Researcher: Viyanna Leo
Region: Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswna
Very little is known about brown hyaenas in the wild and the integral role which they play in the ecosystems in which they frequent. Although they are the third rarest carnivore in Africa, we have little information on current numbers, population trends, or how best to manage them for the future. This is a concern because a considerable proportion of the brown hyaena population lives outside protected areas, and there is considerable conflict between hyaenas and the farmers. Poisoning, trapping and hunting have negatively affected brown hyaena populations and continue to threaten the survival of the species in some areas. Much of this conflict is due to perceived rather than actual losses to brown hyaenas and so the educational aspect of the project will be particularly important in advancing their conservation in Southern Africa.
Furthermore, important information will also be collected on the biology of brown hyaenas in the area. They are an elusive species and difficult to study so additional information on their social organisation and genetics will greatly contribute towards the lack of scientific knowledge of this rare species.
The Makgadikgadi Brown Hyaena Project will continue to gather data in the field over the next three years to assist the Botswana Department to Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) with their strategic management plan for the brown hyaena. The project will focus on areas that are important to the long-term conservation and management of the brown hyaena, not only in Botswana, but across their entire range.
- Determine the role of scent-marking in mediating hyaena interactions within and between clans.
- Determine the role of scent-marking in kin selection and social dominance.
- Determine clan composition and the role of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) in olfactory attraction through genetic studies.
- Determine denning and reproductive behaviours.
- Utilise relevant information to generate reports that can be used by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks to address hyaena/ human conflict issues in the Makgadikgadi region.
Over the duration of the study at least 12 hyaenas will be fitted with VHF or GPS-capable collars. This will represent at least three different clans, both inside and outside the park. Upon capture, blood, tissue and hair samples will be collected for DNA analysis, anatomical measurements taken, and age determined.
The VHF collars will allow the hyaenas to be located within the area and followed, while the GPS collars will record hyaena movement. The openness of the Makgadikgadi means that it is possible to observe brown hyaenas, which quickly become habituated to a vehicle. This allows for individual hyaenas to be “followed” for long periods of time, while recording their nocturnal behaviour from a relatively close distance.
Due to the length of time that research has been done here, there are already four habituated hyaenas from two separate clans in the study area. Data will still be collected on these animals, while new study hyaenas from other clans will be habituated and followed.
During follows, direct observations will be made, recording behavioural interactions with other hyaenas, as well scent-marking behaviour. From such follows, den sites will also be located and subsequent den site observations undertaken. The number/frequency of visits to the den sites by various clan members and the purpose of the visit will be recorded. Wildlife camera traps will be placed at den sites to increase efficiency of hyaena monitoring.
During follows, hyaena scent marks will be collected from known, sexed and identified individuals. Scent marks will be utilised in two ways. The scent marks that will be used for odour manipulation will be stored in sealed airtight containers and instantly frozen for storage, while the scent marks used for DNA sampling will be stored in a special chemical to avoid breakdown and decomposition of DNA.
The frozen scent marks will then be placed within clan boundaries and identified and know hyaenas will be exposed to these marks. The subsequent reaction of the hyaenas in response to these scent marks will then be recorded. This will enable testing of reactions of different sexes, and kin, to different intra-clan and inter-clan members’ scent marks.
The scent marks stored in chemicals will be analysed in the laboratory and maternal and paternal kinship as well as histocompatibility complex immunity of individuals will be tested. This will enable the clans’ relatedness and health to be determined, making it possible to analyse reproductive behaviour and female mating preferences in correspondence with direct observed behaviour as well as filmed behaviour from camera traps.
Temperatures are soaring in the Makgadikgadi, with dust storms and fires dominating the horizon. The zebras and wildebeest have moved on in search of water and days can appear completely desolate of life. The resilient brown hyaenas are well adapted to these inhospitable conditions, sleeping in underground dens during the day and foraging during the cooler temperatures of the night. In order to study these animals, we too have had to become creatures of the dark!
Our September darting session led to the successful collaring of two large males. These males are now slowly becoming habituated to our presence and have led us to our first active den. Infrared camera traps at the den site led to a delightful discovery earlier this month – footage of three six-month old cubs inspecting these strange devices! We have now identified at least seven different individuals in the area.
Click here for the full detailed report and some images