Changing perceptions of the brown hyaena
A pair of emerald eyes shine out of the darkness from across the long grasses of the South African ‘veld'. Excited whispers break the concentrated silence in our research vehicle as scientist Louisa and her team of Earthwatch volunteers train binoculars on the gleaming eyes to identify the animal to which they belong. Louisa confirms ‘that's a brown', and quickly the volunteers record the GPS location, estimated distance of the animal from our vehicle and the habitat, as the spotlighter concentrates on holding the flashlight beam on the creature.
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A red filter is fitted across the beam to minimise disturbance to the hyaena and seemingly unconcerned by our presence, it continues its purposeful journey across its territory. Brown hyaenas move fast, covering up to 30 km during their nightly forays. We are able to follow this individual at close quarters for several minutes - quite a treat to get such a good look at this elusive, solitary and little-known species. Fortunately for the Earthwatch volunteers and the research team based at Mankwe Wildlife Reserve, roads often define the boundaries of brown hyaenas' territories, which they communicate to other hyaenas in the area by depositing droppings and scent marks or ‘pastes‘ from their anal glands at the territorial edges. This behaviour increases our chances of encountering individuals during their nocturnal patrols.
More closely related to cats than dogs, brown hyaenas are threatened across their southern African range, persecuted by livestock farmers and indigenous villagers. The research team based at Mankwe, two hours north-west of the city of Johannesburg in South Africa is headed up by Dr Dawn Scott of Brighton University and Reserve Manager Lynne MacTavish. Dawn and Lynne are working with teams of volunteers from Earthwatch to discover more about the habits and distribution of the brown hyaena.
Dawn explains: "Like other hyaena species, browns are opportunistic scavengers. They are resourceful creatures that play an important role in ‘cleaning up' the landscape. They will occasionally hunt prey that are small enough for them to take down - scrub hare or steenbok, for example."
During the night-time spotlighting surveys, we are not only looking for brown hyaenas, but also competitor species such as jackal, and potential prey species.
Dawn continues: "The data that the volunteers collect helps us to build up a clearer picture of where the hyaenas are thriving and where they are not, and the kind of environmental conditions that they need to survive."
The findings from Dawn's research will inform the team's outreach work with land owners who often shoot or snare brown hyaenas and other predators in the mistaken belief that they kill large numbers of livestock on their farms.
My fellow volunteers are a well-travelled bunch from the US, UK, Switzerland and Japan. Although at 13 volunteers, this is the largest Earthwatch group that this project has hosted to date, we quickly form a supportive and efficient team, and laughter and conversation over the dinner table flows freely.
There is more than enough work to keep a team this size busy. Lynne, Dawn and PhD student Louisa quickly train us up in research techniques and use of equipment for spotlighting, latrine surveys, and photo ID of individual animals caught at baited camera traps. Lynne and her father Dougal MacTavish ensure that we are well looked after during our stay at Mankwe, and they share generously of their extensive knowledge and experience of wildlife conservation in southern Africa, beguiling us with their tales of the bush. Camp chefs Mkozi and Hilda prepare three delicious and varied meals a day for us, largely using local wild game including wildebeest and impala, and there is plenty of fresh, tasty fare for the veggies among us as well!
It is clear that our team is making a significant contribution to the advancement of this project. In the vast study areas of Mankwe and Pilanesberg National Park, more pairs of hands, eyes and ears mean that much larger amounts of valuable data can be collected than a researcher could ever achieve working alone.
Our work is well balanced with chances to enjoy the stunning environments of Mankwe and Pilanesberg and the unrivalled wildlife viewing opportunities that they offer. The photographers among us make the most of incredible close-range encounters with elephant, rhino, giraffe, as well as some more unusual and unexpected characters - chamaeleon, crocodile and tortoise. Our team's species tally weighs in at an impressive 57 (not including birds or insects)... although I'm not sure the inclusion of Simba and Misty - the camp's cats/pest control mechanism - is entirely valid!
A highlight of our time on the project for many of us is the night time research. Although safe within our research vehicles and in the company of experienced rangers and researchers, my heart skips a beat when I hear the distant low, distinctive roar of a lion in the dead of night and I feel an overwhelming sense of vulnerability in this environment where humans are definitely not the masters. We return from our evening activities chattering and elated, despite the long hours in the field - some days we return to camp after midnight.
After a few days in the bush, away from computers and the 24 hour buzz of town and city life, our senses start to become more attuned to our environment - the sights, sounds and smells of the bush. Our skills will never be up to the standard of our eagle-eyed trackers who have lived and worked in the bush all their lives, but it feels good to start to tune back into nature when many of us spend much of our lives so far removed from the wild.
Another great privilege our team enjoys during the project is a visit from 60 children from two local schools. Although they live on the doorstep of the reserve, many of the children have never seen some of the animals that we have been lucky enough to encounter during our time here. The Earthwatch volunteers throw themselves into the task of organising activities to keep the kids entertained and teach them about the wildlife on the reserve and the brown hyaena research project. Our efforts are richly rewarded when we see the excitement and appreciation on the faces of the children, who are friendly, enthusiastic and curious to learn more about what we are doing here. We are treated to an impromptu a-capella concert at the end of their visit - with some impressive dance moves and traditional songs.
As we wave goodbye to the kids, who overwhelm us with their thanks and affectionate hugs, we feel exhausted but elated and fulfilled - so pleased to have been a part of these kids' experience of the African bush. As Lynne and Dougal say, education and the involvement of local communities is vital to the success and legacy of Mankwe. The dedicated team of Earthwatch volunteers, of which I was part, can feel proud of the huge contribution they have made to the success of this project, the protection of a threatened and misunderstood species and creating an unforgettable experience for two local schools.
Read more about South Africa's Brown Hyaenas.
Report by Jo-Anne Croft.