‘Bone Eaters’ is Among Us

https://i0.wp.com/www.psupress.org/images/covers/FullSize/978-0-271-06721-6md.jpgIt’s a happy day for me today as my book on Harar’s hyenas is finally out. Penn State University Press were originally going to publish a revised version of my dissertation – all academic reading, and dry enough to kill mould – but then they had a meeting. They decided that the subject deserved a more accessible book for a general audience and asked me if I could come up with an entirely new manuscript. Two years and many long days/nights of writing later and Among the Bone Eaters is out. I’m very excited about this book and not just because I put so much work into it. It also gave me a chance to revisit my time in Harar and foreground the human and hyena characters, much as I’ve done here. I was also fortunate that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas agreed to write a foreword which for me is an honour beyond measure. And Suzanne Wolk, Nigel Rothfels, and Kendra Boileau provided the best guidance imaginable for which I’m forever grateful.

If you’re familiar with this blog and come to read my book I should explain some inconsistencies with hyenas’ named used. The hyena known here as Jalla is named in the book as Kamareya. The reason for this difference is that Yusuf the hyena man and his son Abbas often gave the same hyenas different names. Abbas called this hyena Jalla while Yusuf called him Kamareeya. I prefer the latter because, as I found out, it means ‘Like the Moon.’ I’ve also spelled Bebe in the book as Baby because this is closer to the correct pronunciation. Deraltu is named in the book as Koti and the young hyena named here as Burisee retains her original name, Fintamurey. This hyena was also called Rimbaud (after French poet Arthur Rimbaud) but that’s a whole other story. Apart from that pretty much everything is as accurate as is my memory. Ahem.

There’s an idiom in Harar which is waraba nasib (hyenas’ luck) and there’s a bit of that flying around this blog at the moment. That’s because right now you can get 30 percent off on a copy of Among the Bone Eaters if you use this order form.  I hope you find the inclination to get a copy of this book, whether directly or through your library, and if you enjoy it or not please let me know.



I Hyena

The usual method that researchers use to recognise individual hyenas is their distinctive spot patterns. In the Masai Mara, the researchers from MSU use thick folders full of left/right profile photos of individual, named hyenas, which are categorised according to sex, age, and immigrant status. When a researcher there spots a hyena who she doesn’t recognise immediately, she thumbs through the folder, looking a photo of a hyena with a similar spot pattern.

In Harar, it’s really not practical to carry a folder full of photos around when you’re doing hyena reserach on foot. For anyone other than Doctor Octopus, it’s enough of a challenge to hold onto a camera, voice recorder, flashlight, nightvision scope, and notebook while keeping one hand free to stop your fall when you stumble in a drainage lane running with effluent. And besides it often really hard to get a good look at the hyenas’ spotty profiles when they’re walking ahead of you in a narrow lane.

One alternative method for recognising hyenas is to memorise the spot patterns just above their tails and the notches in their ears so that you can recognise individuals from front and rear. Although not all hyenas have notches in their ears. Another method, and one which I inadvertently ended up using in Harar, is to note the individual hyena’s relationship to persons and things in her environment.

For instance, Baby was easy to recognise because she often stood behind Yusuf, and Willi was often lying down beside the canal beside the feeding place. So from hundreds of metres away I could make an identification of those hyenas with 95% confidence because of the places they frequented and the people to whom they stood in relation. And as for Tukwondilli, he was usually hovering around Dibbey, so once I identified her, I could be pretty sure the nervous, skinny male running circles around her was Tukwondilli.

This brings me to an article published by Kevin Theis a couple of years ago which demonstrated how colonies of fermentive bacteria in hyenas’ anal glands varied in composition, and this corresponded to variation in hyenas’ scents. This suggests that group specific scents of hyenas are mediated by the bacteria. What’s more, hyenas are probably informed about sex and reproductive states of others by reconising the variations in scents that the bacteia are responsible for. I would go further and say that these scents also vary by individual based on variations in bacterial compositions.

Why is this relevant? Because it shows that hyenas’ identities are not limited to their DNA, spot patterns or even their bodies. A hyena person is a coming together of relations not just between hyena bodies and other hyenas, people and places in the landscape, but also between all of the above and fermentive bacteria which mediate the distinctive scents of individuals that other hyenas find so interesting. Of course it’s never going to be pratcical to identify hyenas in Jugol by the microscopic bacteria riding on their bottoms but it opens up some interesting ideas about what constitutes identity in humans and other animals.


Willi and his bacteria wiping some scent onto a blade of grass


One less hyena

One thing I couldn’t help noticing since coming back to Harar was the conspicuous absence of Bebe. It’s been two weeks now and in that amount of time you can count on seeing all of the familiar hyenas. With the exception of Funyamurey and Shebo, they don’t stay away long and two or three days is the maximum that one might be absent. So last night I asked of Abbas, the hyena man’s son, the question I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to ask: ‘Has Bebe been around here lately?’
He didn’t even stop to think, he just shook his index finger, which is the way he answers something serious in the negative. Then Abbas asked his father if he knew what had become of Bebe and the reply was that she might have been chased away by the other hyenas. Abbas asked if they would do the same to Willi and Yusuf said they could do it to any one of the hyenas.
It’s not common for a female hyena to leave her natal clan; that’s usually the lot of the male who must emigrate if he wants a chance to mate and reproduce (Last night Willi had a fresh wound on his rump which tells me he’s being persecuted by someone. Again it seems he’s not welcome in the clan any more).
So while I’d like to think that Bebe emigrated and found another clan to live with, experience tells me she probably fell victim to one of the many causes of mortality that hyenas around here are up against: car accidents, snaring, shooting or poisoning. Nevertheless, I’ll go to the main market where the clans converge in the night-time and hope to see those shiny little eyes and that cute little hamburger spot pattern on the rump of my favourite hyena: Bebe.

The Varied Diet of Bebe

Last night, while I was sitting at the shrine watching hyenas, I heard a commotion in the compound of the hyena man’s house and saw Bebe burst through a hole in the fence with a big yellow object in her mouth. She hightailed it for the farmers’ fields while the hyena man’s son came running out of the gate in pursuit. I threw him my torch and he ran off into the darkness, shouting at Bebe.
After a lot of shouting and a lot of rustling in the corn, the son came back holding a yellow plastic water container and showed me the holes where Bebe had sunk her teeth in. Then he took me inside the compound and showed me another that she’d stolen previously. I have no idea what use she had in mind for an empty plastic container but, around here, it’s probably more useful than a telephoto lens.
Bebe has a penchant for non-organic items and at first I thought it was because she was teething, but she’s been like this from the get go. So I’ve started compiling a list of the things that Bebe eats:

The loose end of the clothes-line
Several plastic bottles
A hessian bag full of scrap paper
A green plastic plate
The hyena-man’s fence
A selection of pvc and rubber sandals
A night vision monocular (the less said about this the better but thanks to Abbas for rescuing it)