LAUNCH OF THE MUN-YA-WANA CONSERVANCY SPOTTED HYENA PROJECT

This month, the collaring of a male spotted hyena marked the launch of a new phase of the Mun-Ya-Wana Conservancy Spotted Hyena Project (MCSHP), led by Wild Tomorrow Fund ecologist Axel Hunnicutt. The Spotted Hyena Project has worked to monitor the hyena populations within andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve and neighboring uMkhuze Game Reserve since 2014. 

  A spotted hyena portrait. Photo credit: Shannon Wild/Wildscreen Exchange

A spotted hyena portrait. Photo credit: Shannon Wild/Wildscreen Exchange

The spotted hyena is one of Africa’s most misunderstood and misrepresented large carnivores. The hyena's complex social structures, vocal patterns, and behaviors have tantalized researchers, naturalists, and tourists alike for decades; yet myth and folklore have long resulted in the hyena’s persecution and vilification. 

  Three male spotted hyenas, one of which was just recently collared, photographed by Axel during an evening monitoring session. Photo: Axel Hunnicutt.

Three male spotted hyenas, one of which was just recently collared, photographed by Axel during an evening monitoring session. Photo: Axel Hunnicutt.

The hyena is not a lowly scavenger or a demonic hermaphrodite as some of the myths and misunderstandings would lead us to believe (the female hyena has a 'pseudo penis'). The truth about hyenas is that they are incredibly successful hunters, highly intelligent, and wonderfully social team workers. They are in fact the  most abundant apex predator on the African continent, forming a critical part of sub-Saharan ecosystems.

Able to co-exist in areas of high-human density where other carnivores cannot, the spotted hyena is also one of the most adaptable apex predators in the world. Despite this, many spotted hyenas populations are in decline both inside and outside of formally protected areas.

The Mun-Ya-Wana Spotted Hyena Project, led by  Wild Tomorrow Fund’s ecologist Axel Hunnicutt, aims to better understand hyena movement in and outside of parks, in order to understand the reasons for their regional decline. Axel has monitored and recorded spotted hyenas across the region over the last four years.  After witnessing low survival probabilities for the cubs and adults resident at Phinda and uMkhuze along with significant overall declining population trends, Axel's hyena research contributed to the 2016 International Union for Concerned Scientists (IUNC) Regional "Red List" assessment for spotted hyena, resulting in a "Near Threatened" status for hyena in Southern Africa.

"Unlike most large carnivores in Africa, spotted hyena have largely remained outside the spotlight for both research and public support. This project is unique in both its intensity and scale, as it seeks to better understand how spotted hyena utilize the mixed landscape in Zululand,” said Axel.

Last week, a new and exciting phase of the project commenced with the first of between twelve to fourteen spotted hyenas fitted with a GPS/VHF collar. The collars will utilize the cell phone network to transmit information about the hyena’s exact location, speed, and temperature every four hours. This data will provide enable Axel and his team to analyze how hyenas utilize the landscape both inside and outside of formally protected wildlife reserves. 

"Outside these protected areas, these animals are coming into conflict with communities and commercial livestock farmers" said  Simon Naylor, Reserve Manager at &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve. "The information gained will hopefully also advise how best to mitigate these conflicts and assist in the future survival of these much maligned and persecuted animals. I believe it is possible for all the different land users to co-habit the landscape with these animals. This study will assist us in finding the best solutions for this.”

  Axel Hunnicutt and Elin Crockett work to collect samples from the male spotted hyena.

Axel Hunnicutt and Elin Crockett work to collect samples from the male spotted hyena.

  The anesthetized male spotted hyena is blind-folded and monitored before the team commences with the collaring and measuring.

The anesthetized male spotted hyena is blind-folded and monitored before the team commences with the collaring and measuring.

  Careful measurement of the hyena's teeth allow the researchers to determine the exact age of the hyena.

Careful measurement of the hyena's teeth allow the researchers to determine the exact age of the hyena.

Catching a hyena to fit a collar on it is no easy task and requires many long, cold hours at night waiting for the right individual to come to within range of a wildlife veterinarian’s dart gun. Because of the difficulty in catching the hyenas, the collars have also been equipped with a “drop-off” mechanism that will allow the collar to come undone and fall off after a certain number of years.

Once a hyena has been found and successfully darted by the vet, the Wildlife Tomorrow Fund and Phinda Private Game Reserve team work quickly to take samples and measurements of the individual. Measuring teeth allows for the animal to be accurately aged, other measurements of the body will allow for size comparisons across social ranks. The most important task is the fitting of the GPS collar, which must be placed on they hyena with care to ensure it stays on for two years, but does not harm or inhibit the animal.

Once all the data is collected and the collar is securely in place, the hyena is given an antidote and drowsily wakes up approximately 20 minutes later, to wander off again into the forest of the park.

  andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve conservation manager Simon Naylor, veterinarian Mike Toft and veterinary technician Elin Crockett work to secure the collar to the hyena.

andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve conservation manager Simon Naylor, veterinarian Mike Toft and veterinary technician Elin Crockett work to secure the collar to the hyena.

The first male to be collared is the one of 14 spotted hyenas, each of different ages, social rank, and sex, to be included in the project. Data collected via the collars will enable Axel and team to study how they move through areas of differing levels of conservation protection, what they eat, how they interact with people, and ultimately allow us to learn more about how to help this threatened population.

Stay tuned for more updates on the Mun-Ya-Wana Conservancy Spotted Hyena Project and join us in learning more about these the amazing spotted hyena. 

This next phase in spotted hyena research was made possible with a grant from the Oak Foundation along with the support of Wild Tomorrow Fund, &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, and the Mun-Ya-Wana Conservancy.

Wild Tomorrow Fund