Brief summary of this post: I reflect on my Nairobi trip, describe an encounter with a slender-tailed mongoose, do a necropsy on a cub, go on another balloon flight, struggle with the issue of grazing in the Maara, get emotionally attached to one of our clans, keep tabs on our paradise flycatchers, and get sick.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Nairobi trip. Usually, I try to stay away from big cities, and the thought of driving in Nairobi had me petrified, but it was actually fun to spend some time in a very different part of Kenya. Cities are so full, there’s always something new to see, and there are so many people that there is a huge variety of individual stories intersecting and swirling around. It’s also a more beautiful place than I would have imagined (although we mostly stayed in a sort of suburb region so I can’t necessarily speak for Nairobi as a whole)—it’s cooler and cloudier than the Maara but in some ways also more tropical. We frequently saw sunbirds (a type of small passerine bird that resembles the hummingbird and fills a similar niche but is only distantly related) and hawks out in the garden or around town.
My mow hawk went over better in Nairobi than it probably would in the states. Everywhere we went, people would stop and tell me, “I like your style” or “That is a very nice mow hawk.” Something about this reaction, especially from young men, struck me as strange, and it took me a few days to figure out why. Usually, when men in big cities (both in the states and abroad) notice my appearance, they express it in catcalls or whistles or other uncomfortable/rude/derogatory expressions. In Kenya, however, every single stranger that called out to me about my hair was actually very polite, and even when I instinctively tensed for something rude to follow the “Hey, miss!” it didn’t come. I know it’s sad that having male strangers be respectful when talking to me was a surprise, but it was definitely a pleasant change.
The other day, I was sitting in front of the kitchen tent reading a book and keeping an eye out for vervet monkeys that were trying to eat the dirty dishes, when I glanced up and saw a slender mongoose nibbling on food scraps a short ways away. Slender mongooses are very shy animals that, unlike many other mongoose species, travel alone and often stay hidden. I quietly watched it as it glanced nervously at every sudden movement one of the vervets above it made, but it didn’t seem to notice me at all, close as I was. Its tail was nearly as long as its body, and curled up over its back almost like a giant scorpion. As it moved over roots by the tent, its body flowed and curved like liquid. It spent around ten minutes foraging, and I watched it as I read my book. Finally, it started sniffing the air and moving closer to the tent. It crawled below the table, maybe a foot away from me, and sniffed at a tear in the tent fabric. It glanced past me with its eerie, bright yellow eyes, and did a double take. It fixed on my face, froze, and then bolted into the bushes. I had to laugh, because even though I hadn’t really been trying to keep still, the whole time it must not have realized I was there, or else thought I was a monkey.
One of the perks of being a well-established, long-standing research project is that when anything important happens that concerns hyenas, someone usually tells us about it. Unfortunately, these important events rarely seem to be good news for the hyenas. A few days ago, I walked into the lab tent and Julie informed me that one of the balloon pilots had called about a dead hyena that had been hit by a car. We all dropped what we were doing and waited to hear the details of where the body was. Hadley and I focused on two main hopes: 1) that it was no one we knew, and 2) that it was fresh enough to do a necropsy. It might sound morbid, but the thought of getting to see what a hyena looks like inside was tantalizing. I’ve never liked dissection labs in school, but that’s mostly because I detest the idea of tons of animals being killed and injected full of formaldehyde just so I can learn about body parts that I could look up in a book. Cutting open a wild hyena that is dead regardless of my interest in its insides is an entirely different matter, and one I was excited to experience.
We picked up one of the balloon pilots who knew where the body was, and drove out. In the car, he showed us the photos and I instantly felt a mixture of relief and horror. The first feeling was because it wasn’t one of our hyenas, but the second was because it was a cub or a very young subadult. Foolishly, it hadn’t even occurred to me that it might be a young hyena, and that somehow made the death even more tragic.
We drove out to an area I’d never been in, on the far edge of Prozac, or possibly not even in one of our study clans. When we located the body, our second hope was confirmed—despite resting for hours in the direct sun by the side of road, the body was untouched and still fresh enough to cut open. We took photos, and started to inspect her. She was small enough I could’ve picked her up in my arms, and the heat from the sun made her feel warm enough to still be alive; yet when we rolled her over to take photos of both sides, her neck rolled with a sickening crunch. As we weighed her, blood bubbled out of her nose and mouth, and then as we took measurements, we realized her scapula was in fragments. The car had hit her with a lot of force, and we could still see the skid marks in the dust of the road.
Finally, we’d done all we could with the intact body, and began the necropsy. The body was just starting to bloat, so as Wilson made the first incision with a scalpel along the belly, the stomach and intestines pushed out on their own with a hissing, squelching noise, full of expanding gasses. We had to cut through layers of subcutaneous fat along the belly and we were all aware of how healthy this hyena had been. Soon, we had her opened up and the sadness of death gave way to the curiosity of learning new things. We collected tissue samples from the lungs, kidney, heart, intestines, and more. We cut open the neck to see the trachea, and take samples from the lymph nodes. We collected biopsy punch samples of ear and neck muscle for DNA analyses. It was a very good reminder that not only do I need to refresh my anatomy knowledge (a lot), but that it is a lot harder to locate organs in a body that hasn’t been perfect preserved. We lost one of the kidneys below the tangle of intestines, and never could find the ovaries (though they’re apparently a lot harder to find in a young animal), but I would’ve been lost beyond the basics without the others’ help.
It took hours to collect all the samples, and the heat was unrelenting. The sun was so intense, it heated the black plastic of my sandals to the point that I had to take them off and go barefoot because they were burning my toes. While the vultures hadn’t found the body by the time we got there, the flies had, and the air was full of buzzing the entire time we were working. Surprisingly, I didn’t think the smell was bad at all, but I still covered my face with a bandana while we worked. Bodies are amazing, and we kept exclaiming with gross enthrallment at every new discovery or sound.
Finally, we collected all the tissue samples and the only task remaining was to collect the skull, which we needed to bring back. I hadn’t really been looking forward to this step since the skull was still very much attached to the body. We let Wilson get us started with a machete, and then Hadley and I diligently sliced away with scalpels until we had it free. Fully-grown hyenas have incredibly powerful necks, so I was grateful in that sense at least that it was a young subadult, since her neck took a little less time to cut through. It’s a strangely satisfying feeling to cut through flesh with a scalpel, as long as I don’t think about it too much. The only moment that was a little difficult for me was going from the comfort of faceless internal organs, to staring back at a fluffy hyena head and preparing to skin it. It was strange to peel back the layers of the face, reduce the eyes to so much springy white cornea and shiny black goo, lay the nose and lips next to the skull to which they had once belonged, and cut through the ear canals still full of yellow wax. Under the layers of skin, we discovered more signs of trauma—the nose and part of the forehead were fractured from the impact, and splinters of skull threatened to fall away with the flesh.
While we were working, I was surprised at how unemotional I felt. Hadley commented on the same feeling, and I suppose in part it’s simply we were too excited to feel sad. On the way back, however, what I did feel was tired and angry. No one should be driving fast enough here that they could fracture a hyena’s skull, break its neck, and shatter its shoulder. This isn’t an area where people need to be rushing from place to place, at speeds at which you wouldn’t be able to watch the animals, let alone stop yourself from killing them. Nothing in this reserve is regulated the way it’s supposed to be, and ultimately, it’s the ecosystem and the animals that suffer (and eventually the local people as well since they rely on the animals and natural resources). Maybe we’re the only ones that care about a single dead hyena, but it’s indicative of even larger problems within the reserve, which only start with speeding drivers.
The day after the necropsy, Hadley and I went on a balloon flight with Elly, the only woman balloon pilot on this side of the Mara (as far as I know). It was a very different flight, and I enjoyed it even more than the first. The balloon was much smaller and a bit more maneuverable than the 16-person balloon I flew in the first time. Elly has been flying here for 18 years, has an incredible store of knowledge, and feels very comfortable in the air. She spotted a cheetah while it was still a tiny white dot kilometers away, and even found us a hyena (though it wasn’t in one of our territories).
During the breakfast at the end of the flight, we chatted with the passengers and Elly about how the Mara has changed over time. The passengers were very curious about hyenas, and Hadley and I had fun explaining the research projects and telling them about our job. Elly described how she’s seen the Mara change just over the time she’s been out here. She said that around 15 years ago, the reserve managers decided to put a moratorium on further expansion of tourist facilities in the Mara, but that obviously didn’t last long. Instead, she’s seen the impact of more lodges, cars, balloons, tourists, and herders increase over time. Her thought was that the increase of protected areas outside of the reserve has actually amplified the impact on the Mara because those other areas are stricter in what they allow in terms of grazing and tourist numbers than the reserve is, so that ends up putting more pressure on the Mara.
The other night, Wilson and I were headed back from a long night of obs, when we tracked Helios into a giant group of hyenas. They were all running around in the dark, in and out of flashlight beams, and spread out across the plain. It was maddening trying to figure out who was who as they raced away and swapped places, and we couldn’t be sure how many there were in total. We caught glimpses of Parcheesi covered in blood, and a few others were a little red as well. Then, we realized that the reason things were so chaotic was that there were Maasai herders chasing the hyenas away. Then, Wilson swung the car around and the headlights lit up a group of men that seemed to materialize out of the darkness, standing around a cow that was lying on the ground.
I was reminded of the day that we saw the Tomson’s gazelle that had been gored by an elephant. At first, all I had noticed was that the tomi wasn’t running away from the car and was sitting more still than usual. I sensed rather than saw that something was wrong, and only confirmed why when I realized there was blood on the ground. Similarly, that night as we pulled up to the cow, at first I thought she might have a chance. There was a terrible gash on her neck, but at first that’s all I saw, and she was sitting so serenely and quietly that I thought that was it—until I noticed blood on the ground. Wilson asked me to take photos, so I got out of the car, and walked to the other side of the cow. That’s when I fully grasped what had happened. She was cut open just like we’d done with the necropsy only the day before, with her intestines spilling out of the gash in her groin and onto the stubbly yellow grass with a splash of red that was by far the most noticeable color that night.
I wasn’t really sure what to do, so I took a few photos of the wounds and stepped back. Wilson was talking to the herders in Maa and I couldn’t understand what was going on. While they talked, I just kept staring at the cow. It was clear now that there was no way she could possibly survive, and since they said she’d been there for about an hour, I wasn’t sure why no one was making moves to put her out of her misery (though in retrospect, she might have been well beyond pain at that point). Wilson translated that they might need a ride, and asked if we could wait, so we did. Soon, a white truck pulled up, full of men in the truck bed. One of them started shouting before the car had even stopped moving, waving his arms around at the herders and the cow. I couldn’t understand anything that was happening at the time, although later I learned that the cow belonged to the man who was yelling, which explained why he was so upset, but the tension of the kill combined with his anger made me nervous. I held a flashlight while the men loaded the cow into the truck and drove away to take it into town and save some of the meat. Then we gave the herders a lift back to the rest of the cows, which had walked very far during the time they’d been waiting. In the car, I asked Wilson what they’d been saying, and he said the owner was angry that the herders had lost a cow without at least killing one of the hyenas. That made me even more worried, but Wilson added that since we were there, they probably wouldn’t try to do anything to hurt the hyenas now because we’d know who did it. A few minutes later, he added that the owner was angrier at the herders than the hyenas anyways, since the hyenas wouldn’t have attacked the cow if there were people close by.
It’s tricky to know what to do or how to feel in these situations because cows are so important to the local Maasai; each cow represents an investment, a bank of sorts. When a Maasai makes money, he buys a cow, and when he needs money, he sells a cow. So the death of even a single cow can be very serious for a herder. On the other hand, they aren’t supposed to be grazing in the reserve in the first place, and it is an area set aside to protect wildlife from exactly this kind of disturbance; this is especially important for predators that are often the targets in human-wildlife conflicts. However, since the local community gets very little direct benefit from the reserve, they don’t have much incentive to respect the boundaries or see the value in leaving the area ungrazed. Beyond that, the herders also don’t have many other places they can go; the areas outside of the reserve are either already overgrazed to the point that nothing is left, or owned by private reserves that are much stricter about enforcing their boundaries. What it keeps coming down to is that there are too many cows and people than the area can support. The father of one of our askaris has around 900 cows, and since he has multiple wives and comes from a generation where many children born might not survive, he has 80 sons, each of which owns hundreds of cows of their own. And that’s just one family. There is no way that many people and cows can live in a small area with large numbers of predators and wild ungulates without some huge conflicts. And there will be no winners in a clash between the Maasai and the Mara because they both depend on each other.
I’ve started to get really attached to the hyenas in Prozac, one of our two secondary clans. Since Hadley and I each took on one of these clans as our personal responsibilities, Prozac has really started to feel like “my” clan. I start to feel restless when we haven’t gone in several days, and at this point I know the hyenas there about as well as Talek West, our main clan. Yesterday, Hadley and I took an extended evening in Prozac and Fig Tree (her clan), and got to see a lot of cubs. It was a fun night, and we were both very proud since it was only the second time that we’ve been out on obs by ourselves (the first time was much more difficult—Talek West decided to throw 50 hyenas running in and out of bushes at us at once). I finally confirmed that one of the moms has two cubs, sexed a bunch of the older cubs, and saw some interesting courtship behavior from one of the males.
Then, today, we decided that to get back on the schedule we’d set up, I should go to Prozac again this morning. This time, Wilson and I headed out early in the morning. It was very chilly in Prozac, since it’s closer to the confluence of the Mara and Talek rivers, and it had rained the previous night. It was foggier than I’d ever seen it, and it felt as though we were driving through a cloud. Thick blue mist hung over everything, and made the river look a mile wide. The sun rose through the fog spectacularly, giving off long half-distinguishable shadows in the mist. Then we crowned the ridge above the den, and with the sun just pouring over the edge into the depression below where the den hole sat nestled between two ponds that were still overflowing with light blue fog, we ran into a group of lions.
I felt as though I’d suddenly come home to find the front door smashed in. There were two giant male lions with black manes and four healthy-looking females relaxing on the edge of the bushes, lazily purveying the ponds below them. Ordinarily, I would enjoy seeing such a beautiful group of lions, but their presence at the den meant nothing but bad news for my hyenas. I looked around frantically for any sign of hyenas, living or dead, but found none. Wilson pointed out, none too encouragingly, that these lions were more than enough to take out even a large hyena clan, and I already knew that lions often target hyena cubs in attacks. Wilson said he’d seen it more than once, and that they didn’t eat the cubs they killed either, just chased them down and left. We drove all around the den and found no bodies, but I couldn’t release the nerves that were built up in my stomach. I didn’t relax at all until we found two of the cubs at another den farther away, but even now I can’t be completely sure they all made it out alive. The matter won’t be completely settled for me until I can account for all of them and their mothers, which might take weeks, or months if we can’t get into the territory once the rains come.
The paradise flycatcher that I wrote about in my last blog has continued to roost on that branch every single night until tonight. We’ve taken to calling him Zeke, and Hadley and I noticed that he was gone immediately, since we always glance at his branch on the way to bed. I’m hopeful that maybe he just moved roosts, but it still makes me quite sad to think I won’t get to say goodnight to him again. I’ve been seeing him around camp a lot lately (or at least I’m assuming the camp isn’t big enough to support more than one male), watching his swooping, fluttering forays to snatch insects out of the air. He tends to stay around the choo (the outhouse) during the day, probably to catch flies, so he’s easy to spot. I’ve even seen a female paradise flycatcher a few times, and one night, about a week ago as we were on our way to bed, we realized there were two birds perched together on Zeke’s roost. This one had a short tail next to Zeke’s long orange one, but they were both curled up near each other. At first we were so excited for Zeke’s new mate, but the next night she was gone, so we supposed it must have been a one night stand. I was hoping I might see her back again some day, but now that Zeke’s gone too, I probably won’t.
(Update: Clearly, I worry too much. Zeke was back a few nights later. Then, more recently, the female has taken to roosting where Zeke used to perch, and I guess Zeke must have found a new roost.)
October flew by, and it seems as though November is already set to do the same. Part of why it’s taken me so long to send out this post is that we’ve been working on sending our quarterly report (a compilation of lists and notes from data collection) in to Michigan. Then, right in the middle of an exceptionally busy workload, I managed to get the worst case of pinkeye I have ever had. I can vaguely remember having conjunctivitis when I was little, but this was even worse than the exaggerated lens of childhood had made it seem. It felt like someone had raked my eyeballs with a fork and then splashed them with acid for good measure. My eyes were so red I was afraid they would start bleeding, my lids became puffy after the first day, and my tear ducts acted as though they were dried out. I couldn’t keep my eyes open for more than a few minutes at a time, which effectively prevented me from getting any work done at all.
I went to the clinic in town where a couple of doctors visiting from Indiana told me it was probably viral conjunctivitis but they gave me some antibiotic ointment just in case it was bacterial. It didn’t help. Instead, I was stuck moping around camp listening to books on tape for more than a week. Every time I thought it was getting better, I rushed to try to edit transcriptions or work on ID photos, and regretted it almost at once as my eyes reminded me that it wasn’t time to go back to work yet.
Conjunctivitis can take up to two weeks to heal, and mine has been going almost that long, though now it’s to the point that I can actually do work. Finally, when I was starting to be able to keep my eyes open for a few hours at a time and was ready to get back to the hyenas, we got rained out for days. Then this morning, as soon as the rain let up, the car broke down. I feel like I’m stuck in some sort of bad joke, but at least I can keep my eyes open again.
We saw a swallow fishing the other day at one of the crossings. It was swooping down to the water and striking it with its feet, sending up spray.
I saw a rock python in camp the other night. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen the guys really scared of an animal. It was gorgeous, but disturbingly large, and I was a bit shocked to hear that it was only a juvenile. It was much longer than I am tall, and very thick. Its head was larger than any snake I’d ever seen, but it had such an intricate pattern of tans and browns. I do hope that it was just passing through camp, however; a fully-grown python can eat an adult impala, and while it’s rare for them to attack people, they can be deadly.
I don’t understand the birds here. I’m used to the peak of bird activity being around dawn and dusk, but many of the birds in camp seem to be at least partially nocturnal. They start getting noisy about two hours before sunrise, sometimes earlier if the moon is bright, and quiet down once dawn breaks. It’s mostly starlings that are the chatty ones, but I can’t figure out why they’re so active when it’s dark out.
We have a bushbuck in camp that keeps trying to give me a heart attack. Usually, it seems that predator species (hyenas, for instance) have yellow eye shine at night, while prey species have blue eye shine. This is helpful for determining what an animal is when all you see are its eyes shining through the trees, and I know not to worry when I see the dikdik’s blue eye shine at knee level. The bushbuck keeps freaking me out, however, because it has very large yellow eye shine just below head-height, which is exactly what predator eye shine looks like. This is not a comforting sight when I suddenly notice it five meters away as I’m brushing my teeth before bed.
Halloween was lots of fun. Hadley and I dressed as zebras and Julie dressed as a lion. We had fun taking photos imitating biologically accurate animal behavior.
A few weeks ago, we took the evening off and went to see a solar eclipse. I’d never seen one before, and it was stunning (though I definitely shouldn’t have looked directly at it, sunglasses or not).
We are starting to head into the rainy season and the insects love it. I think there has been an exponential increase in the number of bugs in camp over the past week. Some sort of winged ant or wasp hatched while I was sitting in the lab tent, and the entire roof was blanketed in their little black bodies. I didn’t stick around to actually figure out what they were, because we’d had several wasps trying to build nests in the tent and I didn’t want to guess wrong and get swarmed by several thousand stinging insects. An hour later, they had all dispersed.
The birds at least are enjoying all the insects in camp. I watched a white-browed robin-chat discover a group of ants on the lab tent wall and fly up to catch and eat them one at a time. It stopped briefly to make its soft melodious call in order to notify a second one to join in the feeding frenzy.
In Prozac, we just saw a female with three cubs. This is the first time I’ve seen triplets, and we were all very excited to witness it. Unfortunately for the cubs, three is an unlucky number for hyena babies because only two can nurse at a time, so one of them will usually die. Even so, it was still really fun to watch the tiny little cubs playing around together.