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.