All posts by christineeleanor

How to de-collar a spotted hyena

De-collaring a hyena is a lot harder than collaring a hyena.

As part of my long-overdue (thanks, covid!) visit to Kenya, I wanted to attempt to de-collar the spotted hyenas that I had outfitted with GPS-GSM collars in 2019. While the collars have proven invaluable for understanding hyena movement through a densely developing landscape, as well as how to mitigate hyena interactions with people, the collars were due to run out of battery and unfortunately did not have automatic drop-off mechanisms. Thus, the mission to rid the hyenas of their fancy necklaces before the necklaces became useless.

So, how do you capture a hyena? There are a lot of animal capture methods out there, but we prefer the callback method. This essentially entails calling in hyenas using particular hyena sounds of excitement, as well as a few rather unsettling tracks I have of sounds of various other animals dying. Some veterinarians and researchers also like to use bait, though it isn’t necessary. However, since we were trying to recapture specific individuals, rather than just any hyena, we were gifted loads of slightly “off” meat (in conjunction with the callbacks) to use for enticing our collared hyenas to stick around. My friend Simon’s car, filled with 60+kg of quickly spoiling meat, became known as the Meatmobile- and yes, in case you’re wondering we did spend a lot of quality time in the sweltering heat of the car with that disgusting meat and its burgeoning, fly-dominant ecosystem. [Note, all of this work was conducted with the proper permits and using proper ethical procedures].

Before transferring the meat to the Meatmobile.
Experimenting with making the bait more difficult to tear off of the tree.

Once our collared hyena has hopefully responded to the callbacks, the vet gets ready to dart the hyena. Because they hyenas are accustomed to my car, sometimes the vet will end up hopping into my car to get closer for darting. Then, the dart is loosed and hopefully you’ve soon got yourself a sleepy ‘yeen ready for de-collaring and measurements.

A relatively easy morning capture of hyena #1626 from the Naishi Clan. Note on the left our amazing vet, Dr. Mukami!

I’ll share a few notable stories from our four days of de-collaring efforts.

One of our hyenas, collar #1623, seemed like he would be easy to capture. I had seen him chilling out in the open in his favorite spot, oozing confidence and not skittish, several times over the few weeks I’ve been back. Thus, we used a combo of his GPS collar data and UHF signal to try and find him. One day, we knew he was near the lakeshore, so we began to set up our bait in that area. While looking out onto one of the bays, we spotted a hyena. A quick look with my binoculars showed me that against all odds, it was the collared guy rather than another hyena! I whisper-shouted “It’s him it’s him it’s him” to the group and we all moved rapidly to get into place for the callbacks and baiting. Fast forward to an hour later, and he was finally coming out into the open, nearing the bait. I trained my binoculars on him, and suddenly everything seemed like it was moving in slow motion. “Holy crap,” I said, “It’s not #1623…It’s Smiley!” Smiley was a hyena (with a missing lip) that we were convinced had met his untimely end months before. His collar had abruptly stopped working right after he meandered into another clan’s territory (after trying desperately to disperse out of the conservancy in multiple directions). We were all floored by this plot twist. #1623 didn’t matter in that moment; Smiley was resurrected from the dead and we needed to remove his useless collar. Once we darted him, we were able to remove the collar, get some measurements, and check on his health. Though old, Smiley turned out to still be quite big and strong, and very clean with no parasites. He had actually assimilated into the clan that we thought had killed him (the Lakeshore/Diatomite Clan), and was doing just fine. While we didn’t catch #1623 that evening, we were all riding the high of our Smiley surprise.

Smiley with his trademark missing lip.

We didn’t want to give up on #1623, however. So we returned on the final morning to the area where we knew he was, this time armed and ready with the UHF receiver. Nearly all of his clan-mates (minus Smiley, who seems to have decided against approaching us again…) showed up for the callbacks, except for #1623. He stayed deep in the dense bushes near the lakeshore, where it was inaccessible and possibly dangerous for us to try and dart him [we don’t like darting hyenas near bodies of water, since there’s a teeny chance they could fall asleep and drown in the water]. Eventually, we decided to just go looking for him on foot. We had two armed rangers, so we were ready for buffalo. Using the UHF, we clambered through bushes, 2 meter high grasses, and thorny acacias. The signal was getting much stronger. Suddenly, we spotted him sleeping under a large shrub. He sprang up, stared at us for a split second, and bolted into the brush. No chance whatsoever for us to dart.

We came up with a new plan: I and the rangers would use the UHF to try and flush #1623 out of the bushes toward the road. Meanwhile, the vet and team would drive on that road, preparing for him to be flushed in their direction. I went off with the rangers, UHF held high above my head, and one earphone in my ear to listen for #1623’s signal. Suddenly- BLAM. I leapt a solid foot into the air as Nicholas the ranger shot his gun. We had just rounded a small bush to see a few buffalo just 3 meters away from us. Fortunately, Nicholas’s gunshot scared them away and we were able to move in a different direction. We had been upwind of them and hadn’t been able to smell them ahead of time. The next time we came across an even larger herd of buffalo, I was ready- we were downwind and I smelled them before I heard the trampling of their massive hooves running. Fortunately on this occasion we made our way in a different direction with no gunshots necessary. At this point I told the guys that this collar was not worth our lives, and the buffalo were too many – it was time to give up on removing #1623’s collar.

That same night was our last night to try removing collars. There was one hyena we hadn’t tried yet- #1627 of the Northern Clan. Again, using the GPS locations, we chose a spot near to the Northern Clan den to set up our remaining masses of meat and get ready for callbacks. We began the callbacks at 5:30pm. Unfortunately, this clan has become markedly skittish, and #1627 turned out to be the most skittish of the lot. For 5 long hours, we tried every trick in the book to get him to come close enough for darting, and by 10:30pm we were all exhausted and morale was waning.

I can assure you the next thing that happened is 100% true. At 10:30pm, feeling desperate and fatigued from the whole process, I said to my car-mates, “Listen, I truly believe that we can manifest this into happening. To manifest, you can’t just say to yourself, ‘I want the hyena to be darted.’ You have to really imagine and picture the sound of the dart. Are you ready?” And they agreed to all imagine that sound together. I kid you not, three and a half minutes later we heard the sound of the dart. #1627 was successfully darted by our amazing vet team, and I’m convinced that our manifesting played no small part.

We ran through the brush after #1627, who was refusing to succumb to the drugs. Eventually, he did, but we still wanted to work quickly. When we got close to him, I was immediately both horrified and so glad that we had caught him – he had a huge, infected wound on his head, likely from a fight or an accident. The vet was able to treat his wound, as well as remove his collar, and she says he is likely to recover very well. While the wound was deeply unsettling, I was so grateful that we were able to capture #1627 at the midnight hour and help him in such a profound way.

This whole de-collaring process was a whirlwind that felt a lot longer than the 3.5 days that it comprised. A note here that all GPS collar companies should make automatic drop-off collars, but unfortunately that is not yet the case. So we must do our best to help the animals after they have helped us- returning to remove collars and check on your study species is the ethical thing to do, even if it is wildly difficult. Fortunately we were able to recover most of the collars deployed, thanks to an amazing, inspiring, and tenacious team.

To see some of this process in action, check out this quick video I made.

Understanding Perceived and Verified Human-Carnivore Conflict

My first participatory mapping chapter (and 3rd out of 4 dissertation chapters) was recently published in Frontiers in Conservation Science!

Essentially, we found that observed & perceived human-carnivore conflict are equally important for understanding the big picture, but they may be driven by different social & ecological processes. These different processes can contribute to and explain a spatial mismatch in perceived and verified conflict. Thus, integrating the spatially explicit experiences and perspectives of local communities with more traditional ecological methods is critical to identifying lasting and socially just forms of conflict mitigation.

Difference map showing verified conflict kernel density subtracted from perceived conflict kernel density. Adapted from Wilkinson et al. 2021.

I’m sending many thanks to the communities who participated in this work, and for whom the work was conducted. And of course, so much gratitude to my co-authors: Justin Brashares, Alice Bett, & Maggi Kelly.

…Fun fact, Frontiers has some amazing article-interaction metrics they capture. In just 3 days, our paper has attracted hundreds of views from all around the world!

Explorer Academy Adventures!

I am pleased to announce that Mammals Week premieres this week, as one of eleven exciting weeks with Disney/National Geographic Explorer Academy Adventures! As a carnivore ecologist and a National Geographic Explorer, I’m appearing on a new interactive kid’s show and activity series called Explorer Academy Adventures, for our mammals-themed week. Explorer Academy Adventures features tons of fun & interactive science for kids.

Peep the promo below to learn more about this awesome experience and visit for more info.

Life, uh, Finds a Way

In our recently published paper “Quantifying wildlife responses to conservation fencing in East Africa“, we developed a classification scheme to explore mammalian behaviors around the Lake Nakuru National Park boundary fence. At least 27 different mammal species cross in and out of the national park, and fence maintenance has inconclusive effects. In the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, “Life finds a way.”

Also, we can use factors such as microhabitat, season, human activity, and connectivity to predict whether certain taxa will cross the fence.

Check out a piece I wrote about this work here.

Black Mammalogists Week: Sep 13-19!

Black Mammalogists Week is coming up September 13th-19th and we are so excited! This idea was originally created by three Black mammalogists- myself, Rhiannon Kirton, and Rae Wynn-Grant, who wanted to find all of the other Black mammalogists and mammal enthusiasts out there while providing tangible ways to connect with and support one another. We were inspired by the success of Black Birders Week, and hoped to foster the same widespread engagement with scholars and the public. After some initial planning meetings, we reached out to 15 other inspiring Black mammalogists to increase the capacity of our organizing and help Black Mammalogists Week to make the most impact. The organizing team is so excited to bring you six themed days, live streamed panels, social media takeovers, giveaways, mammal coloring pages, and other ways to get involved. Check out our website here for more information and see you next week!

We are also excited to announce the Black Mammalogists Week BIPOC Scholars Award to advance the Black & Indigenous scholars in mammalogy and other fields. Please donate and share widely to help us to reach our desired endowment!

using ecology to understand carnivore-livestock conflict

A group paper I led on using ecology to understand carnivore-livestock conflict and promote coexistence has just been published in Conservation Biology! Working with such inspiring, multidisciplinary coauthors was a joy. You can find the study here.

Additionally, here is the UC Berkeley press release about the study.

And here is a blog I wrote for Defenders of Wildlife.

Our group’s goal is that the framework we present in the study will provide a concrete set of ecological guiding principles for researchers, conservationists, and livestock managers who are seeking to alleviate carnivore-livestock conflict.

Predator-proof enclosure at Soysambu Conservancy, Kenya.
Photo: Christine Wilkinson, funded by the National Geographic Society

Life Finds a Way

Since last I wrote, my field work has come to an end and analysis has begun. It has been a multidisciplinary wild ride. I’ll stick with the ecology and behavior components of my research for this first update.

Hyenas in fancy necklaces

After much government-level controversy and a decent amount of time, the ban on darting of wildlife in Kenya was finally lifted in February 2019 (I’ll save the juicy longer story for a future post). Because I had been geared up to collar since July 2018, I was one of the lucky few researchers to get my collaring plan re-approved right away- so I dropped everything and hopped on a plane to Nairobi almost immediately after hearing the news of the lifted ban. With much ado, drama (dare I say?), and effort by many parties, we ended up collaring seven spotted hyenas, representing 5 clans (two clans in Lake Nakuru National Park and three clans in Soysambu Conservancy). It was a great success.

Handing out our first fancy necklace – with my KWS team, including my good friend, Christine.

The goal of this part of my study is to analyze the fine-scale (5-minute fix rates) movements of spotted hyenas in relation to linear barriers (fences, roads), other anthropogenic features and activities, land cover, livestock enclosures, and livestock predation events. Though spotted hyenas are heavily implicated in human-carnivore conflict, these aspects, especially at such a fine scale, have hardly been studied. Though the start-up effort was immense, there’s something inherently satisfying about having these hyenas out there collecting data for me, and looking at their movements each day on Google Earth hasn’t yet stopped being exciting. So far, the hyenas are showing us a few things: 1) the clans are using up every single inch of space in these two small protected areas (~180km sq each), 2) some of these hyenas are likely trying to disperse and failing due to linear barriers, resulting in some fascinating and unusual behavior, and 3) the Lake Nakuru National Park fence is currently not very effective at stopping hyena movements in and out of the park. Here’s where things get really fascinating.

Oh the places they’ll go…

Lake Nakuru National Park (LNNP) is one of only two fully-fenced national parks in Kenya (the other being the Aberdares). We’re talking a ~3 meter high, electric, parallel-wire fence. Some sections of the fence, particularly in the areas where the park directly abuts Nakuru city (one of the fastest growing cities in sub-Saharan Africa), have an extra reinforcement of woven wire extending a minimum of 1 meter underground, to prevent digging by wildlife. Like many barriers, the LNNP fence has a complex sociopolitical history. The fence was created not only to keep wildlife in the park and protect local communities from crop-raiding and livestock predation, but also to keep people out: the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is concerned about poaching (especially of the endangered black rhinos living in the park), people gathering firewood inside the park, and other activities. KWS is trained to shoot on sight if they see any unauthorized people wandering in the park at night; when I would do night field work or travel through the park after dusk I had to warn my KWS ranger colleagues ahead of time so as not to get shot. The fence is complicated. People are grateful for its protection, yet sometimes do cut the wire to enter for resources. They illicitly graze their livestock in the perimeter (a grassy 2 meter space between 2 fences that’s technically a part of the park), yet express that as long as wildlife are blocked by the fence it’ll be fine to have large carnivores living just a stone’s throw from their homes.

As it turns out, just as the fence isn’t entirely keeping people out, it’s not keeping wildlife in either.

By walking, hiking, driving, and sometimes jogging along the entire LNNP fence several times, we discovered about 170 weak points where it was clear that wildlife were crossing in and out of the park. KWS rangers, who live in camps within the park, were integral to this effort since they see the fence every day. Using evidence such as fur and tracks (it was the rainy season the first time we did this, so, luckily for us, tracks were abundant), we chose 18 sites at which carnivores were definitely crossing. We posted camera traps (motion sensing cameras) at these stations to get a sense of the fence-crossing behaviors of carnivores and other wildlife, and monitored the cameras for a full year from June 2018-June 2019.

spotted hyena

After the year was up, I had my work cut out for me (re-cut? was it ever not being cut…?): sorting the photos. Because most of the cameras had to be within the park facing the weak point or hole (to avoid theft outside of the park), the amount of erroneous grass photos was immense. My team of undergraduate students and I sorted through over 1 million photos, and were left with ~85,000 photos of wildlife doing all sorts of things at the fence line. I then reviewed each of the 85,000 wildlife photos (what better to do indoors on a winter day?) and assigned fence-specific behaviors to the wildlife in each photo (i.e. cross from LNNP, cross to LNNP, searching at hole, vigilant across fence, etc.). One of the first things that has become clear is that carnivores are crossing in and out of LNNP every single day. Baboons and vervet monkeys cross the fence with ease and constantly, warthogs aren’t too far behind the primates in their indifference to fences, and even large ungulates, such as cape buffalo, are also crossing the fence. Wildlife appeared at the fence line on every single camera, every single day. Final results are TBD, but it’s safe to say that the Lake Nakuru National Park fence will bring a new perspective to the current debate about whether conservation fencing is effective, economically viable, and ecologically sustainable.

Major funding for this project: National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, Andrew & Mary Thompson Rocca Foundation

On Being Exotic

MZUNGU has followed me for my time here in Kenya and every other time I’ve lived in East Africa. It comes in the form of high-pitched screams trailing their Doppler effect through my car window as I drive past a group of schoolchildren, in the form of a deep and demanding voice accompanied by an expectant stare from a man walking by on the street, in the form of idle chat from older women twittering amongst themselves “that MZUNGU should…”, “ask the MZUNGU for…” while I’m standing right next to them understanding every word of Swahili they’re speaking (and they know it). Though it is a noun, meaning “foreigner”, or more frequently, “white person”, the word MZUNGU is so often spoken as a command. MZUNGU as a command means I never have to guess what’s coming next- “Give me a sweet.” “Give me your money.” “Give me your car.” “Give me some food.” From poor to upper middle class, young and old, almost everyone I’ve met here in East Africa has mastered the MZUNGU command and all of the stereotypes living within it.

As a POC student from a lower socioeconomic background branded MZUNGU, I face a number of unique challenges and experiences which resound with me and, frankly, exhaust me each day. Some of these are minor things: being charged double, triple, or 8x the price when buying vegetables or trying to catch a quick lift around town; having crowds of “MZUNGU”-screaming people shove their heads into the doorway to try and catch a glance of the MZUNGU while I’m getting a routine haircut; innocently complimenting someone on their bracelet and that person offering to sell it to me for an exorbitant price (happens every time!); using some Swahili in casual conversation and hearing a nearby stranger exclaim in complete shock that the MZUNGU isn’t speaking “Kizungu”, a colloquial term for English. Other things are more complicated or frustrating: having village chiefs I’ve just met refer to me as “madame” which is a sign of money, status, and higher hierarchy; as a result having my community member research participants look to me for monetary and other gifts (an expectation which not only can I not provide but also may affect my research results) unless explicitly warned ahead of time that I am just a student without extra money; having people I work with talk behind my back about how “that MZUNGU should give us her money”; having people I meet seem completely taken aback when I won’t just give them various things of mine for free (anything from writing pens to my car); strangers insisting on taking photographs with me the moment they meet me, even as I’m insisting “no”; people of all ages and backgrounds following me for blocks on the street and grabbing at my clothes and hands, either to ask me for things or simply to touch me because my skin is a lighter shade of brown; having an acquaintance insist publicly that I take everyone out and treat them to food and drinks at an expensive hotel that even I cannot in my wildest dreams afford, “because you have money of course”. Just recently I was asking a Chief if she knew of a hotel room I could stay in within the village and much to my initial confusion she burst out laughing and said “not for someone of your class” which, since we had just met 5 minutes before, was a reference simply to my skin color. Meanwhile I am in severe debt and many of these people have steady jobs and some semblance of wealth, my knowledge of which makes such interactions with these particular people seem to be a little twist of the knife.

When I ask my Kenyan friends why these things happen, the closest I’ve gotten to an explanation is that in the past, when white missionaries first flooded East Africa, they would hand out gifts and money to convince mass amounts of people to convert to Christianity and attend churches, and that largely because of this and the mainstream media, all foreigners are lumped in with white people and their history here as money-givers. Even today in Kenya, while a regular foreign work permit costs a person thousands of dollars per year, a missionary permit is a mere $50 per year. The MZUNGU is seen and taught to children not only as a source of ever-flowing money, but also a status symbol- hence the insistence on photos. In the words of so many people I’ve met, “The way people see it, the MZUNGU has lots of extra money, so let me help him by taking some off his hands.” Many of my Kenyan friends have been incredulous or utterly shocked to learn about class divides and homelessness in the USA. It is just not what most people learn about us.

My being a POC makes these MZUNGU interactions hold more weight over me than I presume they would otherwise. In the USA, my birthplace and home, I also stand out. Being called “exotic” by white people, having them touch my curly hair without asking, and having people cock their heads and gaze curiously while asking that awful question – “What are you?” – have always been frequent occurrences in my life at home. Growing up as Halfrican, I was never Black enough and never white enough to those around me, and thus found myself in the minority of people who frequently feel unwed to any culture or group- a philosophy which can be both eye-opening… and lonely. Being called a white person (implicitly, via “MZUNGU“, and explicitly, via “you and those other whites…” or “you whites really like…”) while possessing an ethnic history and emotional self-perception of non-whiteness, and having gone through (and still going through) a journey of otherness as a mixed person, instills in me a defiance and an exhaustion with yet again being labeled “other”. It robs me, just a little, of the utter joy I feel whenever I first re-arrive in East Africa and am refreshingly in a country dominated by Blackness. For many people that I meet, I cannot first be seen as a person. I am first seen as an other, and simultaneously as a basket of money, walking on two legs. Rather than having a simple and natural first interaction, I must steel myself, stay calm, and immediately begin the subtle work of undoing the person’s perceptions of me. I do this work- deftly countering the MZUNGUs and the “madame”s with my name (I have a name!) and my story- because only then can I be seen without the MZUNGU filter, and begin a meaningful relationship with that person. When I’m not completely exhausted, I maintain my humor about these situations by making MZUNGU into little jokes with myself- such as saying in Swahili to MZUNGU-screaming kids: “Where is he? I don’t see him!?”, or in response to “Give me sweets!”: “Oh, you’re going to give me sweets? That’s so nice, thank you!” – then there is laughter and for a moment MZUNGU doesn’t seem like such a heavy weight.

By this time you’ve probably noticed my textual portrayal of the word MZUNGU in this post. The way I’ve written it here is the way it feels to me each day, whether it is shouted, snickered, whispered, or implied. It is almost always present, knocking on the back of my eyes like a bright light shined directly in.

I sometimes wonder what a country of fellow Halfricans would be like- would I finally lose my feeling of otherness? Would this just be because we’ve all shared these same experiences at home and when traveling to places we initially and mistakenly think we might feel more belonging? I don’t know. What I do know is that my East African friends and I are doing the quiet work of breaking down these walls, and for that I am grateful. My blessings while living here far exceed the emotional weight and exhaustion I sometimes carry from interactions with people who hold preconceptions. Though I will never know where my enslaved ancestors arrived from so long ago, for so many reasons Kenya will always feel like a home to me.

a baby Halfrican and her grandmother

Hyena Yoga and Participatory Adventures

For the past three months, I’ve been what I can only assume is the definition of a multidisciplinary researcher: super busy. With the addition of a whirlwind two month visit from one of my favorite people on the planet, this blog has become almost as dusty as my hair after driving for 5 minutes in the bush (actually nothing will ever be as dusty as the roads here, but I digress). Here’s a quick-ish update:



For the past few months I’ve had camera traps up on parts of the Lake Nakuru National Park fence to try and gain a better understanding of how often carnivores are crossing the fence into the community lands and other areas. The answer so far: nearly every day. Although carnivores such as spotted and striped hyenas, black backed jackals, civets, and many more are crossing the fence, various other species are trying their darnedest to get across as well. Every evening there are buffaloes sniffing at the holes going under the fence, presumably wondering “maybe tonight I’ll fit under there” (nope, you won’t.), and frequently staring across at each other from either side of the fence (longingly, if I’m allowed to anthropomorphize a little bit). M2E67L195-195R399B413The animals that do make it under the fence are on par with some of the best yoga gurus I’ve ever seen, contorting their bodies into odd and flexible shapes to squeeze into the small space below the bottom wire (not electrified) while avoiding the electrified wires above.  You may wonder, how are these animals getting through a formidable electric fence? It appears warthogs and other wildlife are constantly digging new holes, and the fence maintenance workers are hard at work blocking the holes every day- seems like a tough job in a park entirely encompassed by a fence!

This part of the work has led to some interesting field experiences as well. One day, I was checking the camera traps and found one of them completely destroyed. Assuming humans were responsible, I took a quick look through the photos. Much to my surprise, the culprit was actually a particularly vindictive southern ground hornbill! According to the photos, he went at it for about 30 minutes and then, finally satisfied with his work, he was on his way. Somehow, the camera’s capabilities survived the attack, albeit now with pink daytime photos. hornbillcamera

Hopefully these small fence-crossing analyses, along with the conflict mapping, hyena movement tracking, and participatory mapping, can lead to a better understanding of whether and how “conservation fencing” can be successful given that it may be a major direction for conservation in the future.


Mapping and a meal

My team and I have also been working hard to meet as many community members as possible and involve them in participatory mapping and interview sessions to better understand their experiences with human-carnivore conflict, their risk perceptions, and the resources and places they feel are important in their landscapes. In these sessions, community members participate in interviews one-on-one and then come together as a group for the mapping, while also enjoying chai and a hearty breakfast. As representatives of their communities’ experiences, things get lively and people have been enthusiastic to share their stories. Maps hold enormous power, and building them from the ground up can be one way to positively influence management by including the spatial perspectives of communities and elevating their voices.

DSC08019 copy
One of our men’s groups mapping in a nearby community.


What’s Next

I’ve left out a lot of things- such as the work we’ve been doing with IDing individual hyenas, creating ID sheets for them (you can tell spotted hyenas apart by their spot patterns), land cover mapping, and fence mapping, but that’ll be for a future post. As we wait for Kenya’s (quite untimely for me!) blanket ban on wildlife darting to be lifted so we can place our GPS collars on hyenas, we are trying to pack in as much community work and hyena tracking as possible.M2E1L0-0R350B320 In camp life, I found out few months ago (using a camera trap near my camp) that Soysambu not only had three 1-month-old brand new lion cubs, but that they had likely been born in my camp and I had been unknowingly walking past them (and mama) every day! So between work and general day-to-day, life here in the bush, as usual, has been a generally satisfying mix of fascinating and difficult. The work is chugging along steadily, we’re trying to remain flexible in spite of major roadblocks, and I still have the dream of making it home before Christmas- we’ll see!


Team Mafisi! (photo: Jessica Ortiz)

(Note: This work is currently funded by National Geographic Society)






A Week of Firsts!

Field work updates

Where we got stuck!

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!

DSC06764.jpgWe 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.

A brief break for bottle cap checkers with KWS rangers

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.

My new lil’ car!

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

Benson prepping the dart.

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.

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Research assistant Allie and Benson carrying TIQ to a flatter space for us to work.

Keeping his eyes covered as we near the end of the measurements.

Conducting body measurements.

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.

Thanks for teaching me, TIQ!