A Spotted Hyeana carcass was found on the road recently, with its head, feet and tail all removed. In some areas people view Hyeanas with a high degree of superstition and their body parts are often used for traditional medicine. It was badly mutilated and is was unclear if it had been killed on the road, and had its body parts removed in situ, or if the remains of the body had simply been dumped there. Roadkill is a big threat in this area, and we suspect this was the cause, and that it was nothing more sinister. Plans for a project looking at the extent, impact and mitigation of roadkill in this area are underway.
Our call-ups on Mapungubwe National Park took place over two very cold nights and, while we were chilled to the bone, they were a great success. We had good responses from Spotted Hyaenas at all sites, and on the second night we were lucky enough to see Brown Hyaena, Porcupine, 3 Bat-Eared foxes and a number of Black-backed Jackals. The big excitement for the evening, however, was seeing first one, then two leopards coming out of the bush and carry out an elaborate courtship ritual in front of us in the moonlight. The male was large and the female was a small one, perhaps breeding for the first time. As if this were not enough, we were treated to another female leopard appearing later on in the night as well, this time a much larger one than the first.
Overall it seems the Hyaena population may be picking up, possibly from migration from over the river in Botswana where the density is very high indeed. When this area was all farmland on the South African side, Spotted Hyaenas were visciously persectued as stock thieves, but they are making a slow but steady comeback.
The call-ups on Mapungubwe National Park went well, though with a few unexpected responses. Like on Venetia, there was no response at all at the first site of the night, but the second site saw three inquisitive Spotted Hyaenas coming in to see what was going on. Further along, we heard Spotted Hyaenas whooping enthusiastically from across the Limpopo in Zimbabwe, but the river is flowing at the moment so they were unable to cross into South Africa. That part of Zimbabwe is communal land and it is heartening that these large and often unwelcome carnivores are hanging in there, despite the pressure. The next response was from an outraged Wildebeest bull, who came charging through the scene, snorting angrily. Perhaps we were interrupting his evening, or maybe he was responding to the plaintive wails of a distressed calf in the call-up recording.
On the far western side of the park we had two very quiet sites and one very active one, that we almost had to abandon. Almost as soon as we began playing the call, two very excited Spotted Hyaenas arrived on the scene, cackling wildly in the bushes around us. They were very skittish and would not tolerate the spotlight at all, so we were unable to take photographs of them. Behind us we heard a rather more concerning sound of the approach of some angry elephants who clearly did not appreciate what we were up to. As is often the case with vehicles that do a lot of work in rough conditions, our Land Cruiser needed some jiggling under the bonnet every time we wanted it to start, so there was no option of a quick getaway. We switched everything off and waited, and thankfully the elephants were content to break a few branches in show and continue on their way. We were able to complete the site, but the Hyaenas refused to reward us with any clear visuals.
Our last site of the night was near a pan where a pair of young lions have been seen recently. No-one is sure where these lions have come from, and we were very keen to get some identification photographs so that we could try to track them down, from records of other researchers in neighbouring areas. Disappointingly, the lions were nowhere to be seen or heard, and so their identity remains a mystery (for now!).
From time to time we come across animals that have died from unnatural causes, and we always make efforts to investigate these where possible. We keep records of roadkills and take hair samples for DNA to store for future use. This week has seen the sad demise of a Bat-eared Fox, which was killed on the road, and a much more mysterious death of a Brown Hyaena. It was called in as roadkill, but when investigating the carcass, it was apparent that the animals was in almost perfect condition with no sign any impact at all. Not even a rib was broken. The only thing not in perfect order was the tail, which was completely missing. Azwafarwi informed us that the tail of the Brown Hyaena is highly valued for traditional medicine by the Venda people, but we can’t see how anyone could have killed this individual. There was no sign of poisoning, and even skinning the animal showed no evidence of any bruising or punctures. It seems more likely that someone was driving past, saw the dead animal and took the tail as an unexpected bonus, than that it was killed deliberately, so the death of this hyaena remains a mystery.
Here is a photograph of one of the Hyaenas taken during our recent call-ups. It is a young animal and we think it is a male, though it can be hard to tell for sure on young animals. All our animals get an individual alphanumeric code to identify them, but we also give them names. This Hyaena is one that we have not photographed before and so I would like to ask Theresa S to name him for us, by way of thanks for your very generous support. We really do appreciate it, and it really does make a difference to us.
Two cool still nights provided perfect conditions for our call ups. Too much wind can disrupt the distance the call carries and in the past we have had to postpone our survey last minute because the wind was too high. The first site didn’t bode well for a productive night with no visual or vocal response, but spirits soon picked up at site number two where we were rewarded with two Spotted Hyaenas coming in. While they are more familiar to most people that their brown relatives, they seem to be more scarce here, and we certainly see them much less often. This may be due their being persecuted more heavily by farmers before the land was protected, due to their more predatory nature and due to the ease of locating them as a result of their vocalisations. It may be that they were more easy to wipe out by poisoning, which was commonly used in this area in the past, due their tendency to forage together. Brown Hyaenas are more likely to forage alone, and so a poisoning incident would maybe kill only one clan member than several. Happily, Brown Hyaenas seem to be doing very well here and all evidence points to the Spotted Hyaenas making a comeback.
The past eighteen months has seen the first Spotted Hyaenas returning to farmland surrounding Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve in over a decade, and the good news is that all the farmers we have spoken to seem to be welcoming them back. The next generation of young farmers seem to be more receptive to the idea of protecting their stock rather than eradicating the predators, so the future is looking good.
In total, we called in six Spotted Hyaenas, four Black-backed Jackals, four Lions and five Brown Hyaenas. Of the Brown Hyaenas, four came into one site at the same time, which is very unusual. As it was the first site of the night, just after dark, I suspect that we were calling near their den site and that they were all still nearby at the beginning of their evenings foraging. The site was near a dry riverbed, which is known to be a preferred choice for Brown Hyaena den sites.
This week we will be taking our speakers up to Mapungubwe National Park to carry out our surveys there. Call-ups we have carried out there in the past have shown good numbers of Spotted Hyaenas, and there have been reports of more lions moving into the park, so we are very excited to see what comes in.
One of the ways of determining population density of some species of carnivore is to take advantage of their opportunistic nature and play calls of a distressed prey animal over loud speakers to attract them to the area. By working out how far the call can be heard, we can work out the area that is covered by the call, and so calculate the density of animals in the area. This must, of course, take into account that not all target animals will respond. Due to the differences in vegetation and topography, calibration onsite is essential, as the response distance here on Venetia may be quite different from in other places where the work has been carried out. Earlier this week, we tested this by sitting one vehicle with Tsotsi and Tsala, two lionesses at Venetia, and their cubs and another vehicle taking the call-up equipment (a public address system with loud speakers) to 5km away. In radio contact with the team sitting with the lions, Wendy and Azwafarwi moved closer until the lions pricked their ears up in the direction of the call. They responded at 3.5kms, and so this is the distance we use as the radius for locating our call-ups stations to ensure there is no overlap. To minimise the chance of counting the same animal twice, all the call-ups will be done as close together as possible. Watch this space to see what comes to the calls!
We have two different species of Hyaena resident on Venetia, Brown and the more familiar Spotted varieties. Both have a tendency to mark their territories through the use of middens where they leave their droppings, along the routes they walk. These are very effective message boards where individuals can pick up useful information about who else is busy in the area. These middens or latrines are potentially very useful to us for our census as we are trying to look for a link between the rates of visitation and scat deposition, and population density of the animals in question. Further to this, by collecting samples of fresh scats, we can conduct DNA analysis to get a clear picture of exactly how many Hyaenas are active in the area.
Due to their immensely strong jaws that are capable of crushing bone, and their stomachs of steel, Hyaenas are able to eat pretty much any part of a carcass. In my experience, all that I have seen Brown Hyaenas to leave is horns and teeth, except when they are eating from a warthog carcass when they leave the whole skull. Presumably this bone is just too tough. This high bone content in their diet means that much of their scat is composed of Calcium, meaning that they dry white. These piles of white droppings stand out in the bush and are relatively easy to find. We have just completed taking GPS co-ordinates for all the latrines along our spoor transect routes, and have found that they are spaced quite evenly at roughly 2km apart. Fresh samples are identified as being so by their pale green colour, which dries to white with time.
By looking at the DNA the animals have left behind, and analysing their use of the latrines, we are effectively able to gain valuable information without disturbing the animals themselves at all. We can learn a huge amount without ever even seeing a Hyaena. This is an important point in our critical comparison of census techniques, as the less intrusive we can be, the better.