Another long post! I thought I might start to give a very short summary at the top of my longer posts so that people who don’t have time can get a vey general idea of what I’m doing. We have been giving talks to different groups about what it’s like to do research here, which is really fun. I’ve been learning more about the different disturbances to our study area and how it affects the hyenas. We have been very shaken by the Westgate mall terror attacks though all of us are safe here. I’ve also been thinking about the impact of medicine on daily life here, and I’ve shared some fun animal anecdotes.
A critical piece of any research is communication of the findings. Usually, this takes the form of journal publications, but often communication to non-scientists can be just as valuable, especially when dealing with animals that most people don’t like. I noticed with my bat research that I felt best when I could convince at least one person that bats were important, and similarly with the hyena project, I actually enjoy the opportunities we get to talk with people about what we do. Every so often, these opportunities arise in the form of either lectures or lunches with different groups of people. So far, I’ve only been to two, but they’ve been fun and insightful.
The first talk we gave since I’ve been here was for a group of Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) students. KWS is the group from the government that oversees national parks and reserves, and KWS rangers are similar to park rangers in the US, except in Kenya they are trained in military operations as well as management strategies. Usually, KWS rangers look like soldiers, with big guns, and cammo uniforms, which is often an effort to combat poachers or to be able to deal with larger animals like elephants if they were to become problem animals. I also suspect that in this country, as in many that might seem slightly politically unstable, guns are directly associated with power and respect, and so are seen as a necessary emblem or tool for someone who is supposed to be in charge. KWS rangers demand respect, and while some individuals I suspect are seen as abusing their power, on the whole they seem to garner goodwill from locals. Much of the power they are given is a result of the difficult and dangerous jobs they undertake; KWS rangers are often the people killed in altercations with poachers or rogue animals and their numbers are spread thin, with only 2,700 rangers for Kenya’s 46,600 km2 of protected areas (and it’s anyone’s guess as to how many poachers there are for the same area). An interesting side note is that although KWS has a research station at Maasai Mara, they do not manage the reserve, which is run by a local council. However, they are still the ultimate organization with jurisdiction over wildlife and conservation.
So in many ways, KWS students represent the future of wildlife management in Kenya. Coming away from the talk, I felt at least a little more hopeful about that future than when I walked in. We gave the presentation in a bus, and passed around skulls and the ID books we use in the field. Benson and Dave did all of the talking so that Hadley and I could observe how to do presentations, and I definitely learned some cool new hyena facts from them. I was also very impressed with the students’ enthusiasm and questions. Dave said they were the best questions he’s ever gotten. Even some of the most basic queries were some of the most fundamental to what we do here—Why are females dominant (and why do they have pseudo-phalluses) and how did that system evolve? How did the hyena’s distinctive gait and hunting abilities evolve? What long-term trends have we seen in behavior in response to human disturbance? Where do males go when they disperse and how do they learn their new rank? How do we ensure that our results get communicated to the local people?
Dave and Benson worked through all of the questions. They talked about the theory that when spotted hyenas started to switch from scavenging to hunting, their social group size expanded to take advantage of a new prey source and to be able to locate and defend kills. It also became much more difficult for the young hyenas to get enough food, because it takes so many years for their skull and bone-crushing musculature to develop, so they couldn’t compete with the feeding frenzy that resulted at kills; females had to become bigger and more aggressive, and eventually dominant to males, to ensure their offspring survived. They highlighted some of the behavioral changes that have been observed over course of the study in response to human population expansion (which I’ll describe in more depth below). They explained how young hyenas have to learn their rank in the hierarchy by seeing who is aggressive or submissive to them and how their mothers react, and how males have to start over on the bottom when they leave their natal clan and find a new one in order to mate.
Their professor was very encouraging as well, and at the end he gave some concluding remarks about how we must take action to protect these animals: “We must conserve them today. Not here today and gone tomorrow, but here today and here tomorrow.” He told us afterwards that unlike most Kenyans, he is a big fan of hyenas and their incredible survival abilities. “After all the other carnivores are gone, hyenas will still be here, so people better start learning to like them.”
The other talk we gave yesterday couldn’t have been in a more different setting, but it was also very fun. We drove out past Talek town, forded a giant river, and wound our way through a new part of the reserve I’d never been to, to speak with a group of conservation-minded tourists. We sat and ate lunch with two families and casually explained what our lives in the field were like, what we found most interesting about hyenas, and why they are much, much more interesting than their reputation implies. I love the Lion King, but that movie can make it so difficult just to get to neutral ground with hyenas. Most of the negative impressions I get from people are just that they’re ugly, however, and that usually goes away when we show them cub photos.
There were four young girls there that were surprisingly attentive and excited. I knew that we’d actually communicated something when the kids started joking about what ranks they’d have if they were hyenas: “Ha! Since I’m younger than you, I’d be higher ranking!” “Yeah, but mom would still outrank you.” “At least dad would still be lower ranking than any of us.” When I was their age, I don’t think I was actually aware that field research was a real job, so it was fun to see the girls saying things about how much fun it would be to do what we’re doing, or asking us if people did work like this with other animals too.
The area around their camp was also very illustrative of the changes that have gone on in the part of the Mara where our study is based—the grass in this new area was tall and ungrazed by livestock, there were many fewer tourist tracks criss-crossing everywhere, and there were more animals of a greater diversity out grazing in sunny patches between riparian forested stretches. We even saw a leopard on the way in, something that would be laughably hard to find where we are every day. The immense human disturbance in our study site has a huge impact on animals, and the long-term nature of the study enables us to reveal these changes over time. We have another study site that’s also on the other side of the river in the reserve, but in some ways I’m glad to be at this one precisely because it isn’t as well managed or pristine.
Kay Holekamp, the PI for the entire project, was here for a couple of weeks to check in, and it was incredible to hear her explain how when she started the project in the 80s, Talek town was just a few family’s bomas (essentially a small complex of mud huts with an acacia fence). Now, there could be as many as 10,000 people living there in stone buildings with tin roofs; there are tailors, mechanics, multiple general shops and grocers, clubs, carpenters, two clinics, and trash covering every inch of ground as packs of children and feral dogs run around the potholed streets. It is the same familiar façade I have seen in many places in the world where development and populations are expanding faster than infrastructure or planning can keep up with. This growing population puts heavier and heavier demands on the natural systems around it. In this area where the population is predominantly Maasai, and the soils are no good for farming, the most obvious pressure is cattle and shoat grazing. Historically, the Maasai were nomadic, so the effect of the cattle was similar to that of the wildebeest migration and allowed for regeneration of new grasses, but now, it’s very easy to overgraze an area. There are cattle trails everywhere, and the grass is short year-round. Theoretically, the profits from the Mara would go towards the community so that they wouldn’t need to support themselves solely from their cattle and might be able to own fewer and graze them elsewhere, but as with so many systems in Kenya, it’s ineffective and fraught with corruption, so that most people get no benefit from the reserve besides what they can get from it directly themselves.
Meanwhile, tourism has also expanded largely unchecked within this side of the Mara. There used to be one balloon company in operation when Kay started; now there are eleven bases, flying almost every day. The giant vehicles that carry the balloons and passengers can do a lot of damage to the ground, especially when they have to drive off-road to get to where the landings are. We’ve also seen first hand how the hyenas get spooked when some balloon pilots fly a little too low, and we have one clan that we study that we think moved dens twice within a few weeks because of a combination of tour vehicles getting too close and balloons flying too low. The tour leaders for game drives also know that people will tip them better the closer they get to the animals, so they drive off road to get an up-close look at a cheetah, or to wake up a snoozing lion so that their tourists can get a better photo. They start to create new roads, new camps, all over the place.
This combination of different anthropogenic impacts creates a disturbance regime in the area that the hyena project has documented over the years. In the beginning, Kay could watch hyenas interact in the middle of the day, or find dens in the middle of an open plain. In the span of just three or four generations, however, the Talek West clan’s behavior has adapted to this greater human impact, and they have become more nocturnal and prefer more enclosed den sites to avoid people. In many ways, the disturbances around this clan have illustrated how hyenas are incredible survivors. Other carnivores like lions have left the area, unable to live near people, which has removed the hyena’s main competitor and may explain why this is the largest clan on record. We’ve seen that some hyenas, especially low-ranking ones, are comfortable spending time or even denning in and around town, eating garbage or sometimes livestock, although this puts them into conflict with people.
Yesterday afternoon, we were at a party with some of the balloon pilots, eating food and chatting, when suddenly one of them turned off the music and called our attention to the TV screen. Everyone quieted down as we saw images of police with giant guns and cammo uniforms crouching beside a popular upscale Nairobi shopping mall, interspersed with clips of people running out of the building and collapsing, holding a hand to a bullet wound, or close-up shots of bullet holes in car windows. The announcer on the TV didn’t sound much more sure of what was going on than we were, but she said that gunmen had entered the mall and started shooting, that they had taken people hostage, and the local hospitals were already overwhelmed. They were calling it a terrorist attack although it wasn’t until late last night that Al Shabaab claimed credit for the killing. Everyone at the party pulled their phones out and started calling or texting whoever they knew in Nairobi. One of the pilots gave a shocked laugh and said he’d been at the same shopping center just a few days before when he was up in Nairobi. There was a children’s cooking competition at the mall when the gunmen attacked and many of those killed or injured were kids. Even now, nearly 24 hours after it started, there are at multiple gunmen, no one seems to know how many, and tons of civilians still stuck in the mall. We listened to President Uhuru Kenyatta on the radio this morning, telling everyone that the terrorists are jealous of Kenya’s open and free country and that this is a time for people to come together in unity and love. He promised to punish those responsible, and urged people to donate blood since the hospitals don’t have enough for the more than 150 wounded. The death toll is at 39 but it keeps going up; I’m sure they’ll find more when they actually get inside the mall. There were relatives of the president and members of the government that were killed in the attack, which was likely a retaliation to Kenya’s military presence in Somalia.
I feel very safe where we are, so far from Nairobi, and it reminds me that as much as I sometimes worry about elephants or buffalo, they are still far less dangerous than my fellow human beings. It’s also interesting to think about what the response would be like if this sort of an attack happened in the US—I assume it wouldn’t take them an entire day to stop gunmen in an enclosed space, but it’s so hard to know what’s really going on at these times. The numbers they give for how many gunmen, how many wounded, and how many killed keep changing. The news footage was certainly much more close-up than it would have been in the states—we could see wounded people in pain or shock, being loaded into the ambulance or carried from the sidewalk.
It’s hard to be a foreigner in these sorts of situations when you can feel a country reel and turn into itself for healing—the call of unity that Kenya needs so badly is one I observe mostly from the outside regardless of how many of the people injured were foreigners themselves or how shaken I feel personally.
What strikes me most, now nearly a week since the Westgate mall terror attacks started, is just how long this has gone on and how it keeps getting worse. I knew from the beginning that the death toll had nowhere to go but up, but it seems sickeningly unfair that people are still dying even after the gunmen have all been arrested or killed. The building is collapsing in on itself, crushing more people as they try to rescue anyone left and recover bodies. In the past, most terror attacks that I’ve been aware of have been a massive, single event where many people died, but that had a more finite beginning and end. The twin towers were hit with an airplane and collapsed. While it took many days to uncover bodies, we could all see the very definitive end of the attack itself, with the buildings crumbling to the ground. The last major attack Kenya faced was the embassy bombing, which again, was a fixed explosion and required a very different kind of reaction than the Westgate mall. In some ways I think this attack was much more calculated for spreading despair than the embassy bombing was, because we’ve been strung along for days, holding out hope for the hostages, hoping that the death toll won’t grow higher, and then watching each day as it inevitably does. It’s hard to hear politician’s speaking with hollow words, promising that they will rescue everyone when we know many are probably already dead, saying that the attackers will be punished when it’s impossible to come up with an equivalent sentence for shopping carts full of wounded children.
At the same time, however, Kenya really is pulling together. This country is made up of so many different kinds of people, from so many different, often clashing, backgrounds—tribalism and colonialism are still very present here—but this event also highlights just how much Kenya values community and family. This country, despite the resignation I often hear from its citizens, is still very proud of itself and has a profound capacity for positive change and growth. The same might have been said about the US after 9/11 and I can’t say we did anything positive with the unity-through-mourning that came after the attacks, but maybe it will be different in Kenya.
I’m beginning to appreciate medicine in a whole new way out here. For most of my life, I have been lucky enough to not ever be terribly sick or injured—I would be hard-pressed to think of something I would have died of without medical treatment. Out here, I have already seen half of the guys at camp get sick with life-threatening diseases like malaria or typhoid fever that could be fatal without medication. Yesterday we took one of the guy’s sisters to the local clinic. She was very sick, crying from the pain, shaking with chills, coughing so that it racked her body, and unsure of where she was. The doctors said they thought she had cerebral malaria and pneumonia. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone so sick and it was frightening. While her brother was worried, and it was serious enough that they had to take her to the hospital in a bigger town farther away, no one was overly concerned. One of the guys told me that his brother had cerebral malaria a few years ago, and that it’s not uncommon to see. They’re prepared for it here. By that night, they called and said that she was looking much better after a series of injections and IVs and should recover fine.
It’s strange to how casual people are here about what I would consider serious diseases. It’s so much a part of their lives, and the medical system is so geared towards treating things like malaria, typhoid, dysentery, and other diseases that it seems like most people just shrug, take the medicine, and get better. It’s important for me to see the range of reactions; two of the guys in camp had malaria, and neither one looked very sick, just a little tired or sore, but on the other end of the spectrum this girl was too sick to stand. When people in the US think of malaria, we typically think of the latter response, and for me it’s helpful to remember that these diseases both are and are not as serious as we make them out to be. There millions of people who get malaria each year and survive. But there are also hundreds of thousands who get it and do not.
As a going away/ birthday present for Wes, I let him give me a mohawk. It was really fun and my head feels so light with half its hair gone. We don’t have many mirrors in camp so I don’t have a very good sense of what it actually looks like, but I like it so far.
A monkey got into the kitchen tent a while ago. It was crashing around as we all tried to get it out by hitting the outside of the tent. I expected the tent to be a wreck but almost nothing was out of place except the half of a pineapple it had eaten.
We’ve had a couple of weeks with a lot of rains, and now many of the trees are starting to flower. The air is electric with the sound of buzzing bees, more waste-paper flowers are popping up everywhere, and the grass is a vibrant green. I can’t wait to see what it’s like in the rainy season.
The other night on my way to my tent, I found a paradise flycatcher sleeping in a tree next to my tent. They’re one of my favorite birds, and I frequently see them zooming around catching insects during the day, so it was strange to see it so still asleep. It was sitting in the tree and had curled itself into a little feathery ball. It’s head, which has a small black crest on it and usually looks large, was completely hidden beneath its wings. Sleeping, it was a perfect sphere except for its foot-long, thin orange tail. My first instinct was to take a photo but it looked so funny and vulnerable I didn’t want to risk waking it up. It’s been there every night since as well, so I’m trying to think of a name.
We got very lucky on our last trip to the Prozac clan, and saw a leopard hunting impala. It spent so long trying to sneak close enough to pounce, but then one of the impalas smelled him and it lost its chance. It was a good illustration of why hyenas are more successful hunters than most other carnivores out here—although it probably takes a lot more energy to run a wildebeest or an antelope to the point of exhaustion, the hyena doesn’t have to worry about its prey suddenly catching wind of it and losing it’s chance. It takes more work but hyenas have greater assurance of the payoff.
We’ve been getting frustrated at our hyenas lately because they’ve been very difficult to get to. We discovered around 70 or more wildebeest carcasses in the river near where we think the clan might be denning, and the hyenas have been ecstatic with all the free food. We think the wildebeest must have tried to cross when the river was too high and then got washed down stream. I would’ve thought this would make for a perfect situation, since well over half the clan has been spending most of their time near there, but unfortunately, the river is at the bottom of very steep banks, so we can’t get down to the water, and visibility is poor from the top. As if this was not enough, the entire area is surrounded by impenetrable bushes that the hyenas like to hide in when they aren’t busy eating the carcasses in the river. So it’s been very difficult trying to identify fifty hyenas at once based on brief glances. Nevertheless, the huge number of carcasses has been neat to watch because it draws in scavengers from all over. The first night, we saw crocodiles yanking meat off of the bloated wildebeest, and during the day, the whole area is blanketed by vultures and marabou storks. After a few days, the stench has gotten nauseating, but many of the carcasses have already been cleared away by the collective scavenging effort.
We came across a bizarre sight at a fresh kill yesterday. The hyenas were feeding on a young wildebeest, and about twenty meters away, a group of warthogs were feeding on the wildebeest’s intestines. I’d never seen a warthog eating meat before, and it was also interesting to see them sharing a kill with hyenas (although the hyenas don’t seem to like the intestines and probably weren’t too unwilling to share that part).
We’ve seen a lot of nighthawks near one of the dens. They’re so well camouflaged that I usually only notice them when they’re flying away, flashing their tell-tale white wing bars, but last night we managed to creep up to one and keep it in the headlights of the car. We got to see it very close up as it sat in the road, prepared to bolt in a heartbeat. The way it jerked its head around reminded me of a robot; one moment it would be looking at us with one giant red eye, and then it would suddenly turn its head 180 degrees backwards so quickly I couldn’t see it move, then it would snap its head back to face us again. After a few moments, it took off and joined another nighthawk and together they flew away into the darkness.
We just got to Nairobi for my first trip here since I arrived in Kenya. I was terrified of driving because it’s the first time I’ve driven in another country and also by far the largest city in which I’ve driven, but so far it has been manageable. I’ve discovered that I can be extremely patient when driving, and can go as slow as I need and other cars will move around me. Hadley was very helpful in giving me support and advice and she passed on the helpful reminder that “the other cars don’t want to get in an accident either” (even if they sometimes seem like they do).