SIX SPOTTED HYENAS COLLARED
At the end of October, the Mun-Ya-Wana Conservancy Spotted Hyena Project (MCSHP), led by Wild Tomorrow Fund ecologist Axel Hunnicutt a.k.a “hyena man”, completed the capture and collaring of six individual hyena, a first major step in the study. Read more about the process to find and collar the hyena, how it helped to save the life of an individual hyena, and other fascinating initial findings.
Finding and successfully darting a spotted hyena in order to attach a collar isn’t easy. Justifiably skittish after a long history of persecution by humans, hyena are also primarily nocturnal. In order to study them, Axel had to become a semi-nocturnal ecologist, driving out across the reserve by cover of darkness, armed with a flashlight and spotting lamps. It took a lot of patience and long evenings, waiting quietly in the darkness of the African bush to successfully collar the first six hyena for the Mun-Ya-Wana Conservancy Spotted Hyena Project (MCSHP).
It was a learning curve for Axel and his team to devise ways to best work with the hyena and bring them close enough for successful collaring. This meant many weeks of ‘habituation’, in other words, enticing the hyena out to a tasty meal, where they could see the vehicle, and slowly become accustomed to it.
The hardest part of the collaring was being patient, according to Axel. “Hyenas can be extremely difficult to capture, especially animals that are older and have been persecuted by humans”, says Axel. “These are animals most important to the study, but are nearly impossible to catch. They have lived so long because of their cleverness and timidness with humans. On evenings spent collaring, we often spent hours on end watching the target animals linger just out of range of the dart gun, unwilling to come any closer though acting as though they want to. These nights are almost worse than nights where nothing has come in, as we spend hours on end at the edge of our seats hopeful that something might happen.”
Once the hyena had been habituated to Axel and his team, the next step was fitting the tracking collars. To attach a collar on a hyena requires enticing the hyena into a location with a clear line of site for the vet’s dart. The hyena were “called up” into the location using pre-recorded hyena sounds.
Axel spent many nights in his vehicle “trying to stay awake, when it seemed like only the moon wanted to be out”, listening to the speakers attached to his cellphone play hyena calls into the night. To hear the ‘call-up’ audio used by Axel, click here.
Axel’s secret weapon, after much trial and error, is a mix of the “call-up” audio plus…hot sauce! According to Axel, it seems to be a hyena favourite, sprinkled sparingly on a giraffe or other carcass laid out to tempt the hyena to the site and within aim of the vet.
The first hyena in the study was captured and collared in July. After a delay in receiving additional collars, Axel was able to track, dart and collar two male and four female hyena at the Mun-Ya-Wana Conservancy, by the end of October.
Axel has a fond spot for the first hyena to be successfully collared, male hyena number 12. “I’m not supposed to have favorites”, says Axel, “but he was the first one we collared and since then has shown up at the most surprising and funny times. He's younger and extremely relaxed. When we collared the last hyena on Phinda, we were just about to give up that night because nothing had come in. I got out of the truck to start packing up and male hyena number 12 was sitting right next to my door....5 mins later we had darted a female that happened to be with him.”
The monitoring project also turned into an opportunity to help save the life of a snared hyena. One of the potential reasons hyena populations are in decline in the region is snaring for bushmeat. The term ‘bushmeat’ refers to the illegal and unsustainable over-hunting of wildlife for meat and income. It is a major driver of the decline of wildlife across Africa (particularly West and Central Africa), with targeted animals including gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates, elephants, antelopes, crocodiles, fruit bats, porcupines and almost any animal with enough meat to eat. These animals are killed using wire snares, firearms, poisoning, and sometimes using hunting dogs.
Field guides at Phinda reported seeing a snared hyena. Axel sprang into action, working quickly to find this hyena and remove the snare before it was too late. With a vet on standby for collaring, it was a perfect opportunity to both help the hyena and also include her in the study.
Despite her injury, with the snare removed and antibiotics applied by the vet, this female hyena has fully recovered from her injuries. Female hyena #109 did not receive a GPS collar because Axel and the vet feared it would irritate the wound from the snare, however the team collected all other measurements from her to be included in the study.
Monitoring hyena behaviour
With six hyena successfully collared, the study is now starting to yield insight into hyena behaviour including their movements in and out of protected areas (formal wildlife reserves), ambient temperature and the range of each clan. In order to calibrate the study and the collar data, Axel ‘ground-truthed’ 310 of the collar GPS points to ascertain vegetation at the site, collect fecal samples (hyena poop), record any carcasses killed or scavenged by the hyena, and other interesting data.
In 397 active collar days, the majority of carcasses found have been of the nyala antelope, which have been hunted by the hyena themselves rather than scavenged from existing kills. Another interesting finding is evidence of a successful mountain reedbuck hunt, and hyenas digging to eat termites!
Active monitoring of the hyena both by day and night, also revealed the location of three hyena dens. Camera traps were set up at each den site, to better monitor activity at the dens, used communally by each clan. The den of the northern clan of hyenas has proved to be extremely active with as many as four different litters of cubs ranging from two weeks to six months old.
Axel’s walking of hyena points has also led to important anti-poaching discoveries, such as the location of wire snares set by poachers. On one occasion in November, female 48 was found to have consumed a female nyala that had been strangled in a snare. This led to a sweep of nearby bush, resulting in the removal of ten snares and the discovery of an uncollared male hyena, who had died in a snare trying to get to get to the dead nyala.
Although too early to draw conclusions, initial data from the collars have enabled Axel to estimate the home range size for each individual. Overall, males utilize larger areas than females, and females with cubs utilize more space than those without. Hyenas from the northern Forest clan unitize less space and move smaller distances than those in the southern Inkwazi clan; this may relate to prey density, lion density, and/or habitat utilization. The heat maps below show den sites, and the intensity of range utilization by each individual, some ranging further than others within the borders of the Mun-Ya-Wana.
In the new year, an additional six individuals at neighboring government-run Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife uMkhuze Game Reserve, and the collaring of two individuals on unprotected lands south of the Mun-Ya-Wana as well as Wild Tomorrow Fund’s protected Ukuwela Conservancy, will commence once the remaining collars arrive. Unfortunately several components needed to manufacture the collars were held in South African customs for over a month, delaying the delivery of the remaining collars.
Axel is excited about the next steps in the project, “I'm excited about moving to the next study site, uMkhuze Game Reserve to begin the collaring there. Unlike at the Mun-Ya-Wana, I don't know the hyenas at uMkhuze and we think there are significantly more of them. It will be exciting and challenging to try to catch these hyenas, but we also believe if it goes well we should be able to help a lot of hyenas there that also have snares on them. I'm most excited to use this capture operation in the next step of the project to help remove any snares that are on the animals there.”
Stay tuned for more updates from the field from Axel and the hyenas!
Thank you to the Mun-Ya-Wana Conservancy, andBeyond, and the Oak Foundation for their generous support of this project.