As you know from the previous post, the BBC were recently in Harar filming the hyenas for the One Planet series. In addition to the three way clan war and the goings on at the Sofi feeding place (which is now halfway to the garbage dump), the producer noticed some interesting things at the main market. One was this old clapped out female who went nightly to the main market looking for food. Apparently all the Aboker hyenas deferred to her as if she was the queen of the hyenas but she was never once at the Aboker feeding place. I doubt she was foregoing the feeding place in favour of the market because the feeding kicks off at 6pm while the hyenas don’t normally hit the market until about 10pm due to the crowds. So I wish I could find out more about this hyena-queen. The other bit of information, and this is even more fascinating, is that the producer thinks that a hyena had some cubs in a niche inside the Old Town. He saw the female entering the niche and on passing by, he heard what he thought was cubs, but didn’t stop to look because he didn’t want to draw attention to the place – for obvious reasons. This is really interesting because crowds of people pass by that spot daily, and some throw rubbish into the niche, so it would take a lot of nerve for a hyena and her cubs to stay there. I’m guessing/hoping that by now that they’ve moved house and established a den outside the town where the other Abokers have theirs. Otherwise you can add to the permanent population of Harar, one female hyena and her cubs living in a magical hole where food flies in through the entrance daily.
I just heard from the producer of BBC’s One Planet series who was filming in Harar over the past month and there is much afoot in the world of Harar’s urban hyenas. Where I described the clan war between the Aboker hyenas and some others, I suspected that the ‘others’ might have been from the Hakim clan, and it looks like this is the case. Apparently the Hakim hyenas have been going into the Old Town on a nightly basis and challenging the Aboker hyenas’ dominance. What’s more, when someone took a dead ox and dumped it in front of the Suqutatberi gate, not only did the Aboker hyenas and Sofi hyenas converge on the scene but the Hakim hyenas came up from the south. The result was a three-way clan war, and in the morning a dead hyena was found just east of Suqutatberi near the tannery. Meanwhile the Sofi hyenas are conspicuously inconspicuous. They don’t come to the feeding place at the shrine anymore – probably because they’re nervous of the adjacent building project – and instead spend their evenings at the garbage dump, without even going into the Old Town. If Abbas is to host tourists he has to convince them to go halfway to the dump where he carries a bucket of scraps and feeds hyenas in darkness. I think the BBC will have trouble squeezing all this into a 6 minute sequence.
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.
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?
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.