Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: A Year in Review

Gosh that sounds odd. Like most people in the world, I’m sitting here writing and wondering where 2015 went. I still remember the moment the clock struck midnight last year, and thinking, ok 2015, here we go: my last semester of college, graduation, Kenya. And here I am, reflecting on 6 months spent in Africa. I’d say it’s been the year of a lifetime.

As for what this year meant for FisiCamp, between hyenas, car repairs, and a few surprises, I’d say it’s been a good one for the project as well.

The Numbers: Serena Camp

We welcomed 38 brand new hyenas into the world,
Butcher - one of the many new cubs to join us this year. 

...received 1,166ml (71 inches) of rain,
Rainy day in Serena camp. 
...said goodbye to 5 hyenas (rest in peace, fisi friends!),

 ...conducted 13 dartings,

...and deployed 6 radio collars. 

The Numbers: Across both camps
We celebrated Navajo’s 23rd birthday (our oldest known hyena!),

...initiated 5 RA’s into the hyena world,

...saw 6 RA’s complete pass the torch and bid farewell to Kenya,

...welcomed 2 new grad students to the lab,

...survived 1 flood in Talek camp,

...pipetted our way through 1 DNA day (where we process most of our physical samples from the previous year to send back to the US),

...and witnessed 1 clan war in Talek

My 2015
For me, 2015 was the year that a major chapter in my life ended: graduating from college. An entire four years came to a close, and saying goodbye to late-night study groups, my closest friends, a town I called home, and everything familiar was definitely hard. But, it was also the year that a brand new and exciting chapter began: I came to Kenya, expecting hard work and lots of hyenas. What unfolded was worlds better than what I could have ever imagined.
  • I saw my very first hyenas!
Nightshade: the first cub and hyena I saw in the Mara. 
  • Experienced a hot air balloon ride for the first time. 
    View from the hot air balloon.
  • Got stick-shift lessons...always tough to start, but I've gotten better since, I promise!!
    Driving the driveway. 
  • Celebrated my 22nd birthday the FisiCamp way 
  • Saw a leopard kill a baby zebra inches from our front bumper
    The leopard that moments before took down the zebra.
  • Witnessed the wildebeest crossing 
  • Got hooked (ok, fine, obsessed) on the TV series Firefly during a rainy week (Thanks, Erin!)
  • Was late to morning obs because of a buffalo outside my tent.
  • Savored amazing food with our FisiFamily on Thanksgiving. I may or may not have cried over the deserts...there was apple pie!
  • Thanks Ciara for the FisiFamily pic!
  • Discovered the joys of chapati...I ate four the first time I had them. 
  • And finally, I've met some of the hardest working, most genuine, and most passionate people in the world. I'm very lucky to call them my friends and my FisiFamily. 
As we ring in this new year, I propose a toast (you can't see it, but I'm raising my champagne glass): Here's to healthy hyenas, functioning cars (well, at least somewhat functioning), few siafu ants, and many, many merry gatherings around the lab table. Happy New Year from Kenya, and catch you all in 2016!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas in the Mara

Jambo, fisi-lovers! This is my first non-introductory blog post as an RA (research assistant) out here in Serena Camp, so I will try my best to do it justice! I'd like to talk about Christmas in the Mara, since I have been getting a lot of questions about that lately, and thought you all might be interested to know how we celebrate Christmas in Kenya. The previous post talked about a Kenyan man's thoughts on Christmas, and I would like to add my thoughts as an American in Kenya, too.

December is my absolute favorite month of the year, and always has been. Back in Colorado, where I am from, December means the onset (or continuation) of cold weather and Christmas music on the radio and decorated houses lighting up the night. I have so many great memories of the holiday season, and I always spend it the same way – with my family, at home and at church. Until this year.

As you might imagine, Kenya is quite different from Colorado. The weather isn't cold – in fact, it has been hotter this week than any I have experienced here so far. The closest thing we get to snow is early-morning fog. Our Christmas tree is not a spruce tree (or a garish plastic imitation of one) – it's a dead leafy tree that got in the way of an elephant strolling through our camp one night.

You'd think I'd be upset by something like this, or maybe jolted out of my usual high holiday spirits, but this very different December has been one of the best of my life. How could it not be, when I am in this beautiful place? Kenya is undergoing what I would call a close approximation of "springtime" – grasses growing tall, flowers showing their petals, bees and other assorted insects buzzing everywhere, and cool dewy mornings turning into hot dry afternoons. It has been amazing to watch the ever-changing Mara in its December glory.

The RAs here have a habit of personifying the Mara as some sort of omnipresent deity. One of our favorite things to say is "the Mara provides." On Christmas morning, all I could think about was what the Mara was giving me for Christmas. For example, I made it from my tent to the lab tent without running into a single spiderweb (a feat I could scarcely have imagined the day before). I drove the car for morning obs and didn't stall once (my first time ever doing that!). It didn't rain at all for 3 days before Christmas, the longest stretch we had gotten since I arrived in the Mara, allowing Jared and Kevin, both from Talek camp, to make it safely to us for the holiday. It all felt so joyful and right and needed, and I am grateful.

In the days before Christmas, the other Serena RAs and I entertained ourselves by coming up with our own version of "The 12 Days of Christmas", which included such phrases as "twelve tommies stotting", "ten topis prancing", "five golden lions", and other Mara-themed gems. We returned to camp at night to excitedly put on Christmas glasses that made our headlamps look like Santa Claus or reindeer or bells. We successfully decorated our "Christmas tree" with shuka (the Maasai people's wearable blankets) scraps and the single Santa hat we had in storage. We listened to Christmas music and watched Rudolph and had an amazing time mixing our Kenya lives with our America lives.

Christmas Eve, we watched the sun set and the moon rise and marveled at the world we live in. The next day, we wished the hyenas happy Christmas as we drove up to the den, then went back to camp and ate and made merry – laughing and opening gifts of precious chocolate, playing games that reminded us of home. 

We were all a little homesick, I think, but the Mara has her own way of healing this; I hear it in the sound of hyena whoops, lion roars, and birdsong, and I feel it in the soft December air.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

It's already Christmas? Yikes!

          Is Christmas really upon us? How is it possible that six months have whizzed by this fast? It seems as if it was just yesterday that Hadley and Eli were welcoming Ciara and I to Kenya with our first Nairobi errand running-camp supply gathering-vehicle repairing-trip. With half of my time gone by here in the Mara, it’s a struggle to wrap my head around this untimely reality whilst trying to convince myself I’m not in some kind of time warp. The omnipresent rain here in Talek these past few months has somewhat drained me of the over-festive and jolly spirit that is normally just oozing out of me throughout the holiday months. That said, life in camp has kept those spirits alive. 
          I’ve always placed a high priority on spending oodles of quality time with my family and friends, particularly during the holidays. In the absence of my loved ones back home, my Fisi (Swahili for hyena) Camp family is a more than welcomed substitute. The radio that we always have playing in the kitchen to deter the verminous vervet monkeys and boisterous baboons has blessed my ears with classic holiday tunes (with a bit more static) that I’m all too familiar with, but with Kenyan twists that have inspired my post this month. These covers of Christmas carols have made me ponder the meaning of Christmas and family, and not just to myself, but the guys in camp as well – how do they celebrate the holiday and what can I learn from them and their customs and traditions in comparison to what I’m used to back in Michigan?
          Joseph Kamaamia, a man who has become more than a great friend to me, but a fatherly figure that I look up to and admire for his positivity, work ethic, and sound moral compass, recently let me badger him with questions. Below, intertwined between some of my favorite photos I’ve taken throughout the first half of my year as a Research Assistant, you’ll find a sampling of quotes from Joseph. Through his unsolicited wisdom, generosity, and truly contagious optimism, Joseph has helped me feel at home while away from home during this Christmas season. May these photos and words from Joseph brighten your holidays and give you a glimpse into the Christmas thoughts of a genuinely wonderful man.
“To have my kids happy is to have me happy. I am a proud Dad.”
“My most memorable Christmas is the first visit I had with my Grandmom. I was 16. What made it special was that I had many friends of the same age who don’t get those chances, to see their family far away or at all, and so I was lucky. I knew I was lucky. I had never been to her home and it is a Christmas I will never forget. It was magic.”
 “I celebrate Christmas first because I am a Christian and also this is the day of Jesus Christ - a day to share together, to be together, to be one.”
 “As a child, I always wanted a new outfit – dreams of shiny new shoes, new trousers, a new shirt. To look nice, especially on Christmas, is important to me. Now, the most I wish for is the best for my kids. I wish for them to share and to be happy with what we have and for each other. Family is what matters most and Christmas is a time for family.”
“Now I am older and Christmas has changed a lot to me. When I was young it seemed cheap. I am happier now these days, now I know Christmas is for the kids, for my kids. Now it is about the connections and the community, to be moving and eating all day on Christmas with others around you. To be invited and welcomed by neighbors and sharing in food and smiles is the day of Christmas.”
“My best part of Christmas day is listening to my kids. Listening to them go on and on when I come home. What did I bring them? What can I tell them? What are they thinking? Luckily I have very honest kids.”

Happy Holidays from all of us Fisi Campers in Kenya! Wishing you safety and happiness as the New Year approaches. 

[ All Photos Property of Jared P. Grimmer ]

Monday, December 14, 2015

Playing it by ear

One of the biggest tasks any fresh-faced new RA has to learn is how to identify all our hyenas. With well over a hundred hyenas followed by each camp, that’s a lot of animals to learn. Our number one tool in the “who’s that hyena?” game is their unique spot patterns, but we do have another trick up our sleeves.

Here, Vail has his ears divided into sections, A-D. We would say Vail has a left B notch and a right C nick. 
Throughout the course of their lives, most hyenas pick up ear damage in fights with lions or other hyenas. Over the years we’ve invented a system of quantifying this ear damage for use in identification. We divide each ear into four sections, as illustrated above. Then, we can write down where and how each ear on a hyena is damaged and write it on all their identification photos. Since our hyenas are unfortunately fond of rolling in mud, laying in tall grass, sleeping in a pile of hyenas, or otherwise obscuring all their spots, ear damage can be a wonderfully useful tool.

Kneesocks is kindly displaying her very unique ears. 
Because RAs always need something to argue about, the words used to refer to certain ear damage are usually hotly debated. Is that a left C nick or a slice? Does JLP have a right B notch or a scoop? Is her ear flat or serrated? No matter the term, we can all agree that finding someone with new or unique ear damage is an event to be celebrated, especially if that hyena has fluffy, hard-to-ID fur.

It's easiest to see with binoculars, but Sparks (the black cub in the foreground) has a nice left D notch, which led to her cub nickname, LeftD ("Lefty"). 
We’re equally excited when cubs pick up ear damage very young. It often takes us a long time to be able to distinguish between siblings because hyena cubs are all black when they’re born. It may be several months before they develop their unique spots, and until that time we’re stuck referring to siblings as a unit (poor Noggin and Melon of North clan have been NOGN/MELN in our transcription notes since August). On rare occasions, however, youngsters will develop ear damage and we can use it to distinguish between littermates. On the first day we discovered Sparks and Ember of Happy Zebra clan, we noticed Sparks had a chunk missing from her left ear. Although they were tiny, black, and otherwise indistinguishable, Sparks and Ember have had the privilege of being two distinct hyenas in our notes ever since.

We always appreciate ear damage that's visible from a distance, like Istanbul's right ear scoop. 

So although spots will always be the most tried and true tool in the repertoire of an RA, every time we find a hyena sacked out in a mud puddle, or asleep deep in a den we salute ear damage. Here’s to making our lives just a bit easier!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Are you my mother?

There are no baby showers, gender reveal parties, or birth announcements when new hyenas enter our world. Instead, a hyena mom prefers a more private affair, seeking solitary refuge in a secluded natal den to deliver her cubs. Only when they’re about a month old will she move them to the communal den, the clan’s hangout spot, to begin interacting with other cubs and adults for the first time. In the case of our study clans, they’ll also interact with us humans for the first time. While there may not be much hoopla in the hyena world when they’re born, the Research Assistants certainly give shouts of joy when we find new little ones running around the den.

The first question we ask when we discover a new cub is, “who is the mother?” because knowing maternity provides a more complete picture of the cub and its future prospects. For instance, their rank, which is inherited from mom, tells us immediately if this cub will have ample access to resources, since high-rankers usually out-compete low-rankers for access to food. Furthermore, if the mother is inexperienced (i.e. this is her first cub), there’s a higher chance the cub won’t survive. An experienced mom is more likely to raise healthy cubs to adulthood. Once we do know the mother, we can name the cubs in their mother’s lineage (e.g. brands of syrup, pre-industrial weapons, dog breeds); all of her cubs will have names within this theme after her first litter. This naming scheme helps us to remember how the hyenas are related.

To determine maternity, we have to see nursing. While a female hyena will interact with other cubs, she will only willingly nurse her own child. Sounds simple right? Well, sometimes confirming maternity can be quick and easy, but more often than not, it can be quite a frustrating waiting game. Our North and South clans both recently welcomed some new members, and determining the mothers was a very different scenario across the two territories.

Recent rains coupled with the North den’s swampy location means that observation sessions in North have been sporadic at best. So when Spencer and Robyn managed to get to the den a while back and announced there were three new cubs, we figured confirming the moms would take a while. But the Northies threw us a bone this time when, after a few dry days, we were able to get to the den. Within ten minutes of arriving a young female, Anatolian, sacks out and starts nursing two of our mystery babies and shows us she’s a brand new mom! Almost immediately after that, Ink, an experienced mom, sacks out and nurses our remaining mystery cub. It was like we pushed the “That was easy!” button. So, we’re happy to announce the arrival of Anatolian’s cubs, Momo and Appa (her new lineage is Avatar: The Last Airbender characters), and Ink’s new baby, Hobbes.

Momo and Appa having fun with mom, Anatolian.

Meanwhile, South has been quite a different story. We discovered two cubs at the end of November, and because we could tell them apart, we gave them the cub names Winky and Dobby. These nicknames are given as a way to refer to the cubs, if we can tell them apart, before we know the mother. Until we know maternity, we have no way of knowing the correct lineage and cannot officially name them.

As for confirming maternity, the South females were not making our job any easier. Java, the matriarch, has been sitting in the den and acting like a nursing female for almost two months now. Rangsang, Firefly, Trumain, Rastapopulos, and Bellagio have all been seen multiple times, sticking their heads in the den, also acting like nursing females. We really had no good guess as to who the mothers were.

Then finally, after a few weeks of wondering, Trumain finally, finally nursed Winky! We’re still deciding on a dog breed name for the feisty little one. I personally like Newfoundland.
Winky nursing (yay!!!) and Dobby in the background. 
 As for Dobby...we still don’t know. We’ve seen him/her approach multiple females as if to nurse... and then runs away into the den. Very anticlimactic and frustrating. So I think it’ll be a few more observation sessions before we can solve this last motherhood mystery.

 As frustrating as they are sometimes, I don’t think I’ll ever get over the feeling of seeing a sweet, tiny face peering at us from the den hole. In a place as harsh as the African bush, new life is a precious thing.

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