Sunday, August 24, 2008

always an adventure

Before we get to Lamu... I have to tell you about my weekend adventure.

My friend and colleague Aaron is the world's expert on striped hyenas, as far as I can tell. He did his PhD studying them in an area of Kenya called Laikipia, where I did some of my PhD research involving studying the remains of carnivore kills. That's how we know each other. Now, he's doing a post-doc study of striped hyenas in a place called Shompole, about a 5 hour drive south of Nairobi. Aaron told me recently he had some striped hyena chewed bones for me to study (cool!), and I should come down and visit, since he also has over a dozen dens of striped hyenas, some with cute cubs in them. So I decide this weekend is a good time to visit. My friend Emily and I headed off there on Friday mid-morning. We packed snacks for lunch and overnight bags - and we're off!

Aaron gives me pretty good directions down there, and since the excavation site I'd been working at is on the way, I get at least that far with no problems. The rest of the way is a little bumpier, since after the town of Magadi, it's all dirt roads. Magadi is a strange town; it's basically only a town because there is an enormous soda factory there. Not the fizzy kind of soda you drink, but soda ash. Here's the factory.

Anyway, after a hot and bumpy drive, we get to Aaron's camp in Shompole - which is in the midst of a lot of Maasai bomas, which are (usually semi-permanent) settlements made of stick-and-mud houses in a circle surrounded by a thornbush fence. Shompole is very pretty,

but it may be the dustiest place on earth. This is what the back of my car looked like after we arrived.

After dumping our things into the tents we'd stay in for the night (here's mine),

getting a tour of camp, including the "rustic" toilet (basically a wooden toilet seat set back in some bushes), "shower" (with tarps on only three sides, since the other side faces the river and Aaron only showers at night - I'll explain that), and kitchen tent (see photo below), we hopped in Aaron's car and went off to find a hyena den.

The first thing we did, though, was check two other hyena dens where Aaron had set up cameras to see which hyenas were visiting there, and to keep track of whether the den was active or not. One of the dens was active, with bones scattered around it - it was pretty cool thinking there were two hyena cubs sleeping inside!

Besides the bones, Aaron could tell it was active because the dirt around it was covered in hyena tracks. Here's how big they are, with my hand for scale.


The cameras are in cages, and they are triggered by movement. At any movement, the camera takes a still photo, and then a 5 second video. Here's Aaron checking one of the cameras.

Apparently, the cameras can be a little sensitive, so he needs to pull out the tall, dry grass near the camera once he sets it up so he doesn't have hours of video of grass waving when it's windy. The other amusing things he often catches on the camera are cows (I flipped through several photos and video and saw very interesting close-up views of cow undersides), and Maasai. As Aaron put it, "Some of the photos make you wish they wore underwear more often."

Aaron was hoping to find a den in a particular area where a particular female striped hyena had been spending a lot of time; he suspected there was a den nearby. Striped hyenas stash their babies in dens for the first several months of their lives, and they tend to move dens every few months. As we're driving, we're admiring the wildlife - giraffe, gazelle - and asking questions. Emily asks what other larger carnivores are common in the area, to which Aaron replies,

"Lions, spotted hyenas, striped hyenas, civets, and bat-eared foxes."

Right after that, we stop the car, and all get out to walk around in search of a hyena den, which is basically a hole in the ground with hyena footprints nearby (if it's an active den).

I'm thinking, hm - lions. As we get out of the car. And split up. Walking in the bushes. Where lions like to hang out and nap during the day when it's hot - and it's HOT down there.

(Hey Aaron? Don't go too far!!)

Thankfully, there were no lion encounters, though we did hear a spotted hyena whoop at night before we went to sleep. (That's one of my favorite things to hear in Africa, the whoop of a spotted hyena, calling to it's buddies in the night.) After walking around for only a few minutes we found what could be the den.

Aaron contemplates it momentarily,

and then goes about setting up two cameras near it.

So why does Aaron only shower at night, and therefore not really worry about privacy in the shower? Well, striped hyenas are nocturnal, solitary carnivores. So he leaves camp about 6:30 every night, and spends most of the evening hours (until between 2 and 4 am, on average) trying to find and follow a striped hyena. He's trapped, darted, and then radio collared seven of them, so he uses a radio tracking device in his car. And a remote control spotlight, like the kind they have on boats. And a GPS. And a hand-held tape recorded for taking notes. Pretty cool! Then he gets home, showers off the dust, and sleeps until sometime between 11am and 2pm, depending on how late a night he's had.

Just after the sun set, we went out with Aaron looking for hyenas. He has a cook that makes dinner that he takes with him in a tupperware container every night (we had some kind of yummy chicken stew with rice), along with a thermos of coffee. We were listening to the "beep... beep... beep..." of the radio tracking device, and watching the spotlight shine back and forth across the bush. Finally, we saw her, the hyena we'd been tracking. Exciting! We followed her for a while, and then she disappeared into the bush. Soon, she shot back out, apparently startled by something. We went to the spot where she'd been, and saw this:

Aha! Hyena dinner. Striped hyenas don't usually kill animals this big, she was probably scavenging from some other carnivore's kill.

After a while, Aaron collected a fecal sample from her. He waited until she pooped in a open field and then left, and took a popsicle stick, small vial, and sharpie from the car. He'll use the sample to extract hormones from, to study her stress level. He's working both inside and outside a conservation area, and one thing he's interested in knowing is if the hyenas have different stress levels in the two areas.

At this point, I was pretty tired. I'd driven 5 hours, and the sun had been intense during the day. Aaron could see Emily and I were half asleep, so after we lost the hyena in a patch of bushes, he drove us back. I was very tired, but took a cold and refreshing shower so I didn't get the sheets in the bed I was staying in filthy - and I was filthy! The water is pumped right up from the river which his camp is set up right next to. Then, I fell into bed. I slept like a log, waking up only when some playful vervets and colobus monkeys were hanging out and making noise in a tree practically right above my tent.

Yesterday morning we all got up, had breakfast, talked about research, and then Emily and I packed the car and got ready to go back to Nairobi. This included several bags of striped hyena-chewed bones, and an entire dessicated hyena (a hyena mummy?) which died after Aaron had collared it. Here's Aaron holding it's head, which his assistant removed from the rest of it's body to retrieve the collar, so they could use it on another hyena

He claims it doesn't smell, but I think he's just immune to the odor. We could certainly smell it all the way home. Thankfully we didn't get stopped at any police checkpoints, which they have on many roads in Kenya, mainly to check that drivers have updated car insurance.

I'd been wanting to stop and check out two places on the way back to Nairobi that I passed every time I drove to or from our excavation this summer, an Italian food store and a Vietnamese-Thai fusion restaurant. So we did. The Italian foodstore was as we predicted - delicious looking cheeses and salamis, much better pasta sauce than you can get in the regular supermarkets, and highly overpriced Chianti. Emily bought some ostrich egg noodles (how cool!) and some good pasta sauce. Then we went to the restaurant and had a delicious late lunch, at about 4pm.

When we were leaving, just before getting in the car, I noticed that my side of the car (the right side, since the steering wheel is on the right in Kenya, and driving is on the left) had dark-looking sprinkles on the bottom of it, like I'd driven through a puddle of... oil. Huh? I looked closer, and saw there was oil slowly dripping from underneath my car, covering my leaf springs and a few other parts underneath the car. Crap! We drove to the apartment where I'm staying, just hoping the car would make it there. Oh great, what should I do now? It was after 6pm, on a Saturday night; most garages were closed, and will remain closed the next day. Since one of our project vehicles was available, I took that and drove with Emily, who kindly volunteered to keep me company, around to nearby petrol (uh, gas for Americans) stations and asked if there'll be a mechanic available the next day - Sunday. I also bought a liter of oil to put in my car, thinking I will need to drive it tomorrow to the mechanics. I struck out at the first few; it was "check the Shell Station on University Way" (which I did, no luck) or "try Kwik-Fit in Westlands" (I already did, they aren't open on Sundays). Finally, someone at OiLibya (hm, I wonder where their fuel comes from!) suggested I try the Total station in town... jackpot! They said there'll be a mechanic there today. So, fingers crossed they can figure out where the oil is leaking from, that it's not a major problem, and that they can fix it - all in one day, on a Sunday. Because my next adventure begins early Monday morning, when I pick my good friend and colleage Fire up from the airport. We're spending 9 days on a game reserve near Mount Kenya, about 4 hours north of Nairobi, doing our own research project. Stay tuned!