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


Missing hyenas

Sitting watching the hyenas, I’ve been struck by how many new and unfamiliar faces there are. This is quite meaningful for reasons which I’ll go into later but it also saddens the hell out of me. Imagine you go away for a year and return home to find your family replaced by very human-looking robots. They all seem kind of familiar and in fact an untrained eye couldn’t distinguish them from your missing family members, but there’s something about these facsimiles that makes them seem like total strangers. Well, it’s the same with these new hyenas.

Let me tell you who’s missing. There’s Kamareeya (Jalla). He was a sub-adult when I first came to Harar and I watched him grow. Kamareeya was also very comfortable in my presence so we spent a lot of time together in the Old Town, looking for food, suspiciously eyeing Aboker hyenas and dodging noisy people. Then there’s Hadha Kumar. She was a high ranking female who was also very tolerant of me. So too the high ranking Diraatu is gone, as is Abba Jabsee, so named because he apparently cared for young ones, like his folkloric namesake. Both Illili and Buriseey are missing. Illili was a timid youngster while Burissey was more audacious than Willi and went so far as to try to lick the jacket sleeve off my arm (link). Also gone, the brazen male Bouki who I’ve seen marching past terrified pedestrians in Harar as though they weren’t even there. But the biggest gap is that left by the manic-aggressive Dibbey and her pathologically neurotic stalker, Tukwondilli. While Tukwondilli was obsessed with the violent object of his hormonally overcharged affections, his attention incited nothing but rage in the big, aggressive female. I have a vivid memory of Dibbey displacing Tukwondilli as she marched towards the hill, after which Tukwondilli crept up behind Dibbey and nipped her on the rump. Tukwondilli knew what the reaction would be and he was off and running towards the road before Dibbey even turned around. The raging female lumbered after Tukwondilli but never had a chance to catch him. No doubt she put that one away in the vault, to be saved for a later date and an opportunity to tear the skinny male to pieces.

So while I sat at the shrine, gazing at the faces of so many unfamiliar, anonymous hyenas, my spirits lifted when a big female came charging around from the road. It was Koti, the confident, dominant female matriarch of the Sofi clan. She was still alive and still as arrogant as ever and I wanted to run up and give her a hug. Koti had never paid me much heed although I know she used to recognise me because she had no qualms about marching past me to within a few centimetres (this was always a little unnerving for me). So there I sat, watching Koti, basking in her familiarity, as though she was the only remaining connection I had with the Sofi clan.


Imminent presents in Harar

For various reasons, we’ve brought forward the date that we’ll be arriving in Harar (we were originally going to my wife’s village in west Shewa but she can’t contact her brother; he’s only in a service area one day a week; local phone network is unreliable; keen to see hyenas; etc.) So only two days to hyenas now!

I have a lot of questions in my mind. Foremost is whether Willi will still be around. I’ve written about this before, wondering whether he will follow the male-hyena imperative to emigrate to another clan where he might find potential mates. But then Yusuf’s wife told me on the phone that Willi is still visiting the feeding place. And there’s also the case of the nervous male,Tukwondilli, who is also born of the Sofi clan. He’s the exception to the rule as he has never emigrated (although he’s gone away on month-long sex tours at various times). Second is whether Willi will recognise me. A lot of people have asked me my opinion on this and I can’t help thinking about all the adults from my childhood who I would definitely fail to recognise now. But then, the most vivid memories go hand in hand with familiar smells and hyenas are sniffers extraordinaires. So possibly Willi will have a whiff of me and think, ‘Oh, it’s that odd human who I never had a chance to eat’. In which case we might just take up where we left off and he’ll resume chewing on my jacket and equipment. But this time I’m bringing the right equipment to deal with his persistent biting attempts.



Paste marks the spot

Careful when you read this blog, you might learn sumthin’
Quite a few mammals use scent as a means of communication – to mark territory or advertise for mates – and hyenas are no exception. Hyenas do what’s called pasting. They usually do this by straddling a grass stem and then inching their way forwards so that the stem springs up and brushes against their anal gland. They project their anal gland outwards and secrete a paste onto the plant, the scent of which is extremely interesting to themselves and other hyenas. After that, other hyenas might come and paste on the same plant: overpasting.
Here are a couple of photos of Willi demonstrating pasting behaviour. Normally he does it on a favourite cornstalk but he came across another hyena pasting on these grass stems so he took the opportunity to attempt to overpaste on the same stems. You can see Willi’s anal gland protruding, but he didn’t produce any paste this time; hyenas don’t consistently produce the paste until their third year.
There are a couple of ideas out there as to why these young hyenas show pasting behaviour even though they’re not producing paste. One is that they’re taking on board the scent of other hyenas. This would be so that they’ll be identified with the group whenever hyenas come to sniff them. Another is that they might be acquiring bacteria that are necessary to producing scented paste in the future. And not only might these bacteria be necessary for producing scent, they might be necessary for producing the scent that is specific to their particular clan. Mind you, considering that young males overpaste more than young females, this doesn’t make a lot of sense – the males are the ones that will eventually leave their natal clan and join a new one, so bringing the scent of the old clan along with them might be detrimental.
Considering that Willi is not particularly adept with his pasting behaviour – sometimes his anus protrudes too late or the plant goes off to the side – I’d speculate that hyenas also need to practice this behaviour so that they can get it right in the future. It looks pretty difficult.

The tail end of Willi

Willi had been missing for the last four days and, considering he’s been persecuted lately and that he’s maturing, I was almost certain he’d emigrated and I was set to go to Police Meda early this morning to see if he was hanging around with the Assumberi clan at their morning feeding place. I had visions of the surprised look on the face of the Christian guy who feeds hyenas at the north side of town when this tubby hyena turns up at his feeding operation and sticks its nose in his food bucket. But, no, Willi’s not finished with the Suqutatberi clan just yet. Last night, from out of the shadows, came the rotund hyena, with the ‘what did I do now?’ look on his face. He went straight to the food bucket and then did his little trick of unnerving the tourists by wandering around the back of them and sniffing at their legs. They all moved away from him like sheep being herded by a fat, spotted sheepdog.

But not all is well. The photo below shows the latest bite on Willi’s bottom; someone is persecuting him. After the feeding I went with him as he trotted off down the hill and onto the plain with some food. He went a couple of hundred metres into the darkness and I left him and went back up to the hill. But then I heard some high pitched yelling coming from where I’d last seen Willi.

And no prizes for guessing who is likely candidate for persecutor. While Willi was at the feeding, Dibbey arrived and Willi’s eyes were fixed on her the whole time. He wouldn’t come near the tourists and the hyena man while Dibbey was attending and when Dibbey was at the side of the compound and Willi was taking food, he had one eye and one ear constantly directed at the big, aggressive female. If she moved a muscle, he would shy away from the food that was being held out to him; it was like seeing a junior version of Tukwondilli, all nerves and tension and kicking up dust.

So i’m beginning to think that it would be for the best if Willi were to emigrate. But it wouldn’t necessarily mean that he has to stay away. Note, the previous post about males returning to their home clan after an absence of 6 months. There’s a male hyena called Belliti, who comes to the hyena feeding only once in a while, always accompanied by a fat accomplice who doesn’t come to feed and so hasn’t been named by the hyena man (I call him Mortimer). Yusuf says that Belliti’s been coming since he was a cub but now only comes once in a while. I like to think that Belliti finds his mating opportunities with another clan but comes to visit the old Suqutatberi clan (his natal clan) once in a while, for reasons known only to him – probably food. And if Belliti can do it, then Willi can do it too.