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Text: Anja Denker Photographs: Emsie Verwey
For the love of hyenas: Emsie Verwey shares insight into the Skeleton Coast Brown Hyaena Project, which she runs from the research centre at the Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp.
Hyenas are much-maligned creatures – hated, feared and viewed with great suspicion and contempt. They are depicted in African folktales as mythical creatures associated with witchcraft and are said to possess abnormal powers. People refer to them as ugly, stupid, ungainly and usually regard them with disgust.
Exactly these misconceptions and negative sentiments are something that Emsie is working hard at to dispel, with the goal to change people’s perceptions of hyenas and getting them to view them in a new light, namely as the highly intelligent, lovable, powerful and complex animals that they are.
It all started in 2011 when Emsie was still managing the old Hoanib camp for Wilderness and came across a den with two brown hyena cubs. She installed a camera trap to observe activity at the den and with that her love for these shaggy brown creatures was born. The den was observed intermittently and the cubs eventually disappeared. But a while later, when Emsie was studying a second litter, she learnt that hyenas actually have two types of dens: maternity dens and social dens (they have a few in each territory). A den is usually a hole in the ground and the gestation period is around 97 days, with an average litter size of 2-3 cubs. Hyenas have the longest suckling and denning period of all large carnivores. The cubs are suckled until they are about a year old and only leave the safety of the dens some three months later. During their time in the den, the whole clan looks after the cubs. The adults take turns playing with them, looking after them, feeding them and generally socialising with them. Their mortality rate is quite high once they venture into the dangerous world outside where they are mostly left to fend for themselves. The cubs are quite fearless and inquisitive, but not very streetwise and fall victim mostly to lions and recently also to spotted hyenas. Brown hyenas can reach an age of 16 to 20 years.
Brown hyenas are well adapted to arid regions and Emsie’s brown hyena research project focuses on three different clans: the Hoanib clan, the Floodplain clan and the Skeleton Coast clan.
The main aim is to compare the adaptations the three clans are making in terms of the habitat they live in and to find out how big their home ranges are.
Although the clans are situated in a desert environment, all three of them have different habitats and different food sources and the predator factors differ as well. Brown hyenas are predominantly scavengers and usually, they are nocturnal and solitary operators in their quest for food. At the coast, for instance, seals are the main food source, and no other predators except for lions pass through occasionally. Due to the much cooler temperatures they also look for food during the day. At the Floodplains the hyenas feed mainly on insects, rodents and birds and they seem to make regular trips to the seal colony, which is 27 km away. Predators there would be lions and leopards.
The Hoanib clan also feeds on insects and rodents, and a large portion of meat is scavenged from prey killed mainly by cheetah and lion.
The leopard density in the Hoanib is very low, the main predator again being lions. All three hyena clans also supplement their diet with wild fruit. Their main predators are lions and leopards.
Each clan has five to seven members; numbers fluctuate in the course of the year.
Some males are nomadic, which means that they are single and not associated with a clan, and move around to mate, while other males emigrate to other clans for mating rights and usually have to fight in order to be accepted. Females usually stay with their clan.
The genders do not differ in appearance, although males may be slightly larger than females. The average weight of a brown hyena is between 35-45 kg, but a weight of 72.6 kg has been recorded for a brown hyena in Eastern Gauteng.
In order to locate dens, establish their size and find out how big the home ranges are, a small number of hyenas are collared. Currently, three females and one male are collared: two females from the Skeleton Coast clan and one male and one female from the Hoanib clan.
Collars have a battery pack and GPS unit. The GPS unit records its position every hour at night when hyenas are most active, and every two hours during the day. The GPS positions are stored by the device on the collar. There are four Data Logger stations at crucial points, i.e. at a waterhole, at the park border, on the floodplain and at the coast. When a collared hyena moves past a logger, all information is downloaded from the collar onto the logger. The data is evaluated every week.
Satellite collars are not necessary because there is no human-wildlife conflict in the study area and Emsie does not need to check the movements of the hyenas all the time. On average, a hyena walks about 30 km a night, sometimes as much as 50 km.
If hyenas fight it is mostly over food or territory. The dominant hyena raises his/her hair, and the submissive hyena is vocal. Most fights occur between same sex animals, not only the males.
Brown hyenas have a small repertoire of vocalisations, but not as vocal as spotted hyenas, and communicate mostly by visual (piloerection) and chemical means. When a hyena rubs its bottom against grass, it secretes a waxy, paste-like white substance as well as a second black secretion, loaded with chemicals, through its anal glands. Brown hyenas are the only ones that secrete two pastes. Other hyenas can thus glean a whole lot of information, such as another hyena’s gender and reproductive status, by sniffing the paste. The Skeleton Coast Brown Hyaena Project is run from the Hoanib Research Centre. The centre was established with the emphasis on educational information and displays, regular camp chats about various research projects based at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp and involvement of guests interested in learning more about conservation and community efforts in the area.
Funding is a challenge and donations are few and far between. Everybody loves a lion, leopard or cheetah, but hyenas basically have to sell themselves – no mean feat with their reputation as being ugly and unlovable!
Emsie has been living and working in the Kunene Region for the last 13 years and through Wilderness Safaris has been involved in various conservation efforts and local community initiatives.
She has collected data and information for research projects, mostly for the Desert Lion Project, but also for studies involving bats, cheetahs, gemsbok, birds of prey and anthropology.
The Skeleton Coast Brown Hyaena Project is a long-term project and Emsie plans to obtain a Master’s degree with the brown hyena habitat/adaptation comparison study. Emsie loves cats, the Skeleton Coast – and, oh, also brown hyenas!
For more information on the Skeleton Coast Brown Hyaena Project and donation enquiries, please contact Emsie directly at email@example.com.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of TNN.