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.
Gee, there really is something going on between the Sofi and Aboker hyenas. At the feeding place, the Sofi hyenas are doing a lot of social sniffing – going around in groups of three or four abreast, sniffing and scratching at the ground. And they’re so edgy. They keep hearing noises, and as one they turn and face the direction from where the noises are coming. And they keep staring in the direction of the clan boundary as if at any minute, the Aboker hyenas will appear at the top of the hill. If it happens I wonder if they’ll defend their territory or if they’ll turn tail and run, like the other night.
I’ve been on edge too. Watching these hyenas and how they constantly look towards the clan boundary, I can’t sit still. I’ve been making forays up the road to the boundary where I stand and wait for the appearance of the Aboker hyenas. I keep expecting to see the silhouettes of six or seven hyenas coming over the hill. But since the invasion a few nights ago, there’s been only one incident. That was last night when I shone my flashlight up the road and saw a pair of glowing eyes halfway down the hill. I’d been monitoring the comings and goings of the Sofi hyenas all night so I was pretty certain that this was a stranger, and he was making his way down towards the Sofi hyenas.
By the time this guy was within 60 metres of the feeding place, he dropped down into the drainage ditch that runs parallel to the road and there he sat while Koti and a couple of other hyenas approached him with aggressive postures. The stranger popped his head up from the ditch, grimacing and making all sorts of appeasement gestures, looking like a profoundly submissive hand-puppet. Meanwhile, the massive Koti loomed over him, lowing and growling. After satisfying herself that his intentions were of a sexual rather than warlike nature (male hyenas cross territorial boundaries to seek mates), Koti left him to himself. The stranger went over to a place beside the dumpsters and lay down, and that was it.
Isn’t it fascinating that this kind of border crossing can happen in the middle of such a tense time? I would have thought that the edgy Sofi hyenas would have reacted violently to any of the Aboker hyenas transgressing territorial bounds especially after the raid of the other night. But while diplomatic relations might have been severed, everyday life is obviously continuing and the comings and goings of males in search of love will transcend the female imperative to fight a war.
For all of us hyena apprecionados, there’s a new book available in the Reaktion Animal Series about our otherwise maligned friends. Mikita Brottman wrote this one and included all four species of the hyena family (spotted, striped, brown, and aardwolf). After an account of the evolution and biology of hyenas, the really meaty part of the book is an unnatural history. We begin with prehistory, and the 32,000 year old painting of a spotted hyena in Chauvet cave in France. From there we skip to classical times (they were notoriously poor record keepers in the Neolithic period) and accounts from Greek and Roman geographers and natural historians. Hyenas make appearances in all manner of medieval bestiaries, Victorian zoos, sideshows and pop culture. And then there is all the mythology and folklore of hyenas in Africa. Really you could write volumes on this subject but given such limited space, Mikita does really well. Throughout, she askes the question of why it is that hyenas are so feared, loathed and despised by so many, even people with little experience of these animals? I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in hyenas and their cultural representations (and not just because I was given a free copy!). And it must have cost a bundle to get permissions for all the great images. My favourite is a copperplate engraving from 1775 of a spotted hyena (page 60), supposedly looking dastardly and voracious, but to me looking like he just ate a lemon.
We’re heading back to Harar and the hyenas in April. It should be an interesting time in many respects. First for me is whether any of those hyenas will recognise me. Maybe Dibbey and Hadha Kumar because I was close to those two and they were mature when I was there last time. Tukwondilli? He’s outwardly insane, I think he barely recognises himself. Willi and Fintamurey (now known as Rimbaud)? Willi might not even be around. I haven’t spoken to Yusuf’s family for a while but last time we spoke they assured me that Willi was still coming to the feeding place. But these male hyenas, when they mature they tend to go elsewhere looking for love. So even if Willi is still around he may not remember me. He was a subadult when I was there last so maybe his memories of me are really vague.I know Rimbaud is still coming to the feeding, I’ve seen her on the net being fed by Abbas inside the house. But she seems to approach anyone so it will be hard to tell if there’s recognition. We’ll see.