Spending the holiday season away from family or familiar traditions has been extremely difficult, but at least we’ve had a lot of distractions lately.
Once the rains began to let up, I started trying to get to Prozac, our farthest clan. At first we couldn’t figure out where they were denning, but one morning I went with Benson and just when I thought we were going to come back having only seen two hyenas, we found it—there in the middle of an open plain was the den. As an added bonus, as we drove up, we saw a small black cub running around playing with the larger cubs. After a half hour or so, a second small black cub began poking its head out of the den. It’s always exciting to see new cubs, and these two are particularly adorable. We didn’t manage to see them nursing (which is how we confirm who their mother is) however, because something even better happened.
We only have three working collars in Prozac, only one of which is a GPS collar, which makes it difficult to track the clan down when we lose them. So Benson came with me in the hopes of darting an adult female to deploy a new collar. Then in walked Kofi, a young adult female, who wandered up to the den and then laid down alone a good distance from the den. Benson prepped the dart. I drove us up next to Kofi, and she barely batted an eye. It was the perfect setting: a relaxed hyena that wasn’t paying any attention to us, no males around, a clear shot at the thigh, and not a bush or pond in sight. At 14 meters away, we waited for the right moment. When none of the other hyenas were looking, Benson pulled the trigger. Kofi yelped, jumped up, and began running in circles, trying to figure out what was stuck in her butt, but luckily, all of the other females were looking at her or in random directions trying to find whatever had attacked Kofi. It’s important that the hyenas don’t connect us with the darting so that they continue to allow us to come near them. Although they didn’t know what caused the commotion, the other females were extremely concerned. Kofi’s sister, AG (an abbreviation for Al Gore), gave an alarm rumble and ran over to where Kofi had been lying, sniffing the ground intently. Meanwhile, the drug was beginning to take effect, and Kofi was stumbling around making confused, upset noises. The other females started to approach her, sniffing the ground with their tails sticking up in the air and clearly trying to figure out what was wrong. I’d never seen other hyenas show so much concern for a darted family member, and I felt a little guilty when I had to drive over and cut the hyenas off from their friend so that we could get to work.
It was just Benson and I and Kofi is a big hyena. The first and most important sample we collect is blood, and although we started filling vials within ten minutes of when Benson shot the dart, it was not easy. I had to hold Kofi’s head and put pressure on her shoulder while Benson got a needle into her jugular. Just trying to put enough pressure against that massive shoulder made me realize how strong she was. Kofi was hard to move, even just to wrap a tape around her to measure her girth, let alone putting her on a stretcher and weighing her, but we did it all. Within the hour, we had all the samples collected, and had given her a beautiful new collar. Then, Benson drove to the drop off spot while I held Kofi in the back of the car. I had to hold her head to keep the cloth over her eyes (when they are darted their eyes stay open but we keep them covered so they don’t get damaged in the sunlight) and to prevent her from hitting her head on things. By this time, the drug was just starting to wear off (though it takes hours before the hyena is completely mobile again) and Kofi kept moving her head. It occurred to me how ridiculous my situation was: sitting in the back of a moving vehicle with a sleepy hyena’s head in my lap, trying to hold on and failing every time she moved her head. Her neck even while sedated was far stronger than my arms, and I kept marveling at how easily she lifted her head as if my hands weren’t even there.
Finally, we laid her down in dense bushes and built up sticks around her so that she could break out when she was strong enough. It was a beautiful darting, and Benson and I went home tired but very proud.
I felt homesick the entire day before Christmas. I had never been away from my family for the holidays and it was so hard to know where everyone else was and that I wasn’t with them. However, I will admit that I ended up having the most exciting Christmas Eve of my life.
We went out on obs and did our usual routine, and finally finished up the night by heading to the den area. The den that they were using was called KCM, short for Kinda See Them, which was aptly named because the bushes are so thick that they obscure almost all activity. It’s one of my least favorite dens because we usually sit there and hear interactions but can’t see anyone, which is incredibly frustrating. So at first, none of us were surprised when we drove into the maze of bushes, couldn’t see anyone, but started hearing whoops, giggles, and alarm rumbles out of sight. It sounded like something intense was going on, but we couldn’t tell what. “Was that a lion?” Hadley asked suddenly. Both Julie and I laughed, “No way. I mean, come on, we never have lions in Talek West.” The Talek West territory is so close to the town and has so much human disturbance, that for the first four months I was here, we only ever saw a handful of lions, and they were always on the extreme south near the border of the territory. Lions cannot adapt to disturbance in the same way that hyenas can, so where the lions have left, the hyenas have done relatively well. However, it was not technically true that we never had lions in Talek West. In fact, over the past two weeks, we had been seeing more and more lions in the territory. I thought they had all been the same group of three, with maybe a few floaters that came and went, but we discovered that night that the lions were making a comeback in the territory, and they wanted the hyenas to know it.
We drove out of the bushes and circled around. We were pleasantly surprised to see a large group of hyenas outside of the bushes, bristle-tailed, alert, and very vocal. They were agitated, running around and staring at a group of animals that were so close we didn’t register what they were at first. Then, with a collective gasp, we realized: It was an entire pride of lions, and they were sitting 40 meters away from the den.
Lions and hyenas do not get along. While the Lion King has a lot to answer for in terms of wrongful portrayals of animals, it did capture something of the animosity that exists between the two species. Lions and hyenas are both successful hunters and they are strong competitors, so it makes sense that in areas of limited resources they don’t want to share. Understanding the reasons behind the fighting doesn’t make it any less emotional for me, however. Lions are very, very large animals, and a while the hyenas will take on lionesses with less trepidation, a male lion can kill a hyena in a single blow. When I think of how strong Kofi was even while sedated yet how small even the largest hyena looks juxtaposed next to a male lion, it puts their threat-level in perspective. The presence of lions near a hyena den is also troubling because it means that they are probably after the cubs. Again, this makes sense; the lions are eliminating the competition before it is big enough to fight back. When the competition is a bunch of adorable, fluffy cubs that I have personally named and watch grow over the past five months, however, it’s hard not to view the sudden appearance of ten magnificent lionesses as an omen of doom.
Despite my fears for our hyenas’ safety, the lion-hyena interaction was incredibly exciting to watch, and I’m glad I was there to see it. Suddenly, I began to add up other factors into the costs and benefits of the different kinds of hyena personalities. Some of the females like Amazon or Atacama that I had seen acting so aggressively towards other hyenas suddenly were in the front of the defensive wall protecting the den. Helios was finally acting like the alpha that she is, and with a small cub to protect at the den, there was no way she was hanging back. I was worried but also strangely proud to see some of the very young subadults like Decimeter and Byte that had only just graduated from the den themselves joining the group to mob the lions. And more hyena kept showing up.
The hyenas kept grouping together and edging closer to the lions, trying to push them back. At first, the lions simply seemed to be ignoring them, but then, all at once, they suddenly leapt up and charged the hyenas. Everything was pandemonium. Hyenas scattered, lions chased them in and out of the bushes, there were giggles, whoops, and growls all around, and all the while, more hyenas came pouring in out of the darkness. Slowly, the hyenas, which now numbered somewhere around 60-70 or more, began to push the group of lions away. Just when we thought it might be settling down, we spun the car around and the headlights illuminated the lions’ reinforcements: four adult males. I heard the stress is Julie’s voice as she kept repeating “Oh no. Oh no no” the moment she saw them. That was the first moment I was truly afraid that I was about to see a hyena get killed.
After that, however, everything was so chaotic that we didn’t see much of anything at all. It was dark and everyone was running around, in and out of bushes. After things calmed down a little, or at least settled into a bit of a stalemate, we decided to head back to camp and assess things in the morning.
Christmas day was strange, overwhelming, but fun. We started the day by checking in on the den to see what we could make out after the lions. We couldn’t tell much of anything, but it definitely seemed like the clan had either been forced out of or decided to relocate the den. This was to be the start of many obs spent searching for the new den.
When we got back to camp, the guys began to prepare a feast. They had invited guests from around town to come eat and hang out. So instead of the home-made blintzes I usually eat with my family back home in the states, my Christmas brunch consisted of black bean chili, chapatti, soda, and cookies. It was delicious but also rather different. I didn’t know or speak the same language as most of the people there, and it was such a different way to celebrate than I was used to that I felt a little overwhelmed and unsure what to do, but it was nice to have so many happy people in camp.
After the party in camp, we went to one of lodges to celebrate with the balloon pilots. This was a little more similar to what I’m used to, but in some ways that made me miss my family even more. However, most of us there were in the same boat, and Julie and Hadley were especially comforting. It was a reminder of how lucky I am to have such wonderful people around me and supporting me in camp. I didn’t have a choice of the people I would be spending this year with, but I couldn’t have picked a more kind, fun, grounding group of people.
I hope you all had relaxing, fun holidays!