Getting to work with hyenas

Hyena WorkPhoto courtesy of Steph Dloniak

Firstly, welcome to the new-look Hyenas in Harar.There are a couple of new widgets on the right hand side of the page including a list of popular posts, a sexy search field, and a countdown to returning to Harar. And there’s a fuzzy new background which is a close-up of Ibsa’s spot pattern. Ibsa means ‘torch’, by the way, and if my blog wasn’t blocking the photograph you’d see a distinctive ‘V’ pattern on his flank. Now on to today’s topic…

Coming from someone who has an unpaid position at a university, this is a bit rich. But I’ve had a lot of people ask me how they can become involved in working with hyenas, so here’s my fatherly advice. I say ‘fatherly’ because advice from fathers is generally cheap, opinionated and intrinsically useless.

The Hard Road: This is your money-in-the-bank, guaranteed, rock-solid way of having a small chance of working with hyenas. Most hyena researchers are from the fields of zoology and biology so the best stepping stone towards hyena work is to enrol in a degree course in one of those fields. Often it’s a very hard road and you might have to get to PhD level before you get to participate in fieldwork. But not always. In one field site in Kenya, I encountered an undergrad level student taking care of the project while the big wigs were on leave. I find that it’s all about how dedicated and willing to work you are. If you consistently show good results and demonstrate your aptitude and willingness to work then don’t worry, the right people will notice. It’s also a matter of enrolling with the right university. MSU has the hyena research project in the Masai Mara, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin has a project running in the Serengeti and there are a few other research projects including one in Ethiopia being run by Giday Yirga from Mekelle University. The Hyaena Specialist Group is a good place to start stalking and looking for research projects.

And one other piece of advice from your dad about the hard road: You don’t necessarily have to come from the zoological/biological sciences. My degrees are in palaeoanthropology, archaeology and anthropology. I kind of fell into hyena research through my interest in evolutionary relationships between ancestral humans and large carnivores. That’s why my methods are a bit weird.

The Easy Road: This road is not as hard as the hard road but still could turn out to be pretty hard. And it’s not even a road yet, it’s just my idea for a road. And like everything else, it involves spondooliks so you have to do some kind of hard work to get into a position to take the easy road. But if you have the money then it should be easy. You see, hyena research requires funding, and depending on the kind of research, the funding required can be quite substantial. Now I have a feeling that if you approached a suitably qualified hyena researcher and offered to pay for their gps collars, night vision scopes, tents, porta-potties and whatnot, then they would at least reply to your email. What’s more if you offered all that money as well as your voluntary assistance in collecting data, then you’re starting to look pretty shiny. Now if I was in your position and looking around for someone to throw money at, I would start with some local African researchers. My reason for this is that your money can go a long way in Africa and much good can come from supporting universities in developing countries. What’s more is that the more that knowledge about hyenas in Africa is disseminated in-country, the better chances there are for them to co-exist with humans. If you don’t have the money but happen to live in Africa, then I can suggest volunteering your services to the right researchers. But in all cases, make sure you’re comfortable with the ethics guiding the research and that you’re not opposed to the ways the hyenas are treated.

The Alternative Route: This road is really great. Jane Goodall was working as a waitress before she took her first trip to Africa to visit a friend. She found work as a secretary in Kenya where she arranged to meet up with Louis Leakey of Olduvai Gorge/fossil humans fame. Leakey took Jane under his wing and sent her off to Gombe to study chimps where she found all kinds of interesting things and and was given a chance to write her PhD without having compeleted a prior degree. While at Gombe, she met her husband-to-be and together they were given the chance to participate in the Serengeti/Ngorongoro research project where Jane studied spotted hyenas. Notice that I used the word chance several times here.  This road requires a lot of chance opportunities and in Jane’s case a lot of talent, persistence and work to be able to capitalise on those. In fact, she suffered a bout of malaria while at Gombe so it’s not necessarily an easy road. My conclusion: working as a food and beverage attendant is probably not going to lead to a job as a hyena researcher. Forget the alternative route.

So that’s it from your dear old dad. Like I always say: you have to put in the hard yards if you want to make hay before the sun shines or something. Now get me another beer before you go out and mow the lawn.

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2 thoughts on “Getting to work with hyenas

  1. Well. This has certainly been enlightening. It’s nothing I wasn’t prepared for; ‘I wish to live and work with hyenas’ is a VERY specific, and also very exotic desire that you either need tons of money, or several university degrees to make happen (oh, and then there is the money you’ll inevitably put into acquiring said degrees…). Unfortunately, as someone currently majoring in Japanese, I have neither the qualifications nor the financial resources to realise this dream at the moment, but I most definitely don’t plan to give up.

    After all, this is only going to be my first BA degree, and hey…I’m only 21, I can still steer my studies towards zoology, if that’s what I have to do. Also, as much as the ‘alternative’ route relies on pure luck, I still think it’s worth giving a chance. If it means getting to work with hyenas eventually, I’m more than willing to put in as much hard work as it takes. It was actually my childhood ambition to become a biologist eventually, and now that this dream is rekindled, I want to hold onto it.

    Hyenas mean something to me that I can’t express in words. I don’t care how poetic and melodramatic it sounds, but I can feel them calling to me, and I think if I got to live among them, it would make me happier than I’ve ever been, sunburns, hard physical work, terrible living conditions and all the dangers of Africa be damned.

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