Text and photographs Ron Swilling
Secretive and often solitary, these furry, stripe-legged desert creatures hold an air of mystery. Often, all that can be seen as a hint of their existence are a few tracks etched in the sand on a desolate beach. Sightings of the nocturnal carnivores remain rare indeed.
Or so Ingrid Wiesel was told when she arrived in Lüderitz in 1995 to study these unusual animals. But, as often happens when the fates conspire auspiciously to bring you to the right place at the right time, Ingrid, with the assistance of a nature conservation officer, encountered brown hyaena and located a den in the first few days of her stay in the coastal town. She spent the next few evenings parked some distance away with binoculars in hand receiving her introduction to the intriguing world of the brown hyaena, and she was hooked.
German-born, Ingrid always knew that she wanted to become involved in fieldwork on large carnivores, never suspecting that she would end up in Namibia studying Hyaena brunnea. Previous studies of the social behaviour of brown hyaena had been carried out twenty years earlier (in the 1970s) and no long-term studies had been undertaken since. Ingrid fitted in perfectly. She was assisted by the friendly townsfolk and was soon introduced to the seal colonies where she came to the realisation that brown hyaena were not solely scavengers, but frequented seal colonies to predate on seal pups. No previous research had been done on the feeding ecology of hyaena and seals.
Ingrid stayed in a small observation hut for a period of six months, spending five out of seven days a week at the colony collecting data, returning to town at intervals, and loving every moment of being outdoors. This provided the material for her master’s degree. Her studies began as a low-budget enterprise. Initially she didn’t have the use of a vehicle and relied on others for transport to the study site until a kind soul lent her a Land Rover. Another offered her a vegetable lunch in her restaurant to balance her daily diet of pasta while out at the colony. She acknowledges the people who made it possible. Being young, enthusiastic and passionate, the money didn’t matter. She says that starting small from the bottom gives you an appreciation of what you have accomplished.
From pure research, she slipped into the conservation arena. She learnt about the flora and fauna of the area from former Sperrgebiet park warden, Trygve Cooper, and began to understand, and love, the ecology of the area. Although she spent many hours and years involved in brown hyaena research, assisting in the preservation of certain areas where dens were located, it took her from 1998 until 2006 to complete her doctoral thesis. This was when she reached a point where she felt that she had accumulated sufficient data and knowledge to do it justice.
The Brown Hyaena Research Project Trust Fund began initially as a private project. It then became an official organisation and finally evolved into a trust in 2009. The Trust has evolved methodologies for the most efficient study of the hyaena, their movements and where they rest and spend their nights. The studies have moved from pure fieldwork with the aid of radio collars to GPS (Global Positioning System) collars. These enable hourly positioning and remote data downloads, and three-year study periods, limiting human contact with the animals. At the end of the study period, Ingrid is able to trigger a remote drop-off of the collar. The plethora of data gathered from the GPS collars includes monitoring how outside temperature correlates with hyaena movement, home-range sizes, and distances covered in a single day. Camera traps with infra-red beams positioned at dens also supply information to help identify individuals and assist in determining the number of animals in an area.
Ingrid laughs when she recalls the photographic material received. A brown hyaena is best identified by the stripes on its forelegs. Ear notches can also be used but are not as reliable, as they can change with time. Brown hyaenas are extremely inquisitive, and at times, rather than obtaining good identification material, she has a close-up of a hyaena nose as it investigates the camera. This has also been evident out in the field, where a hyaena will either run away or come up to her and sniff her out, a daunting experience at first until she discovered that there was no aggressive intent involved.
The hyaenas also realised that the camera traps made excellent rubbing posts. She loves these images and excitedly awaits the sightings of these animals, which she has realised can be extremely comical. She relates how she has a high percentage of equipment loss, then the missing items are found later in a hyaena den. Her human side separates from the scientist for a brief while as she entertains the idea that the animals may be having some sort of fun. She describes how on one occasion she played peekaboo with young male that eventually leapt into the air before disappearing into the bush.
This is when the penny dropped and she realised that the animals couldn’t keep the sand out of their eyes when the wind was strong, and simply walked around with their eyes shut.
But, she also acknowledges how tough the animals are to survive in the ancient Namib Desert. She recounts the time when she was visiting one of the Sperrgebiet study sites in a gale-force wind to establish abundance estimates. She sat there day after day. One day she noticed a hyaena approaching, moving closer and closer until it eventually bumped into her vehicle. Following it, she soon realised that it was blind and deaf, and could follow the track into the mountain only by smell and touch. On another occasion, a hyaena nearly walked into her assistant, raising her fears that the animal had been blinded by a disease. When she saw it again, however, it had recovered completely. This is when the penny dropped and she realised that the animals couldn’t keep the sand out of their eyes when the wind was strong, and simply walked around with their eyes shut. She says quite humbly, that sometimes you need to get down to Earth to find the simple explanations.
With sixteen years of experience, watching different generations, Ingrid has opened up the world of the brown hyaena in Namibia. This long-term study has resulted in a wealth of data and a large collection of samples. Caution signs now dot the road into Lüderitz, raising awareness, and the Trust appeals to motorists not to drive too fast in the vicinity at night. It has also helped to incorporate important den sites into the newly declared Sperrgebiet National Park and environmental assessments monitor the effect of mining on the population.
More than that, our understanding has increased about these animals in general, and more specifically in the unique coastal-desert environment, the Sperrgebiet and southern Namib-Naukluft Park, where the efforts of the Trust are focused. Listed in the Red Data book as vulnerable or threatened, there are only approximately a hundred brown hyaena in the Sperrgebiet, 1 200 in the whole of Namibia and 8 000 in the Southern African sub-region, making it one of the rarest large carnivores in Africa. Unlike spotted hyaena, these shy and secretive animals do not vocalise, do not have pseudo genitalia, have not been recorded to attack human beings, and the stronger sibling cub does not kill the other. They are gentler creatures, at the bottom of the large carnivore hierarchy, that roam the barren reaches or desolate coastline.
As expressed in the old adage, when you stand amongst the trees, you are unable to view the forest before you. It sometimes takes a bit of distance to see what commitment and years of one’s life make to the understanding of an animal. The more understanding we have, the less our fear and the greater our tolerance and therefore desire to protect the animals. The blur of the trees disappears and the forest sharpens into perfect visibility.
As I imagine the scene, I also imagine a hyaena nose pushed inquisitively against the lens of my camera and realise with a smile on my face, that Ingrid, in a short space of time, had given me much more than simple facts about the brown hyaena. She had somehow conveyed her admiration for the shaggy-haired desert-dwellers.
General information about brown hyaenas
This article appeared in the Sept’11 edition of FLAMINGO Magazine.