water collects during the wet season) where we’d been seeing hyenas the last few days, when all of a sudden Wilson grabbed my hand. He told me to start backing up immediately. At first I couldn’t see why, and then I dimly made out a giant shape on the ground beginning to raise itself up barely ten meters in front of us. Somehow I had almost run us into a sleeping elephant. I put the car into reverse without looking at the gear shifter for the first time ever and only realized afterwards that it was also probably the first time I had ever backed up without stalling. I was both proud and a little horrified at myself, but I just hope I never accidentally get that close to an elephant again. I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t stall the second time. In conclusion: learning to drive stick shift in Maasai Mara is not as easy as it sounds.