Saturday, May 21, 2005

Crocuta crocuta: Part 1

Anything I write about the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) has to be prefaced with backstory. In the summer of 1997, my father took me along on a trip to South Africa and Botswana. As with many of my father’s assignments, this one was a marriage of environmental tour and traditional safari. To many readers this will seem an awkward coupling, but conservation, as opposed to preservation, encourages a controlled take of some species in order to better “manage” the populations and the ecosystem. Just as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service sets bag limits on hunted animals here in the United States, so too do the governmental organizations in Africa. (In the States, it is clear that not every legal species is really in need of “management,” and much of the justification for the annual “harvest” (i.e., regulated hunt) is financial. Though hunting and fishing licenses continue to account for the lion’s share of money spent on conservation causes in the U.S., some decisions seem wrong-headed, more interested in revenue than biodiversity. One presumes the same is true of African countries.)

The first week of the trip was spent in an ecotourism camp. Camp Abu was incredibly posh – overwhelmingly so! – and visitors lived in the lap of luxury despite being hundreds of miles from the nearest town. During the day, clients rode trained African elephants (Loxodonta africana) into the Okavango Delta. On elephant back, one can get much closer to other species and the only threats are wild elephants, especially young bulls. For the purpose of discouraging conflict, several members of the camp staff would travel alongside the elephants on foot. If wild elephants took an interest in our little group, a staff member would fire his rifle into the air to scare them off. The time at Camp Abu offered some terrific wildlife viewing, but I saw only one hyena. Some distance from our group, it raised its head above the tall grasses for a brief moment; then it was gone.

After a week at Abu, we headed 25 miles south to the hunting camp. My father and I were the first guests to be hosted, and the camp had only recently been constructed. This being the case, wildlife encounters were spectacular, even unsettling. Sitting around the campfire on the first evening, lions (Panthera leo) coughed (they rarely roar) and hyenas whooped just beyond the play of firelight. That night, I was awakened by a screeching bird and, turning on my flashlight and casting the beam through my mosquito net, I realized my tent was surrounded by a pride of lions. Not eight feet away a lioness stood looking directly into the light. Just behind her, a fully maned male lounged on the ground where I had unpacked my bag that afternoon. In the three seconds before I clicked off the flashlight, I noticed more lions moving about on either side of these two cats. I remained in the same position, holding my breath, for what seemed like ten minutes. I was certain death was imminent. Although the thoughts one has at such a moment are, in retrospect, quite funny, at the time I was as solemn as a 19-year-old can be, excepting perhaps unfortunate teens caught up in a war.

Our week in the hunting camp was to continue in this vein. A lunch would be interrupted by a matriarchal herd of twenty-three elephants quickly cruising by the camp. I would awake at night in agony from the sharp bite of some unknown variety of spider or jump to attention when I felt a scorpion scurrying up my back and over my shoulder. On a morning outing, we came across two male warthogs (Phacochoerus aethiopicus) fighting over territory or breeding rights, tearing each other open with their sharpened tusks. A black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) lived in the camp and, though I was not lucky enough to see it myself, it was spotted several times during my stay. Yet three days into our stay at the hunting camp, I had only heard hyenas.

My encounter came mid-week. That morning, I was stalking a male impala (Aepyceros melampus) with the PH (professional hunter). We had followed the animal for a couple of miles and now found ourselves atop a hillock. The impala was roughly a hundred yards away and an opportunity presented itself. Peter, the PH, set me next to a tree against which I could stabilize the big rifle. He told me to fire when I felt comfortable. The truth is, I wasn’t comfortable. I had come to Africa understanding that I would not hunt with a rifle, but with a camera. Unbeknownst to me, however, one impala permit had been purchased in my name and, though I’m still not convinced he didn’t know in advance, my father was elated at this news. Realizing how very important this was to my father, I bowed to the pressure and now shouldered the 30.06 and sighted the crosshairs on the “boiler room,” the area of an animal that houses the heart, liver, and lungs. When I pulled the trigger, the rifle kicked back and the barrel pitched up. I was certain that I had fired over the impala. Indeed, the antelope continued to pick at grasses, seemingly unaware of the lead projectile which had just screamed by. Peter was visibly discouraged by my poor shooting. Rather than have me reload and fire again, he thought it best that I scratch this animal and await another stalk later in the week.

We made our way down the steep slope of the hillock. Reaching the bottom, Peter grabbed my arm. “Don’t move,” the Englishman said. Ten or fifteen feet from us, three impressive creatures lifted their heads from the grasses. So broad and muscular were their chests, I was every bit as terrified of these intimidating spotted hyenas as I had been of the lion pride. The closest animal stared at Peter and me, its great head steady atop a powerful neck. She was gorgeous in her way, despite the matted fur and odd proportions. After ten seconds, she lowered her head, made a quiet chortle to her companions, and all three moved off. Peter let go of me and said, “Follow me…quickly now.” The instruction was unnecessary.

What made that moment so remarkable was circumstance. I was at the mercy of this predator. While the same is true of the lion experience, I didn’t feel so considered by the cats; Tiki and Tsonga, two camp trackers, later explained that the lions had surrounded the tent because of my father’s loud snoring and, having already made a kill that evening, were merely curious. The three hyenas might also be described as curious, but Peter had grabbed my arm for a reason. We were, for a moment, potential prey. (The only other instance of such primal vulnerability I've known was during my time working in a tent camp on Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula. Doing trail work in the rainforest one afternoon, I became convinced that a jaguar (Panthera onca) was stalking me and spent the better part of a frightening hour making my way down to the beach and relative safety.)

Though I appreciate animist myths and fairy tales, I’m not much for spiritual mumbo-jumbo. That said, I have had a few experiences in my life which leave me feeling intimately connected to another species or place. In Botswana, two moments stand out. On my last day in the tent camp, I went for a walk on my own. Emerging from an island of trees I looked out over the savannah. As I wrote of the experience at the time, “…the sun sank behind islands of incredible beauty, painting the trees black and the savannah grasses gold. I stood on my own and felt at peace because there, as in very few places anymore, one is immersed completely in nature. In the distance, a lion roared and Africa seeped into my soul.” Curiously, the power of that moment has faded with time, whereas the hyena meeting has only become more profound.

(Part 2 of this post will focus on the natural history of the spotted hyena.)

Photo credit: ripped from


OGeorge said...

Great post HH. Some memories to last a lifetime. I wonder however, if anyone will ever try "to better “manage” the populations" when dealing with our own species. You can "manage" wildlife right into extinction or vitual zoos if you never address human population. I personally don't have much hope of that; at least not without a lot of hard times in a number of places. We seem to need "Pearl Harbors" to motivate ourselves.

I respect your PH for "scratching" the Impala; you had your shot. An acquaintance of mine (notice I didn’t say friend) once got one of the much sought-after California “Antelope” tags. It took him six shots to finally hit and kill the Pronghorn from about 250 yards while 3 of his buddies sat around teasing him. According to one of the guys present, the antelope never stopped grazing or as much as flinched as the bullets whizzed past.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Well, I certainly hope so. There will come a time when our species will have no choice but to institute population control measures, but we could prevent such catastrophe (your Pearl Harbor) by encouraging birth-control programs and small-family economic incentives today. The hypocrisy of the situation is clear, as we continue to manage wildlife populations for an ever growing human population. As you point out, the endgame is virtual wilderness, neatly packaged and fenced in; five generations later, of course, genetics will be the nail in the coffin of those species that find themselves in such a situation.

I also respected Peter's decision. In fact, I was relieved. Two days later, however, after another stalk - this one much longer - I did end up killing a beautiful ram impala. As I wrote in my journal that afternoon,

"I have killed. As I write, my hands are drying after recently being covered in blood and my face marked with ceremonial red streaks. The stalking was great and the hunt was fun, but I sought answers when I pulled the trigger. I only ended up with more questions. This impala was not mine to take. Botswana offered me much, but I had agreed not to kill before arriving and now I have done so. My father, however, is beaming."

The facts which made me more sanguine about the kill were as follows:
1) The ram was six years old - seven is a long life for impala - and had already been abandoned by his females and the rest of his herd. As we stalked him, two herds of impala moved away upon his approach. At that age, the ram was an undesirable, and according to Peter he would have wandered the rest of his days alone until he slowed enough to be taken by another predator.

2) Though I was not yet vegetarian-unless-I-kill/catch-it-myself, the impala meat fed the camp for the remainder of my stay and, one imagines, for at least several weeks more. The skin and lovely horns were sent home and I now have them saved.

I am not only ashamed of having killed the impala, though. We had tracked him for a long distance, at times "army crawling" over a sand patch to keep below the grasses and, at others, running blindly through a island of trees, scattering baboons (Papio cynocephalus), various birds and one particularly enormous, albino African rock python (Python sebae sebae). When the time came, I did make a heart shot I am proud of - off the back of Peter, as no trees were nearby, at nearly two hundred yards - and the excitement of the trackers, Peter and my father, allowed me to absorb the moment as best I could.

Unlike white-tail deer, though, impala are not really in need of much "management" in Africa's Okavango Delta. This last bit has never sat well with me. Sure, I was nineteen, but I still feel I should have put my foot down, even if I now look back on the experience with an odd mixture of pride and shame.

Devo said...

HH, your tales are, as always, jaw-dropping... both intimately present in their humanness, yet absolutely foreign in their... well, foreignness. I've never been to Africa, I've never hunted and I've seen very few large predators (or large animals at all) in their natural habitats. However, you bring all these experiences to me in a visceral way. Your writing is awe-ful. Not awful. You know what I'm trying to say.

Anyway, your story about the impala stalk reminds me of a story that one of the guys on the catamaran in the BVIs told me. He is a miner in Wyoming, which is difficult for me to come to terms with, as I've only been presented with images of the Evil Mining Corporation stripping nature of its majesty, and as such, I have very little reality to built an image of a miner out of, merely stories told by rabid Greenpeace diehards. He is a truly good person, even if his chosen profession doesn't necessarily hold him in highest regard with much of your closest allies. Either way, though, he told me a story about stalking a mountain lion (puma concolor) for three days. THAT sounds like a thrilling, yet insanely difficult feat alone. He told me all about how he learned what all the different markings that it left meant, and how they pointed him in one direction or another. In the end of the story, however, he told me that even though he had finally treed the cat, and had it in his sights, he decided not to pull the trigger. Having followed the puma for three days and having become intimate with its behavior and whatnot, he felt too close to it to kill it. He spent a lot of money on a permit to shoot it, but he told me that the experience was far more worthwhile merely tracking it and coming to understand it a bit better than he had before the stalk. It was quite a story, and reminded me of your stories as he told it.

I'm glad there are people with a balanced understanding of life on this planet. And I'm glad that there are people who can learn from the earth, as you and Jerry (the puma hunter guy) seemingly can. I would love an opportunity to learn as you two have, but the prospect of scorpions playing on my back and mystery spider bites and a black mambo chilling in the same camp with me don't necessarily sit too well... much less being the object of curiosity of a pack of lions... I just dunno. Great story though. Thanks for sharing...

Hungry Hyaena said...

Egh...still at home, sick, this fine Monday morning.

Anyway, Devo, thank you for the compliments, thuogh I think my writing is pretty mediocre when considering the whole field.

The miner's stalking story is terrific. I only hope he was tracking the mountain lion without doggie backup; it just makes it that much more of an experience to track a big predator solo...certainly one I've never had.

Also, I've read some articles by miners that might surprise the average eco-crusader. Not everyone who ends up in that line of work is a soulless husk. The folks on top, however, are another matter.

Devo said...

I don't believe he had any doggie backup. The way he was talking it was just him and his guide. His guide taught him the tricks of the trade, and left it up to him to do the actual tracking. He gave him no outside aid, telling him he was right or wrong... so from what I can gather, he did it all himself.

As far as his humanity, I have no questions about that. Befriending him was a valuable experience for me. It just goes in that little vault marked "book does not equal cover", which by now is stuffed full of friends, enemies and surprises of all shapes and sizes. It's one of my favorite brainfolders.

Now, on to your writing. Given, I have not been exposed to much other writing in the field, but if it makes yours look like Dr. Seuss in comparison, then I'm at a loss for words as to why it's not consistently on the Amazon Hot One Hundred list. Oh, wait, that's right, Random House, Penguin, Harper... I could go on. But people like us simply have too large a vocabulary, too complex a thought process and too deep an understanding of too many processes and realities for mass culture to consume without a healthy dose of mind-alka seltzer.

Keep up the good work, man... this blog rocks my balls off.