Hyena corn maze

This is a guest post from Eli Strauss, a PhD student in the Zoology department at Michigan State University. He is interested in the evolution of sociality and the causes and consequences of variation in social system structure. Eli plans to compare the social behavior of hyenas in and around Harar with hyenas located in the Masai Mara Game Reserve in southern Kenya.

My last day in Harar was a mixed bag. In the morning, we went into the farmland to look for the resting places of some of the Sofi hyenas. Brian and Kaylee, two photojournalists from University of Nebraska, had previously joined Abbas and followed hyenas back to a sleeping area in the farmland. This morning, we headed back to that same place to wait for returning hyenas.

Hyenas in the farmland. The corn field in the background is heavily used by Sofi hyenas

Hyenas in the farmland. The corn field in the background is heavily used as a resting place by Sofi hyenas.     

We followed hyena trails through the farmland until we reached a cornfield that abuts the streambed. There we waited, and sure enough, a number of hyenas passed through the area, many of them disappearing into the field of corn. Upon closer inspection, we found that the cornfield hid a maze of hyena trails, some ending in hyena-sized clearings. It definitely seems that the hyenas spend much of their daylight hours in these cornfields. We did a bit of crawling around the hyena corn maze ourselves, and I can attest first-hand that it is easy to find a great place for a nap in there.

Hyena peering down a trail through the corn

Hyena peering down a trail through the corn field.

It was a good morning. One of the greatest curiosities I’ve held towards the Sofi hyenas is what they do with their time. Unlike the Masai Mara, where the open savanna and the hyenas’ comfort with our vehicle allow us to observe hyenas throughout the day and night, the actions of Sofi hyenas are mysterious. In Harar, one can pretty much only see hyenas at the dump, at the feeding site, and occasionally in the streets of Jogol. That morning gave me a new glimpse of the life of a Sofi hyena.

From there, the morning took a turn for the worse. I was planning to take a bus to Addis two days later, but the bus company office informed me during breakfast that my bus had been cancelled. I rushed to the office and got the last ticket on the bus for the next day. The rest of my day was spent frantically packing, tying up loose ends, and saying sad farewells. It was particularly hard saying goodbye to Abbas and his family, who have been incredibly kind to me.  Nevertheless, I left Harar hopeful about the future. I’m excited to return next summer for a longer stay with my new human and hyena friends.

Swish of the tail

From Marcus

There’s something hyenas do a lot which, more than most things, lets me see what’s going on inside their heads. I call it a ‘swish of the tail’. Whenever a hyena is putting something behind themselves, they give a little swish of the tail and move on. Whenever a hyena finishes doing a poop, he gives a swish of the tail and puts that shit behind him. If Willi was startled by a noise or movement, he’d nervously investigate what it was and then once he’d established that it was something harmless, he’d give a swish of his tail and move on. I remember Bebe competing with some really big female hyenas at the feeding place. Yusuf was holding the meat really high in his hand so while Bebe jumped up to try and reach it, Chaltu was already on the way down with the meat. Chaltu’s huge snout smacked into Bebe’s with an audible ‘clunk’ and the little hyena reeled. She shook her head and sniffed while she walked over to the dumpster where she lay down and licked her nose for a bit. But hyenas are made of tough stuff and pretty soon Bebe’s attention was drawn once again to the feeding. She stood up, gave a little swish of her tail, and re-entered the fray, seeking an opportunity for more food.

Eli has been making a lot of progress. He went to the garbage dump just this morning to make more identifications and found himself the subject of some hyenas’ attentions. Three of them took an interest in what he was doing and approached to within a few metres before he moved and startled them. I have a feeling that it won’t be long before they include him in their worlds of recognisable beings and the boldest of the sub-adults might end up giving him some attention. Eli, bring something for them to chew or else it will be your camera or notebooks that wind up covered in hyena slobber. I’m looking forward to following Eli’s progress and the fortunes of the Sofi clan of which I still consider myself a member.

Tonight is my last night in Harar. I’m taking the bus back to Addis tomorrow and heading for my wife’s country where I’m hoping to find some interesting stuff on the horse culture there. I have a lot of fond memories from Harar (and some not so fond); and I’ve lost friends both hyena and human. It’s a rough environment. But hyenas are a pragmatic bunch. You can’t be too sentimental when your friends die and disappear at such a rate. And when your childhood playmates become your tormentors, there’s not much scope for dwelling on fond memories of old frienships. I have to admit I’ve acquired some of this pragmatism. So many Sofi hyenas who I knew are gone and the remainder are like strangers to me. Watching them now, I find it very hard to identify with the hyenas with whom I used to be so close. But that’s life in the world of hyenas. You find something, you feel something, you lose something, then you move on. This is my swish of the tail.


Guest post

I’d like to introduce Eli Strauss. He’s a researcher from Michigan State University who is coming to Harar to take a look at the research potential here. I asked him to contribute and hopefully he’ll post a bit more about his experiences with the hyenas here as they unfold.

My trip to Harar begins with a 30+ hour series of flights from Detroit, Michigan to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I am a researcher from the Masai Mara Hyena Research project, and in about four hours I begin my second trip to the African continent. Like my previous trip, the purpose of this journey is to observe wild spotted hyenas.  Almost two years ago I spent a year studying three clans of hyenas in the Masai Mara Game Reserve in southern Kenya. There I lived in our lab’s research camp inside the game reserve and went out every morning and evening to watch the hyenas. I felt very personally connected with the hyenas, over time growing familiar with their names, spots, ranks, and personalities.  Despite being very involved in the lives of the hyenas, we knew each other through an interesting filter: the car. An unfortunate fact of studying large mammals is that they are dangerous. Chomped in half by a hippo, eaten (alive, mind you) by a hyena, or trampled by a buffalo are just a few of the unpleasant demises that can be easily avoided by doing research in a vehicle instead of on foot. The price we pay for safety, however, that we don’t ever occupying the same world as our hyena friends.

It didn’t take long after arriving in the Mara for me to realize that our car was much more than barrier separating me from the outside world, however. While all of our hyenas run for their lives at the first sight of people, they are incredibly comfortable with our vehicle. And our vehicle is no small machine! It’s the closest thing I’ve ever driven to a tank: large and powerful, with a guttural diesel engine. Yet when we drive this behemoth up to a sleeping hyena, it will often give us no more than a one-eyed glance before continuing to sleep. Den cubs that go scurrying into holes at the sight of their own shadows will come up and chew on the tires and the underside of the car. When viewed from the hyenas’ perspectives, this comfort with our vehicle begins to make more sense. Most of these hyenas see our car every morning and evening nearly every day of their lives, and as youngsters they learn from the relaxed manner in which older clan members behave around our car. I soon realized that our vehicle doesn’t just keep us safe at the price of distance; in some ways, it allows us to get closer to the hyenas than could otherwise be possible.

And now here I am, on my way to Harar to study an entirely new group of hyenas. The focus of my work will be on comparing the behavior and social structure of hyenas in the Masai Mara with hyenas in Harar. But the hyenas wont be the only different thing about this trip; for better or for worse, I will be walking among my study subjects this time. I’m very excited to be free of the barrier that has always separated me from the hyenas, but also nervous about how a lack of vehicle will affect my research. Will these hyenas ever tolerate me as the Mara hyenas tolerate our car?  Will I be able to see enough of the Sofi and Aboker clans to get the data I need? Will I ever get to see mothers and cubs at a den?  Marcus’ research has shed a lot of light on such topics. For now, however, all I can think of is experiencing Harar and its Hyenas firsthand.



Back in Harar now and I’ve noticed a few changes. The gate on the north side of town (Assumberi) has been partly dismantled so that it can be restored, there are new cobblestones in some of the laneways, the price of eggs has risen, and boy is Willi fat! Actually this is interesting because Willi is quite a low ranking hyena. In a place like the Serengeti, Willi would get a lot of harassment from other hyenas at kills so that his growth rate would be pretty slow compared to a high ranking hyena simply because of limited access to food. The difference in Harar is that rank is not as important as tameness and Willi, being least afraid of people, is always at the front of the queue when Yusuf or his son is handing out the food. So, when I arrived at the shrine last night, I almost didn’t recognise this big lump of a hyena, lying with his nose on his paws looking disgruntled for some reason.
Hyenas are really inscrutable. I went straight up to Willi and sat down beside him and he just stared straight ahead. Definitely he recognised me, because if ever a person walks towards him like that, he usually gets up and scuttles out of the way. But all he did was rotate his ears when I spoke to him and then made eye contact just the once when he turned to face the sound of some hyenas squabbling. This is hyena through and through; they don’t connect with you the same way that primates and domesticated animals do. But they do connect. I guess it’s what he didn’t do that constituted the connection. He didn’t get up and run away – he wasn’t worried about me being close. He didn’t look at me – wasn’t concerned about what I was doing. He also refrained from biting me, but I don’t think he’s over that just yet. In fact Yusuf’s son, Abbas, showed me a scar on his neck from where Willi bit him one night while he was feeding. Sounds a bit like hyena-attention-seeking behaviour to me. But I also feel pretty guilty because I’ve indulged him so much. I remembered all those times that I let him bite me and my camera gear and my shoes and so forth. So I reprimanded him last night for his indiscretion and told him to work on his self control, but as always it seemed to go in one, backwards facing ear and out the other, forwards facing ear without being taken on board. This is hyena.