Three years ago I wrote an article for Knoxzine (Getting the Last Laugh in Africa, Oct 2, 2014) about Knoxvillian Dee White and her involvement with the Michigan State University (MSU) Hyena Research Project. https://www.facebook.com/MaraHyenas
Dee’s background of being one of the first female zookeepers in the United States and her serendipitous reunion with Dr. Kay Holekamp produced this unusual, fulfilling work in retirement.
From our first meeting I felt bonded to Dee through Kenya. We kept in touch after the article, discovering mutual friends and concerns. I must confess turning a putrid shade of green every time she went back to the Masai Mara.
2003 was the year of my last safari to Kenya. I had almost given up hope of ever returning. Life changes, reality, i.e., finances and aging sets in. Maybe that was the key for me–if I don’t go now, when will I go?
On November 15, 2017, I flew off for a whirlwind 12-day trip which started in Nairobi and ended with a visit to MSU’s Fisi (hyena) Camp in the Maasi Mara National Reserve. Francis Mbuthia Muchiri, the driver on my previous 3 visits, invited me to stay with his family in Nyeri. He is retired now, but his son Bernard Ndegwa works for a safari company so I contracted with Bernard for his services and a vehicle.
From her home in Knoxville Dee made the arrangements with Mary and Leah, Research Assistants (RA) at Fisi Camp, for me to visit. My time in the Mara was short; only a day and a half. It was Thanksgiving afternoon when I reached Mary on her cell phone and made arrangements to visit the next day after my game drive.
Bernard and Mbuthia did some good spotting Friday morning along with using the radio for animal sightings by other tour guides. In a 6 hour span I saw cheetah, male lions and a lioness, giraffe, warthog, zebra, eland, wildebeest, topi, hyena, elephant, hippo, and at least 20 bird species.
We made it back to our camp, the Mara Simba Lodge, for a late lunch and short rest before driving to Fisi Camp.
I had hoped to go out and observe with Mary and Leah but that didn’t work out so I contented myself with talking to them for a few minutes and presenting them with Oreos and M&Ms plus ADT t-shirts for the entire camp. The sweets were an immediate hit!The research assistants are in charge of the daily camp operation when Dr. Kay and Dee are not in the country. This operation includes observing several hours each day, photographing, identifying, and writing any new information, as well as taking care of the physical camp with the help of the Masai staff.
I found them to be enthusiastic about their work, as exhausting as it is, and in love with hyenas.When their year here is up, they will look at continuing their education or pursuing other field work.
We toured the camp: a main “living room” and work tent, separate tents for the kitchen, shower, bathroom, and sleeping quarters.
I saw charts with the latest hyena information,
sniffed a decomposing hyena head,
and met Joseph, camp manager and cook.
Best was getting my picture made in Dee’s tent!
What a fantastic trip! All too soon it was over…
Dee and I got together shortly after I returned home. She wanted to know what I thought about the camp and I had a slew of questions after my visit.
What is a typical day in camp? Our days start at 5:00 a.m. There’s just time to grab a cup of tea before helping to load the vehicles to be used that day, one for tracking an animal to be darted and one for observing behavior at dens, or kills, or anywhere hyenas are gathered. After double checking the list of needed equipment, we leave camp at 5:30 a.m.
We are back in camp by 9:00 a.m. unless something exciting, like a kill, is going on. Joseph has breakfast ready and we discuss the activity of the two cars, adding new information to the boards, i.e new cubs found or sexed, or an “amber alert” for a missing hyena.
If an animal was darted, all the biological samples we collected from that animal are processed and preserved before breakfast. Our lab tent and table and our dining tent and table are one and the same.
Everyone has camp duties. Part of Dr. Kay’s day is spent working on grants, correspondence, and administrative duties connected with running a hyena research camp.
The Masai staff take care of tent repairs, general camp and vehicle maintenance, checking inventories of materials used and replacing them to be ready for the afternoon drive.
The RAs transcribe notes, update photos, service the solar panels, or sometimes visit a local school to give a talk or hold other community relation events.
I maintain darting and necropsy records as well as enter all observational data gathered by the RA’s at our Serena camp. I also help Joseph with tent repairs, go on the “water run”, and try and pitch in wherever help is needed.
At 5:00 p.m. we go back out again. Vultures flying overhead might lead us to a kill. We visit known den sites to study the development of cubs and record maternal and other social behaviors. We use our rooftop tracking device to locate any of our collared hyenas and see what activity is going on. Then it is back to camp by 8:00 unless there is something major happening.
During the rainy season the routine changes a little. When we can’t go out, we gather under the shelter of the lab tent. Downtime is spent refurbishing notebooks, catching up on records, photos, cleaning lab equipment, repairing anything that is broken or worn. For fun, we sometimes and play board and card games. The RAs rely on their electronic devices to watch videos and keep in touch with the world. I use the time to catch up on my reading. We all sleep in!
Tell me about darting and observing activities: Darting is used to immobilize a hyena in order to take blood, tissue, and bacterial samples, measure all body parts, and if it’s the right animal fitting a tracking collar on him or her. We make sure we are able to do this in an open area.
We cannot dart an animal if there is any danger that an elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, environmental danger (like standing water, dense shrubbery, local cattle herders, or tourists are nearby.)
Any talking is done in whispers to keep the animal calm. We do everything possible to keep the hyena from connecting our vehicle and people to the sting of a dart. They are so intelligent that if they associate us with being “bitten” we will never be able to get near them again AND they will pass that fear along to all their friends and relatives and we would have no one left to study. Along with samples and measurements, notes are taken about any identifying scarring, general health and the condition of teeth.
When we are finished the hyena is moved to the shade and shelter of a bushy tree, then surrounded with brambles to give it protection as the anesthetic wears off.
Pictures are taken to be added to clan albums, an important identification tool. We video kills, clan wars, border patrols, baiting, and matings, and any interactions with lions or other carnivores.
If we witness an animal pooping, we’ll get a fecal sample. Sometimes DNA can be retrieved from the poop. We collect saliva, conduct trials to test learning or boldness, and many other facets of development.
In addition to hyena data we keep track of prey numbers, cattle grazing, weather, and tourism.
I loved visiting Fisi Camp and meeting some of the staff. I know you have great admiration for Joseph, the camp cook. The kitchen is very basic and there is limited refrigeration. What kind of meals is he able to fix? Joseph is an excellent cook. Number 1 on everyone’s list of comfort food is tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. His mac and cheese is another favorite. We occasionally get meat and he has mastered the art of making hamburgers complete with buns AND french fries. Since meat is a rare treat, he specializes in dishes made with rice, beans, lentils, and local veggies.
He excels at baking–white or whole wheat bread, chapati and french bread. And with so many fresh vegetables, he can make any variety of salsa for enchiladas. For breakfast he prepares fruit salad of fresh bananas, pineapple, oranges, mango, and kiwi. We love his cheesy egg casseroles, toad in the hole, crepes with Nutella and breakfast burritos.
I noticed solar panels along the camp path. How much power do they provide? What other options do you have? When the panels are very clean and the sun is shining we have enough to run one light in each sleeping tent for a short time as well as power the pump that provides shower water for the RAs and camp staff. (Kay and I just use sun showers hung from a tree.)
When the sun is not cooperating, phones and torches and headlamps are mostly charged in the cars as we drive on “obs”.
We can usually centrifuge the blood samples we take when we tranquilize a hyena, and we can often, but not always, run the very tiny fridge during the sunlight hours. It has to be turned off as soon as the sun goes down. We usually can’t keep anything cold but we can slow down the spoilage rate a bit.
Dee, this is not easy work. Fisi Camp is one step up from primitive camping. You are there for several months at a time. I understand that you have a passion for the work done here and you love Kenya and the people. What are the hard parts of your job? It varies from year to year. The year that camp flooded was devastating. We lost almost everything and it took us over a month of very hard work to rebuild. Kay and I had to rewire the entire camp. Everyone worked from dawn til dark, and during the first few weeks, we had little food or water. We all got sick and I lost about 20 pounds.
When it gets very hot, there is no air conditioning, no fans, no rivers or lakes safe to jump into to cool off. You just sweat. During the long rains, you can’t get dry, your feet get all wrinkled and white and there is no way to dry your clothes and at night it gets cold.
Emotionally the year the clans lost so many dominant females after they ate poisoned carcasses was very difficult. Not only did animals we knew and loved die a very painful death but their cubs (all but one) slowly starved to death at the dens waiting for Moms who never came home.
Just getting there is a challenge. There are no direct flights from the states so it is at least two 9 hour flights, with layovers and once there you have a 6 to 8 hour drive over roads that get worse and worse as you leave Nairobi.
And the easy to love parts? The animals! Not just the ones we watch during our official “obs” but living with so many animals is such an honor. The bush baby and the gennet who come to the lab tent at night to try and snag some scraps.The amazing birds who line up in the morning to try and steal tiny bits of fruit. The dik diks who live in camp. The hyrax who screams at night right outside of my tent and even the baboons who regularly raid my tent and steal my toothpaste. Not to mention the hippos, lions, leopards, hyenas, and buffalo who use our paths to get to the river… all make life in camp exciting and rewarding and wonderful. The cobras, mambas, and siafu (army ants) keep us on our toes and encounters with them are the basis for good stories and sometimes legends.
Sitting around the campfire at night with a glass of wine and listening to the night sounds. Living and working with very bright young people, fascinating scientists, and with the kind and hardworking Masai who keep us healthy and safe and who teach us so much has been a gift beyond price. It is all good.
To learn more about spotted hyenas and the MSU Hyena project in the Masai Mara visit The Kay Holekamp Lab. Her students maintain a blog, Notes from Kenya, with stories and photos of the hyenas, camp life, and research news. Also enjoy the amazing photography on the Mara Hyena Project page on Facebook.
Photographs courtesy of MSU Masai Mara Hyena Project, Bernard Ndegwa, Judy S. Blackstock