Book Cover

Here’s the cover art for my book, to be published by Penn State University Press and due for release in September:


That’s Dibbey on the left, Koti in the centre and Willi at the back. I like that it has three of the most charismatic Sofi hyenas and I’m fond of all three but for different reasons.

What do you think?

More on Clan Wars

I’ve been looking at the footage from the clan war between the Aboker hyenas and their rivals (who I’ll call the Hakim hyenas for now) and it’s really interesting to read the body language of the hyenas. At the beginning, the hyenas on both sides are pretty nervous and they pay quite a bit of attention to Fredi who is off to one side filming it all. But as things intensify and they start making charges at each other they begin to disregard everything else, including Fredi who is still filming. I’d imagine that the hyena who knocked his camera lens was so focussed on her rivals that she didn’t even realise what she’d done. This is a similar sort of mentality to that of the male Tukwondilli who used to be so focused on the female Dibbey (who frequently attacked him) that he brushed past people’s legs and squeezed behind people seated at the shrine in order to keep his distance from the raging female.

I also noticed something in the clan war video regarding the ways that hyenas make charges at their enemies. The first step is to do some whooping to recruit hyenas from as far away as your whoops can be heard. Once there are plenty of hyenas present, you should start lowing and groaning, and look at your comarades expctantly as they become inspired by your low-pitched noises. Then when you have a few others beside you, stride purposefully as a cohesive group towards the enemy with your tails erect and your neck hairs bristling, looking as intimidating as you can. By this stage there should be six or seven of you involved in the charge with a few followers behind. When you get to the invisible line that separates you from the enemy, you make a charge, stand and stare briefly while the enemy (hopefully) retreats a bit, and then turn and walk back without looking behind to see if there’s a counter attack. Here there is one important point: when you turn your back to the enemy, swivel your ears backwards so as to make sure no-one is about to bite your ass while you march triumphantly back to your own lines. Repeat as necessary until you feel you’ve made a statement, or until a hyena gets hurt.

Photo from video courtesy of Fredi Devas

Photo from video courtesy of Fredi Devas

No-Man’s-Land for Hyenas

Aboker war

Photo from video courtesy of Fredi Devas

Recall the last time I was in Harar, the Aboker hyenas were staging raids on the Sofi feeding place and all but driving the Sofi hyenas off for good. Well, the conflict is apparently ongoing because Abbas is no longer feeding the Sofi hyenas at the regular place; he’s taking food to the garbage dump and feeding them there while trying to coax them back to the shrine where they used to feed. They follow him some of the way but then lose their nerve and return to the dump. This says to me that the Sofi hyenas are too afraid to go back to the place that used to be a core area of their territory, and this is out of fear of Aboker raids. This is a valid fear as quite a few Sofi hyenas have been injured or killed in previous clan wars with the Aboker hyenas.

In the image above, you see two groups of hyenas facing off on either side of a building opposite Harar’s slaughter yards. This is from footage of a clan war that a BBC producer filmed while he was there a few months ago. It’s amazing footage of a rare event and he was right in the middle of it. In fact one hyena knocked his camera lens in all the kerfuffle. And there are many more hyenas on either side who don’t appear in the image; no less than 38 in the group on the left and 37 in the group on the right. Seventy-five hyenas in a clan war in the middle of a city and people walking past as if it’s none of their business! As for the building, it is (or was) right in the heart of Aboker territory; less than 10 metres to the right is where the other hyena man feeds the Aboker hyenas. And this is what makes it all so intriguing.

By comparing spot patterns on the hyenas in the clan war footage with some appearing in my old Harar footage I’m pretty sure that the group on the right is the Aboker clan. As for the group on the left, I’m not so certain. It could well be the Sofi hyenas even though they’re approaching from the west and the Sofi territory is east. This is because there are only two approaches to this place from the east and the easiest one takes you along a road past the Old Town and loops around so you end up entering the feeding place from the west. The thing is, I don’t recognise any of those hyenas in the group to the left – not one. But then again, I’ve been away a while and many may well have come and gone so I can’t be certain they aren’t Sofi hyenas. Still, the BBC producer said that Koti was still feeding at the time he was there and she’s not among these hyenas, but as the dominant female, she really should be.

So here’s my hypothesis: the group to the left is not the Sofi clan but instead another hyena clan from the west or even the Hakim clan from the southwest. The group to the right is the Aboker clan whose territory has contracted to the corner of that building right next to their feeding place. The contraction of their territory on that side is either the reason for why they are putting pressure on the southeastern border with the Sofi clan, or else it is the result of them dedicating too much effort on expanding their southeastern border to the detriment of the Sofi hyenas. If I’m wrong and it’s the Sofi clan in the footage putting pressure on the Aboker hyenas it means that the Sofi clan has taken possession of Harar’s Old town and expanded their territory right up to the Aboker feeding place. Which would make their behaviour at their own feeding place a little weird. Based on the map below showing the geographic relationship between the two clans, can you think of another explanation for what’s going on here?

Harar Map and Clan War

Map of Harar’s Old Town and Sofi (red) and Aboker (green) territories as they were in 2011.

Disturbance in the Mara

Does anyone know about the hyena blog run by Michigan State University? The students working on hyena research in the Masai Mara Reserve, Kenya, write the posts and we get insights into not only hyena lives but the lives of the researchers.

There’s one particularly disturbing post from April 16 which describes the immediate aftermath of a poisoning incident. Apparently a local farmer laced a carcass with poison and left it out for the local fauna. The results were devastating: hyenas dead, jackals, eagles, and vultures dead and the effects rolling on like the hills. In fact so toxic was the (bright pink) poison that flies landing on the carcasses of hyenas were dropping dead… like flies. This in turn was a worry because poisoned animals seek out water to drink. An odourless, residual poison like that can be passed on and on and even end up in the drinking water of every animal in the Mara (including humans).

Ok that’s pretty disturbing but what came up on the blog a few weeks later disturbed me even more. One of the grad students gave an account of the cubs who were orphaned by the poisoning incident and said how hard it would be to sit and watch the cubs starve to death. These students are as human as anyone – they always gush about the cuteness of cubs – so I wonder what effect this is having on the students. Is the pursuit of objectivity so important that they are forced to watch cubs starve to death? That’s pretty oppressive. But what’s the other option: provisioning cubs? Is that an unacceptable, unforgivable, methodological sin? What about euthanasia? Hans Kruuk who wrote the seminal work on spotted hyenas had no qualms about euthanizing mortally injured hyenas. What do you think? Is there something wrong with this situation where grad students who obviously adore hyena cubs are made to watch them starve to death? The Masai Mara Reserve only exists through human intervention; would human intervention be entirely unacceptable in the case of starving, baby hyenas?

Blaming Willi

I just had an article published in the journal, ‘Between the Species.’ This is an open access journal so anybody with a net connection can download the entire thing, unlike lot of other journals which require subscriptions or one-off payments. It’s ironic that anthropologists, who so often advocate for the marginalised, often publish in journals without free access. It’s something we’re addressing but the expenses involved in publishing journals are making it difficult to free up the content.

As for the article, it’s essentially a chapter of my thesis (in academia it’s acceptable to publish thesis chapters as stand-alone articles). I cringe a bit when I read it because the ideas are in the early stages of development – I’ve since teased them out a bit more for my book – but it’s still a fun read because there are a lot of excerpts from my fieldnotes and it’s all about Willi. The bit I left out to fit within the journal’s word count is an intro where I compare human and animal ethics guidelines in universities. Doing a multispecies ethnography, I had to get two sets of ethics permissions; one for the people in Harar and one for the hyenas. When I did the applications I was struck by the differences between the two. In the case of human research subjects you have to get consent from the people you want to study to include them in your research. With regard to animals you can include any animals you like (as long as there isn’t a non-animal alternative for say testing cancer treatments), the guidelines are basically for making sure that ‘adverse pain/distress be minimised’ for the animals involved. I’m not sure what other kinds of pain and distress there are. It’s all very paternalistic and I tried to avoid that mindset in my relations with Willi but it’s not that easy. Taking responsibility for animals is something we fall into almost as a reflex action. It’s well-intentioned but at its root is a failure to recognise the agency of animals and our own place amongst them. Have a read and see what you think.