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.

Multi-storied hyenas

I’m really happy to pass on this link to a news article from the Guardian. It’s a response to the sensational article from the BBC last week which portrayed hyenas in Addis Ababa as dangerous vermin threatening to over-run the town. The response is beautiful. The author, Yves-Marie Stranger demonstrates that you don’t have to rely on sensationalism to come up witha fascinating story. In fact, this story is far more engaging because it speaks of nuance and possibilities. The re-forestation, waste management, expansion of the city, and dietary preferences of the people are bound to impact on the hyenas but we can only wait and see how. This is how multi-species communities work: in ways which are constantly emerging and changing. There’s no conclusion, just a lot of interesting maybes and an account of how hyenas can coexist peacefully with five million people in Ethiopia’s capital. Great story!


Hyenas in Addis

A news report came out of the BBC on Sunday and I feel I have to respond. The report is sensationalist predator porn and strangely antagonistic towards hyenas. Here’s the link. Basically the reporter describes how hyenas are an emerging menace to people in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. While London is ‘infested’ with urban foxes, and Delhi is ‘beseiged’ by urban monkeys, the capital of Ethiopia is ‘plagued’ by urban hyenas. This is the kind of rhetoric that describes urban wildlife as polluting and out of place and implicitely argues for their eradication. The reporter describes the ‘hideous’ hyenas ‘brazenly scavenging’ around rubbish dumps in the city at night. I don’t really now how they could be less brazen and still scavenge. He also quotes a mission worker who has treated homeless people who have had fingers or toes nibbled by hyenas while lying drugged or drunk, and tells how a homeless woman lost a baby to hyenas the previous year. While I do agree that these things are problems, it’s a load of bollocks to lay the blame on the hyenas. Hyenas biting drugged, drunk, and homeless people are symptomatic of global processes which foster substance abuse and widespread poverty in Ethiopia which make people vulnerable to hyenas in the first place. And let’s put things in perspective – for every person admitted to hospital in Addis for a hyena bite there is another thousand admitted for attacks by dogs – man’s best friend. Fortunately for the homeless of Addis, the stray dog numbers are limited by the predatory hyenas.

Hyena censorship

So far I haven’t written much about the relationship between people and hyenas in the region around Harar, but there is a lot worth writing about. During my time over there I did some surveys and interviews with the Oromo farmers in the Hararge region and some investigation in the town of Kombolcha where there was a series of hyena attacks. What I found was interesting. The rural folks there largely said that they thought hyenas were a benefit to the area. Hyenas controlled pest species, deterred thieves from lurking about in the night, cleaned up animals who had died of disease, and as with Harar, kept the area free of dangerous, unseen spirits. I wrote about this in an article that’s just been published in Anthrozoös. Despite suffering occasional hyena attacks on their children and livestock, the people I surveyed were largely positive in their attitudes towards hyenas with a huge majority saying that they were a benefit to the area and half saying they would support an increase in hyena numbers. An increase!

Now, whenever I’m dwelling on interesting hyena material, I end up discussing it at length with my dear wife who is from Shewa, about 900kms from Harar in the west of Ethiopia. These talks are really fascinating for me because I’m given a perspective on hyenas from someone of the same ethnic group as those in the Hararge region, but with a different religion and different set of ideas about hyenas. But one thing that she raised has the potential to turn upside-down pretty much everything I’ve concluded about the Hararge rural peoples’ relations with hyenas. When I mentioned to my wife that so many Hararge Oromo people thought hyenas a benefit in the area, and so many supported an increase in hyena numbers, she said, ‘Oh, you’ll find the same thing with the Shewa Oromo.’

I said, ‘I thought you told me the Shewa Oromo didn’t like hyenas at all and would prefer there were none in the region.’

She said, ‘yes that’s right but if you ask them the same questions as you asked the Hararge Oromo, you’ll get the same answers because they’re afraid of offending the hyenas.’

The Shewa Oromo apparently believe if they say anything against the hyenas, then the hyenas will overhear (they do have amazing hearing) and come and trash their farms and attack their animals, their children and themselves.

Now, I wish we’d had this discussion before I wrote my article because it casts a very dark shadow over what I found. But it’s also very meaningful. If the Shewa people are afraid to give forthright answers about hyenas because they fear repercussions, then who’s to say the Hararge people are any different? Perhaps all of those amazing results I found were in fact answers that people were giving under duress; the threat of violence from eavesdropping hyenas. Of course this would render the surveys invalid but it would open up some amazing possibilities regarding the ways that human/wildlife conflict is so often culturally mediated and really difficult to get to the bottom of. On the one hand, we have an unusual reason for the persistence of hyenas in the region. Imagine a people who’s approach to coexistence with hyenas is entirely overshadowed by their fear of hyena retribution for misplaced words and actions; a people coming up with superficial reasons for a pretend appreciation of hyenas. On the other we have a conundrum: If it was the case that the Hararge Oromo gave deliberately false answers out of fear of reprisals (though I’m not yet saying that they did), then how on earth could you find out what they secretly felt about hyenas?

Translator and friend, Tariku, conducting not so confidential surveys in the Hararge region

Translator and friend, Tariku, conducting not-so-confidential surveys in the Hararge region