Field work updates
Field work has been in full swing since I last wrote. Last week, along with my students, I worked to finish the fence assessment and put up all of the camera traps. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite finish for several reasons: First, because the fence around the park is a lot longer than you would think, considering Lake Nakuru National Park is a mere 173 square km; Second, because the road around the inside of the fence is impassable in many places. My newfound manual driving skills were put to the test, with multiple obstacles, such as huge holes, bushes, volcanic rocks hidden in the grass, and, of course, the mud. On Monday, we got stuck for what is likely going to be the first of many times over the course of my fieldwork. It took us an hour of building our own “road” out of dead branches, pushing the car, and mud flying everywhere for us to work our way out- I was very proud of our teamwork!
We have about 1/3 of the fence left to assess, and have already discovered a multitude of weak spots with signs of animals crossing. Also, likely because of funding issues, some areas of the fence are not currently electrified although it is supposed to be a fully electric fence. As we put up the cameras, it has been a great experience to try to teach the rangers and KWS staff about camera trap placement and set-up. All of the rangers we’ve met so far have been very accommodating, and our brief moments of rest are often filled with relaxation and copious canned fruit and army rations.
Adventures in Nairobi
Last Wednesday morning, I headed to Nairobi to participate in a two day meeting at Kenya Wildlife Service HQ to brainstorm the new 5-year national strategy for lions and spotted hyena. It was a lucky turn of events that led me to be in a room of about 40 lion and spotted hyena researchers, conservation biologists, and KWS wardens and executives, to discuss the future of KWS policy and action concerning these two species. Along with talking with many people who I’ve long wanted to meet, we had several small group activities in which we brainstormed conservation priorities and challenges for lions and spotted hyenas, and tried to decide how to democratically weave our ideas into the new strategy.
On Friday, I had a “free day” to go and check out a potential field vehicle I had been hearing about- being sold by a friend of a friend named Bali. Luckily, my colleagues Nina and Kat were with me, and Nina was able to test drive the car for me in Nairobi since I don’t yet trust myself to drive in a city with so few traffic rules. The car seemed like a good fit – small but formidable for off-road driving, which I’ll be doing a lot of during my field work. SO I’m currently in the process of purchasing my very first car! Exciting, and a little scary!
My first hyena darting
Lastly, the biggest event of my week: since Friday, I’ve been staying with the Mara Hyena Project in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, whose founder, Dr. Kay Holekamp, has graciously welcomed me to be trained on various protocols that I intend to adapt for my
own research on spotted hyenas. Particularly I’ve been getting trained on dart preparation and darting by Benson, a long-time Kenyan research assistant here who is likely the best hyena darter in the country or maybe even the world. After a few days of rain scares and of unsuccessfully searching for the perfect darting candidate (ie. one that 1) hasn’t been darted before, 2) isn’t near other hyenas since we don’t want others to see us and become frightened of us, 3) isn’t near dangerous animals or bushes or water or tourists), this morning we finally found an eligible hyena and successfully darted him. After darting TIQ (a young male whose full name is Tawfiq after a location in nearby Talek town), it was important to freeze and remain completely silent so he wouldn’t associate the dart’s “bite” with our car or us. Once he went down, we were very quiet and worked quickly to conduct the protocol: first cover his eyes, then collect blood samples, several swabs (anal, nasal, paste, etc.), saliva, hair etc., check for injuries, wounds, and parasites, conduct numerous body and dental measurements and take his weight. Finally, we put him in our car and transported him to a safe place for recovery. Later this evening we will check on him to assure he has recovered successfully.
The darting experience was a landmark in my field work and an excellent learning experience, since I am intending to dart and outfit spotted hyenas in my study area with GPS-GSM collars. I felt it was my responsibility to learn proper protocols for the safety of the hyenas involved, as well as the best ways to allow my hyenas to still be observable and unbothered by my approach for behavioral observations later on. Many thanks the Mara Hyena Project for hosting me! Now onward, to my own hyena research.