Summary of this post: I introduce our hyenas as a cast of very complex personalities, go to a circumcision party, speculate as to why the wildebeest refuse to migrate, make a few short observations about life in the Mara, entertain guests from my days at SFS, and get hit (hard) by the rainy season as I finally learn how to drive in the mud. Enjoy.
Working on this project helps put humanity in perspective. The longer I spend watching animal behavior, the more I am reminded that humans are just animals, and hyenas can at times behave remarkably like people. Much of our casual conversation revolves around the hyenas, as though they were characters on a soap opera we were keeping up with, or friends we were gossiping about:
“Alfredo is such a fun mom, she’s always playing with Trunks.”
“You wouldn’t believe what we saw today. We found all these males acting sexy towards a female, and then we realized it was Neon. Isn’t she a little young?”
“Oakland is always hanging around the den, do you think he’s the dad of some of the cubs?”
“Accra was definitely acting sexy towards Keln and Ulzi today, but we saw him mating with Oscar a week ago. He’s such a player.”
“Mousetrap is so mean! She keeps ganging up against her own sister.”
I know it sounds a bit unprofessional to talk about study subjects in this way, but it’s a testament to how complex and fascinating their social lives are. And there’s simply no way to spend this much time with animals and not pick up on patterns of different personalities. On a daily basis, we record behaviors from an ethogram and write up our notes based on observation, but when we talk about it to each other, we add our own opinions to the mix. For instance, we record behaviors associated with mating, such as “bowing,” when a male puts one paw on the other forearm and bends his head over it, but mating behavior also generates a lot of chatter among the researchers, speculating about who might be interested in who, and who might get pregnant soon. We each have hyenas that are our favorites, ones that we think are clever or stupid, ones we think are sweet or mean. For instance, one of my favorite males is a new immigrant named Tel-Aviv, or Tavi. It’s hard to think of a better word to describe him than self-confident. He joined the clan, and while most immigrant males, even ones that have been here for years, stay on the periphery and don’t try to interact that much since their low rank usually ensures they’ll get beat up, Tavi has been a social butterfly. He also hits on all of the females, bowing all the time, which I thought was funny since he’s so new.
It’s also interesting to see anecdotally how personalities differ even regardless of rank or relatedness. Often, high rankers seem more aggressive since they will win more fights and get to have their way at kills or pretty much any social event. However, it becomes clear that even though some hyenas have the authority to boss others around, they use this power sparingly. For instance, there are two sisters, Amazon and Buenos Aires (Buar for short), that despite being two of the highest-ranking hyenas in the clan, could not be more different in terms of temperament. Amazon goes out of her way to aggress on other hyenas, including her own cubs, and even tries to get away with things like stealing food from the few hyenas that are higher ranking than she is. Buar, on the other hand, is a very peaceful hyena. When she comes up to the den, she often makes the rounds, grooming and groaning over all the cubs and mothers. I’ve even seen her bring food to the den and allow cubs from lower-ranking females to feed alongside her own cubs. Scientifically, they are taking two very different strategies in terms of social and physical survival; Personally, they just have two very different attitudes towards life.
What’s interesting about all these personal observations and the hyena gossip around camp is that there are actually studies that measure hyena personalities. While we’re casually chatting about the latest hyena gossip, many of the questions we raise could actually lead to research questions. I still don’t know much about the world of behavior and personality research compared to ecology or demography, but it’s wonderful to know that there are people studying an aspect of the hyenas’ lives that is clearly tangible to those of us who spend so much time with them. I think sometimes personality studies can get a bad rap because of worries about anthropomorphizing animals, but if the alternative is to simply ignore a huge facet of animal biology, then I think it’s well worth the risk.
Lesingo, one of our askaris (night guards) invited us to go to the celebration for his son’s circumcision ceremony. The timing was perfect since the researchers from Serena were here to celebrate Thanksgiving with us, so we all got dressed in our Maasai clothes and headed over to Lesingo’s boma.
Circumcision ceremonies are a right of passage for young Maasai men (female circumcision, or genital mutilation, has fallen out of style in recent years but is a much longer topic for another day). Before we left, some of the guys recounted their circumcision experiences. All of our Maasai staff were circumcised between the ages of 15-17, and they each describe it as the most painful event of their entire lives. We did not go for the ceremony itself, however, but the festivities afterwards.
When we got to Lesingo’s boma, there were tons of people spread out all over, drinking sodas and chatting. We stood outside and talked for a while before they invited us inside the boma for a meal. It was very special, but I was not in the right mental space to appreciate the experience at the time.
Part of why I enjoy traveling is getting to meet people from other backgrounds and cultures; it expands my sense of the human experience and forces me to question by own assumptions. That is not to say that it is easy for me. It’s hard for me to shut down the part of my brain that sends me a constant feed of things like “Wow, it’s oppressively hot inside this boma.” Or “There are flies blanketing the food that I’m supposed to be eating; that is disgusting and unhygienic.” Or “I don’t know if this special drink was made with clean water or not.” It makes me feel guilty when I think these things, especially since I know that the hosts have taken great pains to honor us as special guests, but I can’t help that I feel very uncomfortable. I am very conscious that I am already working with the stereotype of the rude American who thinks she is superior and does not respect other cultures, and I don’t want to reinforce that image or offend anyone, but I also don’t want to put my health at risk more than I have to. It’s a tricky balancing act, and simply being aware that I am balancing different concerns takes me out of the moment and prevents me from connecting with other people. Which is what happened at Lesingo’s boma. I’m still worried that I offended people by not eating enough, or not being able to finish my cup of home-made mead, and I felt so uncomfortable the whole time that I barely talked with anyone.
Finally, the Serena team had to head back home. As we made our way towards the cars, a group of old women came to say goodbye. Lesingo’s mother came up to each of us one at a time and took of a piece of her own jewelry and put it on us. She removed a beautiful beaded necklace with shining metal pieces from around her own neck and put it around mine. I was blown away by the gesture. I wanted so badly to be able to communicate to her how grateful I felt at her hospitality, and how ashamed I was at not being able to be a good guest, but all I could say was “Ashe oleng” over and over again.
The wildebeest are back. Everyone seems rather confused about why the great herds have returned to the Mara when they would usually be heading back to Tanzania, but it portends of massive climatic changes in the area. To be fair, the more I learn about the migration, the more it sounds as though the pattern has never been as regular as most sources make it out to be—the wildebeest simply go where the food is, which may or may not correspond to the cycle of Ngorongoro, Serengeti, Maasai Mara, and back again. However, most people seem to agree that the pattern of rains in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem has been very unusual lately, which is probably what’s influencing the wildebeest to stick around in the Mara longer than they otherwise might. The short rainy season was supposed to kick in a month ago, and although it seemed like it was starting to come in full force, it really only rained for about a week or two. Now, when we would historically be having rainy day after rainy day, we’ve instead gone several weeks with barely a few millimeters all together. The grass is still green from the short wet spell we did get, but the roads are getting dusty again already. And the wildebeest are everywhere.
This probably means good news for the carnivores here in the Mara, but I can imagine the ones in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro are having a tougher time. It certainly means bad news for the cattle herders in this area, since the wildebeest herds are vast and eat up a lot of grass. As I’ve written before, although the Mara is a wild animal reserve, the local people do a significant amount of grazing inside the boundaries, and I’m sure we will see a lot of starving cows as a result of the lack of rain and competition with wildebeest. For now, however, it’s still stunning to see the giant herds, and I think the hyenas are very happy to get the extra food.
By getting us lost, I inadvertently found one of our rarest animal sightings yet. I was trying to find a new way back to camp and ended up far to the east of the territory. I was off-roading it trying to find a crossing that the GPS indicated was close and getting more and more worried that I wouldn’t get us back any time soon, when Julie started yelling “Stop, stop! Just stop!” She was so excited she couldn’t get her words out right, but she pointed ahead of us where two very strange-looking animals were running away from the car. They looked like a mix between a slightly disproportioned, fuzzy, small hyena and an oversized Bat-eared fox. We realized excitedly that they were two aardwolves, a cousin of the hyena. Aardwolves are usually solitary and nocturnal, feeding mostly on termites supplemented by small mammals or birds, and carrion. Their behavior thus makes them very hard to spot, and even Wilson, who has worked in the Maara for around seven years, has never seen one.
I’ve been enjoying having the wildebeest back. I love watching the herds at night when they’re transformed into a million glowing pairs of eye shine, like a school of massive fish. The other night, I was driving us back to camp, when a herd came spilling out of the darkness, running at the car. I panicked and stepped on the brakes, and the herd split and flowed around us, running in and out of the headlights. It was strange to be caught in the middle of such a massive movement of bodies. I was convinced one of them would simply run headlong into the car, and a few came close, but none did.
Every so often, reserve managers will decide to burn an area of grassland to stimulate plant growth. We can often see smoke from the nearby Tanzania border where they burn areas, supposedly so that the fresh grass will entice the Wildebeest to return to the Serengeti. Last night, we could see the fires burning red and orange on the horizon. We stopped at one point to watch a group of giraffes, already surreal enough on their own, framed eerily in the light of the fire.
Wilson and I saw a very old buffalo yesterday that Wilson insisted was as old as I am. Its horns had broken off at the tip and it’s ears were tattered. It was covered in oxpecker birds, and he kept shaking them off as they stuck their heads in his ears. He was very grumpy and kept making threatening movements towards the car, but in the end he simply walked away, huffing his indignation.
Hadley and I had a very eventful morning a few days ago. We left camp early to go to one of our other clans, but never made it. The fun started with our first flat tire, which took us a long time to replace since we only sort of knew what we were doing. Then, after finally restarting obs and seeing our first hyena of the day, we realized we forgot some of our equipment in camp and had to go back for it. When we finally started obs with everything in place, it was already past seven in the morning. Hadley had just finished saying that all we needed to complete the morning would be a carcass session (which are fun, but not when you’re the one transcribing, since there are tons of hyenas running around), when we saw a bunch of wildebeest running in the distance. Sure enough, when we got closer, we saw a bunch of hyenas taking down a young wildebeest. It was only the second kill I’ve seen since I got here, and it was much less emotional for me than the first one, partially because there were so many hyenas around that the young wildebeest died very quickly, and partially because Hadley and I were frantically trying to ID everyone and keep up with behaviors. It was an exhausting, but thoroughly exciting morning.
When I first studied abroad in Kenya with School for Field Studies, it changed the course of my life. I never imagined that this country would capture me the way that it did, but every single day was new adventure and I felt as though I was living in a way I never had before. The re-entry was terrible, and I spent the next two and a half years trying to find my way back. Obviously, a lot of what made that trip so incredible was a confluence of factors that will never be re-creatable (the political timing of the new constitution that had the Kenyans around me so full of hope; the very special combination of wonderful students; the distinction as my first longer-term field project as well as my first extended study abroad) but there are certain aspects of life here that seem to be inherently magical for me. We had a really perfect mix of personalities on my program, and we all talked about how we’d love to all reunite some day. So when three of the students from my SFS program asked to come visit me in the Mara, it was a dream come true.
It was something of a feat to get Abby, Avril, and Judith all here, but after a plane flight from Dar es Salaam for Avril and a 14 hour matatu (bus) ride from Lake Nakuru for Abby and Judith, we were assembled. We spent hours catching up and looking ahead. It was a joy to show them my world, and a reminder of how incredibly lucky I am to have this job.
It was also fun to mix two groups of friends I have made completely independently of each other and realize the different roles I have taken on at different points in life. During the SFS trip, I was one of the ones who reminded people that scorpions, snakes, and all creepy-crawlies could be fascinating too, and that we were lucky to be here despite the sometimes rustic conditions. Here in Fisi Camp, however, I quickly realized that the cautionary voices I am so used to hearing were not present, and I began to fill that role instead. It was funny to watch someone make a comment about me and bugs, and have my two different groups of friends react oppositely, one thinking me the great insect activist, the other seeing me as the scourge of all ants.
I am euphoric. I just got back from my first vetting as a rainy season driver, and it feels like the adrenaline will last a year.
Abby, Avril, Judith, and I were on obs, and it had been a very slow evening. After an incredible morning, I was worried it would feel like a let down, but we were having enough fun just chatting and driving that it didn’t seem so bad. As I finally started meandering towards the den, however, the light drizzle that had been going on thus far began to intensify. I called Hadley and Julie, who were in Fig Tree, to give them a heads up, and continued on my way. Then it began to rain harder. I decided to check in with Jackson in camp, and he told me to come back right away. At that point, I began to get a little nervous, since I was the only RA in the car and had never had much mud driving experience. However, my main concern was getting across the usual muddy patches and crossings, and I went on auto-pilot trying to book my way out via the usual route. I registered that the roads were beginning to stream with water, but when the first of my difficult muddy stretches proved nothing to sniff at, I figured it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Then, half way down the slope to Coucal crossing, the first major crossing between us and home, I realized that there was no way in hell we would make it across. I stopped to assess the situation and immediately got stuck. Suddenly I realized that I was in the middle of what had essentially become a muddy river, far from the main road, and without a more experienced driver in the car. That’s when I thought, “This is the night that I get stuck and spend the night in the car.” I almost gave up at that moment, but Hadley and Julie gave me advice over the phone and my friends in the car were so encouraging that I couldn’t give up on them. Somehow, I remembered all the bits of advice I had gotten from every single driver out here, and twisted my way out of the mud.
I remembered being told that in cases of extreme downpours, that none of the usual crossing would be passable and we would have to take a very long way around. Unfortunately, I did not remember exactly how to get to this long way around, and I chose the wrong road. After about half an hour the road began to get worse, and a nagging voice in my head told me to double check where I was. I realized that I was very far from where I thought I was supposed to be going. I backtracked until I had phone signal, and called for help again. By this time, we were all playing car games to pass the time and distract ourselves from the stress of the situation. It did the trick in helping to keep the mood up, so all we could do was laugh when I told Hadley our closest landmark and she yelled, “You’re almost to mushroom tree?!” so loud over the phone the whole car could hear it. Mushroom tree was not where I wanted to be. In fact, it was many, many kilometers away from anywhere I wanted to be. So I turned around and headed back to restart our epic escape. To add insult to injury, just when I reached into my bag for a comforting bite of chocolate in my hour of need, I realized the bar was completely liquidized from the heat of the car’s overworked engine.
I almost couldn’t believe it was real. The roads had turned into rivers that were sometimes higher than the wheels. There were sections of the road where I played frogger with the onslaught of cows trying to cross haphazardly in front of me as I squinted through the fogging windshield and fading headlights. By this time, however, I was so amazed that we hadn’t gotten stuck already that I began to finally believe that we might make it back. The looming worry was the fact that the worst part of the drive is always the driveway itself. We might make it all that way and then get stuck a kilometer from camp.
Finally, I reached the end of the good road and headed down the long hilly slope towards camp. The usual route was simply too muddy, so I attempted to follow Julie’s tracks, since she had already made it back to camp a long time before we did. However, I either started out on her tracks and then got off of them, or else was following someone else’s entirely, and ended up far to the east of camp. Too afraid to backtrack in all of the mud, I decided to simply off road it back to camp. Through a sea of bushes. In the torrential rain. It occurred to me half way through it that I absolutely had to make it back because if we got stuck in the middle of the thickets, it would have been one of my most foolish decisions of the night. Despite how stressed, soaked, and disoriented we were, I still stopped to appreciated a beautiful Veraux’s Eagle Owl we found on our off-road excursion.
When I caught sight of Putrid crossing, the end of our driveway, my heart began to pound with excitement. However, I knew that this was the trickiest part of the whole drive, so I decided not to mention how close we were just in case we got stuck. I powered through the mud, spraying it everywhere and hydroplaning half way down the driveway, feeling the triumphant pounding in my chest when at last I felt the tires gripping the rocks we’d laid down for just such occasions. To everyone else in the car who didn’t know the route, however, it seemed like we were moments away from being completely stuck or wrecking the car. We were turning the last bend when Abby, who was beginning to be quite scared that we would fall into a ditch, roll the car, or drown, asked something about whether there were more ditches coming up, and I couldn’t resist laughing so energetically that it sounded a bit manic even to my own ears. “Actually, guess where we are?” I asked, as I skidded into the driveway.
When I stopped the car, I was shaking. I held it together while I was driving, but once we were back, I couldn’t stop laughing. It turns out it had rained around 58mm in camp, almost five times the amount of any other day since I’ve been here (I know that this doesn’t actually sound like a lot, but when that’s more rain in just one night than we’ve had in almost six months, believe me, it’s a flood). I couldn’t even eat much dinner, I was too on edge, and I sat down to write this as soon as I got back to my tent. I have never considered myself a very good driver, especially in muddy situations, but rarely have I been as proud of myself as tonight. Partly, it was comforting to think that it really wouldn’t have been the end of the world if we’d gotten stuck; we were playing games and chatting in the car together so much that in many ways it was actually a really fun night. But it was, is, an incredible feeling to realize that I am capable of something I never would have thought I could do.
The rains make everything a little more exciting around here. Last night, I was reading in the lab tent when Julie called me over to the kitchen to see the river. This confused me at first because you can’t usually see the river from the kitchen tent. “Usually” apparently doesn’t apply during the rainy season, however. The river was now quite visible from the tent and I watched a few entire trees float past on the churning, brown waters. For the next half-hour as it grew dark, Julie and I hung out with Jackson as he cooked and we chatted, and we lost track of the river in the dark. Then we began to notice what sounded like waves, and looked out to find the river mere meters from the edge of the tent. We all gathered together and tried to decide how concerned we ought to be. Amid jokes about our new beachside property, we decided to finish cooking dinner before Lesingo and Jackson packed the stove and gas into the car in case we had to evacuate the kitchen and lab tents. We located the dry bag for the electronics and then waited to see what the river would do. Small lakes and outlets from the river began appearing on the margins of the camp around the outhouse and shower. It was surreal to see areas that we normally walked through suddenly immersed in the pulsing rush of water. It reminded me of when, around this same time of year 16 years ago, my hometown flooded and how strange it had felt to look at the newspaper and see familiar streets underwater, or our basement slowly filling up.
The river came within a meter and a half from the kitchen tent before it slowly began to edge back down. We didn’t know what the conditions might be like upstream and the river had already demonstrated its ability to rise at an astonishing speed, so we couldn’t completely let our guard down, but at least the immediate concern had passed. We went with Lesingo and Jackson to go look closer at the river and it was unbelievable. I had been told that the river would flood, but I never imagined that it would get so high. It had risen at least ten feet and entire trees, familiar landmarks along the bank, were underwater. Jackson showed us the marks where it had risen even higher just an hour earlier. By the light of the moon, we watched as the river, now churning with movement, sloshed against its new banks. It was magnificent; the river made such a deceptively peaceful noise, but the waters looked powerful.
(Update: My estimate the night of was actually pathetically underpowered. The river had risen at least four times my height in most areas and possibly up to 30ft in others.)
My friends, having already extended their stay by several days due to rain, had planned to leave the next morning, but we weren’t sure if any matatus (busses) would be able to make it out of Talek. Finally, the river dropped low enough that the drivers decided to give it a shot, so this morning, we woke up at 3am to drive them to the pick up location. I can’t say I was thrilled to wake up after only a few hours of choppy sleep just to drag myself into the car and prepare to slog through the driveway and almost certainly get stuck, but with the weather the way it had been, we couldn’t be sure we’d get a much better chance later.
Predictably, about ten minutes into the drive, we got stuck in the mud. It wasn’t that deep, but Jackson and Lesingo, who accompanied us for just such an eventuality, insisted that we call for backup from the hot air balloon tractors that usually drive out early. They flagged one down, and we attached a towrope to the end of the tractor. We then did the sort of maneuver that I would probably have made fun of someone else doing because even in the moment it seemed a bit stupid—they pulled us along behind them for a good five minutes until we got to a more main road. I was terrified that the rope would snap or that the tractor would stop suddenly and I would crash into it, but in retrospect I’m not sure how else we could have gotten through all that mud. Finally, we made it to the drop off, waited for the Talek Star to arrive, and then said our goodbyes. On the way back, Lesingo took us on a detour that landed us on the fire break that runs around the outside of camp rather than the actual road, but it helped us avoid the muddy stretch. We did, however, have to navigate the maze of dense, thorny bushes, dodge resting giraffes and foraging hippos, and do so without losing speed and sinking into the wet ground. We got back before the sun had even risen, and Jackson told me old stories about camp while we drank chai and ate ngumus (dense fried dough balls, somewhat like a doughnut but not really sweet). It’s been a very exciting last few days.
So the short rains have definitely arrived, even if a bit late. We have been rained out almost entirely for a week and I have now had ample opportunity to observe and practice mud driving (although for the most part we try to avoid any chance that we might have to use said skill, as it puts undue stress on the car and the driver). Some of the interesting things I’ve learned is that everyone mud-drives slightly differently, and the only “right way” is the one that gets you home safely. In general, however, it seems to me that the basic tenets are a slight recklessness and bull-headed determination. The way I gauge the appropriate speed to go through most muddy areas is when I am going just faster than I actually feel comfortable. The persistence comes into play when you feel the car slowing down and you start to feel a sense of doom closing around the tires and have to force the car to simply barrel on, pushing the low gears. This is because if you stop, it’s all over. You sink.
The upside is, the quality of the mud here is such that I am seriously considering taking up pottery making as a hobby. I’m not quite sure why it doesn’t seem to be a very popular art form here—the ingredients are all around us.