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Wild Dog Pups and Brown Hyenas: A Volunteer Adventure in South Africa

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Jan 10th, 2010, 05:24 PM
  #61
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PART 8: Hyena PR, Guts in a Bucket, and Pig Squeals in the Night

This morning, like every morning at Mankwe, we were awakened around 6:30 by the loud calls of hadada ibis, followed by the piercing cry of a fish eagle arriving at his perch on the tree in the middle of our lake. It sure beats an alarm clock. But so far the hardest part of any day had been getting out of our toasty warm sleeping bags when the thermometer says it’s 40 degrees F inside our tent.

We had breakfast at 8, and set off for nearby Pilanesberg National Park an hour later. This morning’s mission was to post awareness posters about Project Phiri at all the park’s entrance gates. We’d also give cards to the guides in the park (to hand out to their safari clients), asking for people to contribute their photos or any information they had about hyena sightings to the project.

On our drive out of the reserve to the main road, we passed a large herd of blesboks, and another tiny steenbok bounded away through the grass in surprise. By this point we were starting to quickly recognize all these new (for us) southern species in our home reserve. But everyone was excited for our first visit to Pilanesberg, where we might see a larger range of animals, especially predators. The national park is so scenic, and strikingly different from the grassy plains and rolling hills of Mankwe. Pilanesberg is located in a series of volcanic craters, so the scenery is very dramatic: high peaks, deep valleys, and a variety of types of landscapes. The Big 5 all live here, as do hippos, wild dogs, cheetahs, and other big critters. And, of course, brown hyenas! Our mission today was just to put up the posters and get a good look around the park—later in the week we’d be returning to do latrine surveys, night call-ins, and camera trapping here, too.

At first, Pilanesberg didn’t yield up much that was different from our drives around Mankwe, other than the more dramatic scenery. We saw lots of impala, zebra, and kudu, a few wildebeest and giraffes, a jackal trotting nonchalantly up the road in front of our van, and a few vervet monkeys playing along the shoulder. (Since this is a national park, we rode in closed vans here, rather than the open trucks.) The animals were noticeably less skittish about vehicles here than they were at Mankwe. A long line of zebras with tiny foals kept pace with us for a while, and we joked that they were researchers doing a “tourist transect.”

We drove past one of the dams and saw a group of hippos basking far away, and then a white rhino mother resting with her baby, much closer. Some very svelte guinea fowl ran past, and we got a close look at a couple of warthogs right beside the road. Altogether, we visited three entrance gates plus the Pilanesberg Centre to put up posters, and also stopped at the nature center at Thakadu Lodge. At the center, we were gratified to see two gentlemen walk over and start reading the brown hyena poster right away (I’m sure it didn’t hurt that we’d hung it right underneath the “recent sightings” sign!).

During our drives through the park, Lynne also pointed out some hyena latrines, as well as the former site of one of their dens, high in a red rock cliff where a deep fissure offered shelter and a ledge was perfect for sunning. We’d seen the photos of the baby hyenas at this den, back at camp, and I could picture them romping around up there. Unfortunately for our team, they hyenas weren’t using this den at the present time.

We drove past some wildebeest and red hartebeest ruminating under a tree, and suddenly Lynne got really excited—she’d spotted a black rhino, high up on the side of the crater in the colorful foliage. With binoculars we would pick out occasional glimpses of his pointed lip, but the most noticeable difference between this fellow and all the white rhinos we’d been seeing was his smaller, sleeker size. We were excited to encounter a herd of elephants next—so many big females with babies of all sizes, browsing in the thick brush, dusting themselves, drinking at the water’s edge. We watched several of them gently rouse a tiny baby from sleep and help her to her feet. Oh, how I love elephants! And for many people in the van, this was their first chance to see them—how I also love getting to share that moment with somebody on their first safari. We were able to visit this same family twice today as we drove back and forth between the center of the park and the Bakgatla gate.

Finally we had to head back to Mankwe, already running an hour late for lunch thanks to all the stops we made to admire the wildlife. I was surprised by this, actually, and very grateful—even though we were here to work on the project, Lynne and Lauren always allowed time for us to enjoy the sights and the non-study animals, too. From what we heard from other volunteers, this is definitely not always the case on a conservation project. On the way out of Pilanesberg, we watched a wee baby zebra, probably only a day or two old, bolting after his mother to keep up, a bachelor herd of kudu, and a slender mongoose. These are animals that are probably rather common for native South Africans to see, but the rest of us were entranced. As we drove back into Mankwe, my husband was delighted to notice a “kudu crossing” sign near the old factory. We watched as two warthogs made a quick escape under the double barrier fence, and before long we were home.

After a quick lunch of soup, sandwiches, and tart Savannah cider, we walked over to the rocks below the dam wall to watch Nile monitors sunning themselves. There was a dead terrapin floating among the lily pads, and a few of us had a brief debate about whether we could count that as a sighting. Something larger than a lizard was rustling around in the reeds at the water’s edge, but it never revealed itself.

In the late afternoon we had a training session with the call-in equipment and went over the protocol. The equipment for Team A (our team) was having issues, with a short in the connection between the speakers and the playback equipment—our duct tape to the rescue! Tonight would be our only chance to try it out before our 2 nights of call-ins with the big predators at Pilanesberg.

After training, we headed out into the reserve to set up a couple of camera traps. I helped with lashing the motion-sensitive cameras to the trees, while my husband got the enviable task of dragging a trail of offal around the site to obscure our human scent and lure in predators to the bait. The way a camera trap works is this: 2 cameras are positioned on either side of the bait, and an infrared sensor triggers them to take photos if something approaches the bait (which is staked to the ground to keep interested carnivores in sight of the cameras as long as possible). Somebody asked Lynne what the bait was, and she replied deadpan, “A student from the last team that I didn’t like.” Actually, the bait on this first camera trap was a juvenile wildebeest that had died of natural causes, and the second trap had a combo meal of waterbuck plus a blesbok's head and guts on the side. My husband also got the fun of dumping the guts and head out of a big, sloshy bucket. He had another volunteer, a professional zookeeper, to enthusiastically help him... but I swear, I would have done it if I was needed! (In case you’re wondering, the bait meat for the camera traps and the vulture restaurant comes from natural animal deaths or road kill.) We were sure that finding this would make some animal’s night.

By the time we finished setting up the camera traps (and watching another lovely African sunset), we could feel the cold starting to cut through our daytime clothes. After dinner we hurried back to our tent to pile on all our layers for the call-in drive, and this time I thought to bring along a blanket for the open truck, too.

We were very excited to try the call-in methodology, since it seemed like our best chance to see any carnivores, particularly hyenas. Here’s how it works: when we arrive at the designated call-in site, one person positions the speakers on the roof of the truck’s cab, facing to the right. We then play the call (in this case, the anguished sound of an injured pig squealing) for 3 minutes. After a minute of silence, we spotlight around the vehicle for 4 minutes with a red filter over the light, looking for eyeshine. If an animal comes in, we record its data, range, the GPS coordinates of the site, whether it takes the bait, etc. The call is repeated 3 more times, broadcasted in all directions around the truck, followed by another 15 minutes of silence with intermittent spotlighting, with and without the red filter so we can see a farther range. The bait is 4 to 5 meters away from the vehicle and not pinned down, so it can be a reward for any animal that makes the effort to come to the call.

Well, the process of the call-in was quite thrilling… but unfortunately all that effort was for nothing tonight. The only thing we managed to call in on this freezing cold evening was a shooting star. We did spotlight lots of animals—kudu, eland, impala—and heard jackals calling all around us in the darkness, but no nocturnal critters made an appearance. Slightly disappointed, we returned to camp and warmed ourselves by the campfire before heading off to bed.

This is the reality of a scientific research project, as opposed to a tourist’s safari: we needed to collect data on certain sites, rather than chasing after the best potential animal sightings… so even if the animals eluded us, that too might provide some useful information for the study. Lynne thought in this case it was probably due to the cold—it was not worth it for a predator to leave its warm den and expend all that energy on a night as chilly as this one. But it also might have indicated where the hyenas had their current dens in the reserve (or didn’t have them, as the case may be). Neither of our teams had success with carnivore sightings tonight at any of 4 call-in sites. At least we would have several more chances to try out our pig squeals at Pilanesberg in the coming nights…
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Jan 16th, 2010, 04:43 AM
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Tourist transect, that's great! Tell me more about Mongolia.
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Jan 16th, 2010, 08:04 AM
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No fair, your husband has all the fun--dragging offal and pouring blesbok head and guts out of a bucket. You spent how much to do this?

I am actually a bit envious of the live blesbok herd that you saw. I've only seen them in photos and the first one I ever saw was white and I thought it was a goat.

You were fortunate with the rhinos! And your accounts of the research/volunteer part of the trip, including the lack of sightings/interactions gives a good and accurate picture for prospective volunteers.

Looking forward to Pig Squeals at Pilanesberg! Have you worked to maintain this talent, just in case it ever comes in handy in your future?
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Jan 20th, 2010, 03:44 PM
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Thanks for sticking with me, guys. Seems like I only get an installment posted on here when I'm home sick from work.

Lynn, I wish I was talented enough to do the pig squeals myself, but we used a recording. (And yes, we brought home a recording of the pig squeal to play for our dog, who was unimpressed.) The study varies the types of calls they use for the night call-ins, and they've gotten the best hyena response when they play hyena calls (as opposed to pig squeals). So we were, selfishly, a bit disappointed to hear that, seeing that we were on a "pig squeal" team last August. But as you will see, the pig squeals did pay off once we got to Pilanesberg... (I don't want to give away the most exciting parts of my report!)

Patty, thanks for being interested in our non-Africa plans. I hope to post our Mongolia itinerary on my thread over on the Asia board soon... but there doesn't seem to be too much interest there, other than from our trusty friend Lynn, who is everywhere at all times!
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Jan 20th, 2010, 03:46 PM
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PART 9: Secrets of the Bush (Or, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Poop)

We woke this morning at 4am to a chorus of jackal calls. A few hours later, our usual morning chorus of hadada ibis and fish eagle kicked in. At breakfast, my husband learned some more Tswana from the cooks, and we also heard the news that last night Louis had spotted a caracal sniffing along the drag line of our second camera trap.

After breakfast, we set off into the reserve for a bush walk and tracking lesson. Our group was lucky enough to have Lynne as our guide, so we got to have the close-up guided tour of the reserve and its plants and animals from someone who’d spent most of her life here and knows the bush like the back of her hand. We saw and learned so much during the walk, it would be tough to describe it all here. Like any walking safari, it was so much fun to focus on the details: the granite rocks that provide evidence of the land’s volcanic past, the dramatic Queen of the Night cactus introduced by farmers which now provides a safe sleeping place for bush babies, the burnt shell of a leopard tortoise, scarred in a way that showed it survived the fire only to be later eaten by a brown hyena or small cat. But this was a walking safari with a difference, too—in addition to learning about the ecosystem of Mankwe, we were being taught things that would help us do our jobs for Project Phiri. And, we were learning about our home (even if it would just be our home for a few weeks).

We got an extensive lesson in scatology, for one thing, learning to recognize who had passed by based on the poop they left behind: wildies’ “chocolate eggs,” pony-sized zebra manure, piled-up eland poop, tiny balls left by impala, the spread-out line of giraffe (who keep walking along as they relieve themselves). Rhino poop varies depending on the type of rhino, because their diet is so different. Black rhino poop is full of thorns, berries and twigs (they’re browsers), while white rhinos poop is pure grass. Female rhinos leave their poop in a pile, but males scatter theirs around with their feet to mark their territory. Baby rhino poop looks like the adults’, but in miniature. Lynne told us that dung beetles like white rhino poop best, because it’s easy to work with as they roll it up in a ball and lay their eggs.

Let’s not forget the carnivores! Brown hyena poop is chalky white when dried out thanks to all the calcium in the bones they ingest (this is true of spotted hyena poop, too), but takes on a greenish tinge when fresh. This is very convenient when you are studying hyenas, since their scat really stands out! It’s not always that simple, though—ostrich scat, like others birds, is a mix of brown and white (thanks to uric acid), and because it is so large, it can sometimes be mistaken for hyena. Not surprisingly, jackal poop looks like a small dog’s, and it comes in a limited range of colors, from pale brown to black. The scat left by the cats in this reserve (leopard, caracal, serval, wild cat) is usually full of hair, and often in a curled shape.

While all this detail might seem a bit gross to some people, it is amazing how much of a story you can “read” from the bush once you’ve learned to recognize these signs. For instance, impalas use their little poop latrines to mark the corners of their territories, leaving huge amounts of the tiny balls in piles at the corners, so you can tell how close competing impalas’ territories are located. Lynne tested us at one point, and we were able to look at the signs left in a clearing and tell that a mother and baby white rhino had passed through not very long before we arrived, as well as a group of wildebeest.

We also learned to recognize the tracks left by many of these animals, which further added to the story—delicate little impala hooves and the wider split hooves of wildebeest, round little horse-like tracks of zebras and their foals, the flat round marks of big rhino feet, plus giraffe, kudu, and ostrich. It was so much fun to guess at who had made each set of tracks, and to (usually) be right!

Lynne introduced us to a number of trees on the reserve, some native and others introduced back when this area was all settled as farmland. Our favorite was the lovely, sprawling marula tree, which is famously used for making amarula (and for getting elephants tipsy). These trees are valued for a number of other reasons, as well—the seeds are very high in vitamin C and protein; the bark is easily removed without harming the tree, and underneath you find a moisture that acts as an antihistamine and can be used to relive stings and bites; and the roots are rich in water and often grow above ground, providing a source of water during times of drought. Lynne told us that nobody cuts marula trees down—“Unless they are very foolish”—because they are so useful.

In another tree we found an old hornbill nest and had a chance to look inside. The female hornbill uses mud and down to close up the nest entrance while raising her chicks, relying on the male to come back and feed them all through a tiny hole, until the chicks are big enough to survive outside the nest—at which point the male breaks through the mud and sets them free. When we were looking at a Splendid Thorn Acacia tree, we heard the call of a little Cape turtle dove, admonishing us to “work harder” (or, as Lauren later more optimistically translated, encouraging us to “drink lager”). The impressive thorns of this particular acacia are so long and sturdy, people used to use them as gramophone needles!

We also came across the site of an old Boer homestead from the early 1900s. The graves of the family’s mother and two of her small children are still there with their carved headstones, as well as scattered foundation stones, and their water well and pump. We even found several green glass bottles nestled in the grass, with the date 1912 stamped on them.

Much more recent was other kinds of evidence left behind by reserve’s animal residents: a spot where an aardvark had burrowed into a termite mound, the matted-down grass where warthogs had made their beds, and the polished smooth stump used as a rhino scratching post. One exciting find was a network of collapsed termite mounds, expanded and enlarged into a series of dens and interconnecting tunnels by other animals—aardvark, brown hyena, porcupine and warthog all make their burrows this way, and tamboti trees often grow in groves on top of these sites. Since the trees are poisonous (like euphorbia), browsing animals stay away and don’t trample the den. We couldn’t be certain is anyone was living in this den at the moment, but the presence of a few porcupine quills and the flies buzzing around one of the entrance holes suggested a strong possibility.

From the burrow site, we walked across the dry, cracked expanse of Bullfrog Pan. These huge frogs were all hibernating beneath the dry pond for the winter, and would reemerge in the wet season to mate for 24 frantic hours straight, after which they would eat everything they could before going back under the mud to lay their eggs and wait out another dry season. Amazingly, they can survive for 2 to 3 years under there if they need to in times of drought. Rhinos are fond of rolling around in this dry pond, too, creating small waterholes beneath the heavy crush of their bodies. They then rub the mud off on nearby trees… so you can tell a rhino has been here if the surrounding trees have mud halfway up their trunks.

We walked past one of last night’s call-in spots, where some pied crows were busy pecking at the untouched bait we’d left behind. So it wasn’t just our presence keeping the carnivores away—it was just too darn cold for them to bother expending the energy. But once you’ve learned to recognize some of the myriad signs of life in the bush the bush, you realize that wildlife is all around you and constantly in motion… even when you don’t see its furry, feathered, slimy, scaly, or rough-skinned presence.

We did see lots of animals on our drive back to camp: blesboks, kudus, elands, banded mongoose, more warthogs escaping through the boundary fence, and a majestic one-horned male waterbuck named Bruno. After lunch we had a few hours to rest, kick our hiking boots off and stretch our toes in sandals for a change, do some laundry, and admire some of the wildlife around camp. Our little lake is home to a wealth of birds: African jacanas, white-faced ducks, pied kingfishers, ibis and fish eagle, plus monitor lizards sunning by the dam and tiny striped skinks on the rock path to our tent. We also have those reedbucks that like to linger around the fringes of camp, and the scatter of dung across the camp’s lawn by the lake shows evidence of night-time visitors, too. Not to mention our fabulous camp kitties, Simba, Tigger and Misty. This is such a great place to hang out.

Our afternoon project was our first latrine survey, in Mankwe. This basically consists of driving a transect and hanging out the side of the truck looking for hyena (white) and jackal (brown) scat near the road. When we found some, we collected a sample and recorded data such as estimated age, number of latrines in the area, distance from the road, and GPS coordinates. This data was later used to map out territories, density, and distribution trends, and the samples themselves would be sent off to a lab for DNA analysis. Spotting poop is not as easy as it sounds, though, and watching the side of the road so closely from a moving vehicle really strains the eyes! The ground seems to whizz by so fast, even at slow driving speeds, and there are lots of other types of poop to confuse you. On this first latrine survey, my husband and I identified rhino, zebra, ostrich, baboon, korhaan, and wildebeest poop, but neither of us spotted the study poop. The professional zookeeper on our team, however, proved herself the Champion Scat Spotter, and picked out some hyena and LOTS of jackal poop. Lynne even spotted a very furry old leopard scat! Although we would become very good scat spotters in time (if I do say so myself), my husband and I made ourselves more useful doing other tasks on this round. He climbed up and down the truck to collect the samples, and I recorded the data. We also saw several rhinos on the transect (as opposed to just their poop)—but you know everyone is really invested in the work at hand when they’re more excited to find a hyena latrine than an actual rhino!

This evening, I walked out of our tent at twilight and startled a kudu. As she turned and leaped off behind the tent into the darkness, a tiny steenbok bolted straight up and bounded off after her! I looked out at the glow of sunset on the lake, and just thought, Wow.

Dinner was a delicious game stew with miele pap, followed by a spotlight transect. My zookeeper friend and I did the spotlights this time (and this time, I had a light that worked!). Again, we saw lots of animals in the cold darkness that couldn’t be a part of our nocturnal data—kudus, wildies, tsessebes, impalas. But tonight we also spotted some data-worthy critters, too: 5 jackals, 4 steenboks, and 3 scrub hares. The most exciting moment, however, was spotting the weirdly-undulating eyeshine of 3 little spring hares hopping along. We were thrilled, as this bizarre little animal was one we’d never seen before, and definitely on our wish list. They were so cool! We went back to camp full of energy and enthusiasm, and stayed up late at the campfire with everyone. Bottles of beer were shared, stories swapped, frozen hands and feet warmed over the fire. How lucky we are to be here, and to have this marvelous place reveal itself to us in surprising ways.
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Jan 20th, 2010, 04:47 PM
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I am impressed with the commitment of the poop patrol--more interested in the calcified hyena droppings than a live rhino! Those spring hares are quite amazing and it's nice to know others appreciate this creature. I've gone out one night and seen far too many to count and the next night, none. Maybe something lunar.

Your observation about traffic on the site is correct. Not only have report readers dwindled, but so have other posters. Yet another sign that we have a long way to go to recover economically.
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Jan 24th, 2010, 09:44 PM
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PART 10: My Hyena Kyle

This morning’s project was a den search—driving around to the various hyena den sites in the reserve with our trackers, to see if there were signs of any recent activity. We visited three different dens, but we didn’t find much to indicate they were actively being used: a few tracks, some old gnawed giraffe bones, and a several isolated hyena pastings on tall stalks of grass. It was enough to show that a couple of the dens may have been used as stopping points for a hyena on the move, but if any had been in regular use, there would have been a lot more of all these signs around them. (Not to mention tell-tale flies.) The most dramatic den site was an elaborate rocky outcrop with piles of dark red boulders strewn about and an amazing view out over the grassland. Someone dubbed it the “hyena castle,” but from the most recent evidence it appeared that baboons had taken over the place. It reminded me of a smaller version of the den site we’d seen in Pilanesberg.

Even though we didn’t locate any new or very active dens in Mankwe this morning, it was still fun to see the older sites and watch the trackers in action. We headed back to camp for lunch, after which most of us spent the afternoon in the dining hall helping Louisa make ID cards for new hyenas she’d (camera) trapped for part of her study. The photos from camera traps set in Pilanesberg and Mankwe are compared with older photos, and individuals can be identified by their unique leg stripes. Each ID card has all the photos taken of the individual hyena (including dates, times and locations), plus a sketch of each front leg and any ear notches (depending on what is visible in the photos). My husband’s artistic talents were put to good use penciling in the leg markings, while I helped Louisa and another volunteer go through new photos from camera traps set at Madikwe, an area that is also part of her doctoral study. It was painstaking work trying to match up all those leg stripes and identify which were new hyenas and which already had previous photos taken, but in the end we were able to identify 8 new brown hyenas—and the best part was, we got to name them! I named the first one Kyle (of course). Then other folks on the team started chiming in, and we had hyenas named after dogs, girlfriends, grandchildren and favorite TV characters: in addition to Kyle, we added Miki, Cody, Mario, Akira, Xena, Sonya and Monge to the study. I love knowing that somewhere out there in Madikwe, there is a brown hyena named Kyle going about his hyena business.

After the ID tasks were done, we headed out on another set of latrine surveys. This time, our team had such an incredible run that we didn’t have enough sample bags in the truck for all the scat we found—an astounding 9 hyena and 43 jackal samples! Lynne said it was definitely a record for the most sample collected in any one survey. We were all on fire this time, spotting poop like true experts… and it prompted a bunch of giddy, silly jokes on the drive home, with people saying things like, “We really know our sh**!” and “That was a job well dung!” (Staring at carnivore latrines will do that to you.) We saw a lot of wildlife during the drives, too: giraffe, kudu, red hartebeest, romping wildies, and (not too surprisingly) dung beetles. It’s still a bit cold for them, or I’m sure we would have seen a lot more.

Tonight we had a rare night off from call-ins and spotlight surveys, so we made the most of it with a long, leisurely dinner of impala shepherd’s pie and pudding. After that we all gathered around the campfire to roast marshmallows, share Castle lagers, and watch the moon sink behind the horizon, making way for the riot of stars to come out against the pitch-dark sky. This place really feels like home now, and these people like family.
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Jan 25th, 2010, 07:11 PM
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somewhere out there in Madikwe, there is a brown hyena named Kyle going about his hyena business.

I'm still reading and still enjoying; work has been a little overhwelming lately so I save the longer posts for when I have some brainpower left over (no wisecracks, thank you very much). This sounds like such an amazing trip but I have to jump ahead and ask whether you were both exhausted when you got home?
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Jan 25th, 2010, 07:20 PM
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Quite an honor to get to name the hyenas. What does Kyle think about his namesake?

You earned that honor through your record setting dung collection! Have you been able to transfer those skills to tasks back home?
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Jan 26th, 2010, 08:38 AM
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Hi guys!

Yes, cleaning up Kyle's poop in the back yard has taken on a whole new meaning for me... and since part of our elephant observation work at the zoo involves recording data about their defecation habits, we've become real experts.

We did show Kyle a photo of his namesake and told him all about it. I don't think he was as impressed as he should have been. But J does occasionally call him "brown hyena."

Thanks for sticking with me, despite the extreme amount of time it's taking me to post this. I understand in every way about having no brainpower after work (part of the reason it is taking me so long to write my report). My goal is to finish before we go on our next trip! But yes, Leely, we were completely exhausted at the end of this trip. And very, very happy. I always figure I can sleep on the plane home.

As you will see in the next few installments, all the hard work (sometimes to the detriment of safari-type animal watching) paid off with some great sightings of animals that we'd never seen before. Coming up soon...
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Jan 26th, 2010, 09:04 AM
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Awesome post...thanks.
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Feb 7th, 2010, 03:28 PM
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PART 11: Camera Trapping As Extreme Sport

Did I mention how much I love camera trapping? When successful, the results can be astounding—a who’s who of nocturnal predators and scavengers, caught in the moment of doing whatever it is they do when people aren’t watching. The camera trap photos on the walls of our camp dining room and in the batches we sorted through looking for study animals were just incredible: not only brown and spotted hyenas, but also lions, leopards, civets, genets, honey badgers, caracals. And even the occasional curious rhino, elephant, or giraffe! The images were beautiful, sometimes frightening, and even funny (like the close-up of a trunk inspecting the camera, with the image of another elephant far in the background, all lit by a dawn sky). Today we would discover another side of camera trapping when we set up a number of traps in Pilanesberg. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

This morning Lynne’s dad, Dougal, gave us a talk in the classroom on game reserve management issues and the sometimes-harsh realities of conservation in today’s South Africa. It would take me hours to transcribe all my notes, but suffice it to say it was a very interesting conversation, and Dougal left room for us all to ask questions and chip in our own points of view about controversial issues such as tourism, hunting, conservation organizations, and reclaiming land for wildlife use. He also talked a lot about the history of Mankwe and his work in transitioning the land from business use to wildlife area over the past several decades. At this point, the main challenge for Mankwe (and many other places like it, including the national parks) is finding ways for the reserve to pay for itself and justify its existence. In a country that is struggling with economic issues, it can be a tough thing to argue that land should be left undeveloped, and that wildlife should be given any priority over human needs. The other main issues for the reserve are dealing with poaching (particularly since they have rhinos, but also with regard to the “bush meat” animals like warthogs and antelope), and managing the animal populations themselves to avoid overgrazing, soil erosion, and other problems in the ecological balance brought on by the presence of the fence. A fenced reserve—no matter how beautiful and well-cared-for—will never be a completely natural environment. Animals cannot migrate in and out to find natural water sources, or to move on to new territories when their populations grow too large for that area to sustain. Water sources have to be managed through the use of dams, and controlled burns are used when certain areas become overgrazed and the plant life is thrown out of balance. The most interesting part of the discussion was, for me, learning about how Mankwe deals with “excess” animals. When certain types of animals become too numerous for the reserve to sustain (antelopes or zebras, for instance), Dougal will negotiate with other reserves and parks to sell or trade animals. He does not sell animals at game auctions, because he feels it is too stressful for the animals to go through that process and have to be relocated multiple times. It was fascinating to hear about the logistics of rounding up and transporting animals between reserves, and I appreciated how much thought and planning goes into the process, with the animals’ welfare in mind. For example, when Dougal sells zebras he will never break up an existing herd, since these animals form such strong family ties.

This afternoon we got ready for the drive to Pilanesberg, where our teams would be working for the rest of the day and long into the night. We had to bring along all the equipment needed for latrine surveys, setting camera traps, and night call-ins – several crates’ worth of equipment, speakers, data sheets, GPS units, rangefinders, etc. And of course, the pig squeal recordings.

Once we made it to the national park, Group B went off to do a latrine survey. But our lucky Group A got to set up the camera traps at 4 new sites. The first was in an area of dry grassland and scrubby trees. We got out of the van (which you’re not allowed to do in Pilanesberg, by the way, unless you are with a research group) and unloaded the stinking bucket of hippo meat, but then Lynne realized that the cameras were in the other group’s van. We drove back to meet Lauren and retrieve them, then returned to the trap site. As soon as we got out of the van again Lynne commented, “I’ve the feeling there are lions nearby.” We all quickly snapped into action, tying 2 cameras to tree trunks and baiting them with the hippo meat. One girl on our team was too afraid to get out of the van at all, so Lynne told her to just stay put and “let us know if you see any animals coming,” which must have scared her even more. So here we were, rapidly setting up the traps in an area where (relatively) fresh hippo meat had been sitting unattended for about 10 or 15 minutes, stinking up the whole area. We managed to get everything ready and get back into the van before any predators arrived, but I had no doubt they would be here soon. We tied some wildebeest entrails to the rear bumper of the van and drove off to make a drag trail to the site, watching out the back window as the dusty ball of guts bounced along after us. A few tourists drove by in their cars while we were doing this, and I’m sure they wondered what the heck that was dragging behind our van!

Next we went back to the front gate to pick up our ranger, Percy, an amiable guy with a big smile and an even bigger rifle. He would need to escort us for the night work in the park. The second camera trap site was an adventure in and of itself (and boy, were we glad to have Percy with us this time). First, we passed by a big herd of elephants with small babies just down the road from where we would be turning off into the brush to set our trap. “We will have to watch them carefully, in case they decide to come this way,” Percy warned. He was especially wary of elephants after having had several close calls with them (which he then told us about it frightening detail). Then, at the actual camera trap site deep inside a thicket, we startled a gigantic giraffe, who reared his big head up in surprise and lumbered away. An instant later, before we could turn the van into the site, we saw a mother white rhino with a little baby cross the road and disappear into the brush on the same side as out trap site! Fortunately she moved off away from us to graze, but there were some tense moments when we were not sure we’d be able to get out of the car at all… and Percy still kept a close eye on her while we set up the trap. I lashed one of the cameras to a tree trunk with bungee cords and set it, while my husband was (once again), the Bait Guy. The whole team worked so fast and efficiently together, Lynne later told us we’d set a new speed record for camera trap set-up. Everyone was relieved to get back in the van and head on to the next trap site, with all those big critters around.

The third trap site was also in a small thicket, in an area where, Percy told us, one of the resident hippos liked to hang out. To out great relief, he was absent this afternoon. We passed more baby elephants on the way to the final camera trap site, enjoying some wonderful close-up views of them. But we couldn’t linger too long at any of these animal sightings, because we had a job to do and daylight was fading fast. The most painful example of this was when Percy’s radio crackled with the exciting news that another ranger had spotted wild dogs at a dam nearby. Unfortunately it was out of our way and we didn’t have time to go check it out. I looked over at one of my friends on the team and I thought she was about to cry. But we held in our disappointment and concentrated on what we were here for.

Our fourth camera trap site was a short hike into the bush away from the safety of the van. I helped set the cameras up again (this was becoming my specialty), and my husband pounded a spike through a hunk of zebra meat to pin it to the ground in between the two cameras. Anyone who wanted a taste of that meat would have to stick around for a while and have his or her picture taken. By now it was dusk and the light was glowing a dim purple around us, the shadows were lengthening, and the air was taking on a sharp, cold bite. We worked fast and made a hasty retreat, relieved to have the out-of-the-van work behind us. Next up: night call-ins.

But first, dinner. We had a picnic dinner in one of the park’s hides, overlooking a beautiful lake. The twilight view was a stunner and we could hear the grunt of hippos nearby, but we never saw them. It felt really special to be just get started with our work here, just as all the day visitors to the park were having to pack up their stuff and leave. Tonight it would be only us, the rangers, and the animals.

As soon as it was fully dark, we readied the vans for call-in protocol and decided who on which team would be handling each task. Each team would do call-ins 3 times, at 3 separate assigned locations, for a total of 6 different sites throughout the park. For tonight, I was one of the spotlighters and rode up front with Lynne and Louis, while my husband was responsible for putting the speakers on the roof once we got to the call-in site. He would need to climb out there several times during the protocol to rotate the speakers around for 360-degree pig squeal coverage. This was much trickier to do in a closed van than an open truck (both our jobs required some serious leaning out of windows), but the presence of large predators in the park made the closed vans necessary… especially since we were broadcasting the sounds of an injured prey animal. And the protocol differed slightly, too, in that we would change things a bit if lions showed up (in that event, we would silence the pig squeal and close up all the windows).

At our first call-in site, a sleepy wildebeest kept hanging around and trying to fool us with his low-to-the-ground eyeshine. Just his relaxed presence there was disappointing, because it seemed unlikely that there were any predators lurking nearby. A jackal made a brief appearance to steal the bait off the road (we didn’t stake it to the ground for call-ins like we did for camera traps), and then a scrub hare hopped in for a cautious look. The call-in ended uneventfully.

On the drive to our second call-in site, scrub hares were zig-zagging crazily across the road right in front of our van like they had a death wish. “Oh!” Lynne cried out at one point, “it almost looks like you’re trying to hit them!” Louis replied, deadpan, “I was.” But then he laughed, to let us know he wasn’t serious. I still don’t know how he managed not to hit them, though, the way those rabbits were practically throwing themselves under our front tires. Our second site had shorter grass and much better visibility. Lynne, sitting beside me, told me a story about her very first night call-in near this spot—how she’d been staring at the tall grass with the spotlight pointed, and suddenly a lioness had burst out of the grass right at her and she screamed! “This is why we adjust the pig squeal procedure now when lions are around,” she said, laughing at the memory. “It gets them a bit too excited.” Well, no lions for us this time, but we did have 4 jackals arrive at the call-in site (2 individuals and a pair working together), so we got data on them. We also followed one set of eyeshine for a while that was, Lynne thought, “behaving like a hyena”… but which turned out to be just “another bloody impala.”

Driving from our second site to our last site of the night, we saw two white rhinos strolling along, large ghostly-pale forms in the moonlight. Then suddenly, just up the road a bit, a big, muscular cat with sharply-pointed ears sauntered across the road right in front of us—a caracal! “Get the light on it!” Lynne gasped, and fortunately someone in the back seat had the right angle to point their light out the window and follow the cat’s progress, and fortunately too I had my video camera set up on “night shot” and was able to get some amazing footage of it. The caracal stalked off into the grass, turning back twice to look at our van and giving us a brilliant view of its beautiful face. I was more thrilled by this than I would have been if all the lions in the park showed up and did the rhumba in front of our van. Another animal from my dream sightings list!

Our third call-in site was at Lynne’s favorite spot in Pilanesberg (she’d had a lot of luck with hyenas there in the past), but unfortunately this time absolutely nothing came in to the sound of our pig squeals. Still, we were all so happy about seeing the caracal that we were excited to drive back to the main gate and tell the other team about it. We waited a long time for their van to arrive, and when they finally did they listened politely, nodded, said, “A caracal, how great!”… and then proceeded to tell us about their night. They had seen 3 brown hyenas while driving between call-in sites (sadly, though, each time it was just a glimpse of the animal’s rear end as it ran off the road into the brush and they couldn’t gather any data). But their real excitement had come in the form of a hippo that showed up during the pig squeals and charged their van at one call-in site, and then a pride of 13 lions that had arrived just after they’d finished their last call-in and circled around their van! I have to admit, as much as I cherish that caracal sighting, I couldn’t help being a little envious of their experiences, too. Still, I was happy for them. Another unpredictable night in Africa! And tomorrow night, we’d have one more chance to do it again.
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Feb 7th, 2010, 04:30 PM
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Glad to see you are back at work finishing your Fodor's "homework."
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Feb 7th, 2010, 05:05 PM
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I know, I know! I figure I have to finish this before I'm allowed to start planning another trip...

Believe it or not, I managed to type up two entries today!
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Feb 7th, 2010, 05:06 PM
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PART 12: Our Little Friend Under the Tree

Last night my husband had a dream about spotting a brown hyena, so hopefully that would be a good omen for this last night of call-ins in Pilanesberg. This morning we had some lazy time around camp for resting after our late night out, entering data from our latrine surveys, camera traps, and call-ins into the computer, and bird watching by the dam.

This afternoon we set off on latrine surveys in Pilanesberg, where our results were the reverse of what we’d been finding in Mankwe—lots of hyena scat right by the road, and hardly any jackal. We’re not sure if this is a reflection of their relative population sizes in the national park versus the private reserve, or if it’s just that the jackals have more room to roam in Pilanesberg and are less inclined to travel along the roads.

As we were driving slowly along the road looking out the windows and down at the ground, stopping frequently to collect samples, other cars would pass by and slow down to stare at us, sometimes asking, “What are you looking at?” in the hopes that we’d spotted something wonderful. (This despite the big sticker on the back of our van: RESEARCH TEAM—DO NOT DISTURB) Lynne would always politely reply that we were doing research, but I couldn’t help wondering how people might have reacted if she’d said, “We’re looking at poop!”

Along the latrine transect we passed by our dramatic elephant/rhino/giraffe camera trap site from yesterday. A pregnant tsessebe was hanging out there now with her herd—our best view yet of this lovely antelope. We encountered a pair of white rhinos close to the road, and then 2 more of them a ways farther on. Boy, this part of South Africa is just crawling with white rhinos! Total latrines for this survey: 38 hyena, and only 9 jackal. So we know those hyenas are here – why aren’t they coming to our call-ins?

With our latrine transects done, we had a game drive on our way to pick up ranger Percy again. We stopped at the Molotse Dam hide, where we saw some frisky vervet monkeys (close those car windows!), hippos with a tiny infant sleeping on shore, and a lovely female bushbuck. Lynne was very enthusiastic about this last sighting, and told us that bushbucks are not often seen in this park.

On the way from the dam to the entrance gate where we were meeting Percy, we had what Lynne would later describe as her highlight of our team’s 12-day expedition. We came around a bend in the road and I said, “Oh, a rhino—right there.” An instant later we all realized this one was a black rhino, less than 10 meters from our van. It was so amazing to see this smaller, more volatile rhino so close up: we could see every detail of her, from her pointy lip to her broad feet, and she remained calm and happily munching leaves long enough for us all to have a good look. Lynne said that’s the closest she has ever come to a black rhino in her life. Percy later told us this particular rhino was probably “Blondie,” a 3-year-old human who was atypically unafraid of humans.

Dinner tonight was in a hide at an absolutely gorgeous spot, perhaps my favorite place in Pilanesberg—the Mankwe Dam. (“Mankwe” means “place of the leopard,” which is why this name occurs in several places.) We ate our picnic looking out on a broad, beautiful lake—a sunken meadow, actually, with dramatic dead trees poking up out of its silvery water. On the drive around this dam to the hide we’d seen crocodiles and hippos, with incredible close sightings of white rhino and elephants, too, in the golden light of sunset. From inside the hide, we saw giraffes, springboks and wildebeest, plus a very active population of birds: pied kingfishers, grey herons, darters, cormorants, and ducks. A barn owl had built its nest up inside the roof of the hide, and we could hear the baby owls hissing at us during our picnic. At one point the mother owl flew in and disappeared into the rafters in a flurry of feathers.

For tonight’s call-ins, my husband was spotlighting from the front seat and I was in the middle backseat with the rangefinder. At our first site, the pig squeal broadcast out from our van’s roof and the typical jackals appeared. But then my husband craned out the window to swing the spotlight all the way around behind the van, and there he was—a brown hyena! He was sitting under a tree and watching us cautiously, much more shy and hesitant than those bold little jackals. At first he was not much more than a dark shadow of fuzzy fur, but the longer we watched him the more we could pick out his features: the pointed ears, the boxy muzzle, the faint striping on his legs, his eyes glowing bright. I started filming him and we watched, holding our breath, as he turned his head this way and that, clearly debating whether or not to come investigate the bait.

Following protocol, we turned off the spotlight after a few minutes and played the pig squeal again, hoping he’d come closer. But when it was time to turn the spotlight back on, our little friend under the tree had vanished into the night. We saw a movement and thought at first it was the hyena, but no—it was another jackal running right below my window. I scrambled to get the rangefinder on him and record the distance. It was not quite as thrilling as the hyena would have been at close range, but I do have a fondness for jackals. We were all a bit sad when two jackals ran off with the bait, though, because that pretty much sealed the deal that the hyena wouldn’t come any closer to us. We never saw him again.

Elated by finally having a good sighting of our study animal, we drove onward to our second call-in site when the time at our first site was up. This time, we played the pig squeal and heard in return the haunting sound of lions roaring, not far away. It went on and on… but still, only jackals came in to investigate our bait. Lynne thought, listening to the lions roaring, that they may have been communicating about a kill (and so would have no interest in our feeble bait and pig squeals). Oh, I wish we could have seen them, if nothing else because so many friends on our team had yet to see a lion! But given a choice between lions and brown hyena, I would take the hyena sighting.

Our jackal data tonight was very good. In addition to the ones who came in to investigate the bait, we also spotlighted a jackal carrying a wildebeest tail (perhaps from that nearby lion kill?). At our last call-in site tonight, the only response we got was a lone jackal who trotted into the spotlight, grabbed the bait, and ran away. As Dougal described it, “The trouble with these call-ins is that jackals always pinch the bait!” And they do. But at least tonight they left one bit of bait lying around long enough to capture the (fleeting) interest of our little friend under the tree.
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Feb 8th, 2010, 08:51 AM
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Oh my, I realized I accidentally referred to "Blondie" the rhino as a human... I assume anyone reading this knows I meant to write "a 3-year-old RHINO who's unafraid of humans." I guess that's what I get for being in a hurry and not proofreading.
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Feb 9th, 2010, 05:25 PM
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I'd take the brown hyena too. How exciting! I read your last entry first so I was ready for the non-human rhino.
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Feb 13th, 2010, 03:54 PM
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Actually on further reflection I thought I should have left it with no explanation -- you might have been very impressed if I said we saw a human rhino.

Here's another entry. I'll try to use the long weekend to type up as much as I can!
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Feb 13th, 2010, 03:55 PM
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PART 12: Waterfalls and Shopping Malls

This morning we visited Mankwe’s “vulture restaurant,” where Louis put out carcasses for the huge birds to feed on. Jackals and hyenas visit, too, so he has some very productive camera traps set up here to capture the action both day and night. (The carcasses Louis uses to attract the vultures come from natural attrition on the reserve and from roadkill—all the locals in the area know who to call if they need to clean up a carcass.) We sat in the hide across the waterhole from the “restaurant” and watched some pied crows picking at the remains of two unfortunate baboons who’d been hit on the highway. No vultures yet, but we could see several scattered skeletons that they’d already polished off. Louis told us all about the vulture research project, and promised to bring us back for another visit when the big birds arrived. From the hide, we could watch a lot of other bird life around the waterhole, too.

Since there were no vultures to disturb at the moment, we walked across from the hide to the camera trap area. We had a chance to inspect the remains of cow and antelope carcasses that had clearly been gnawed on by hyenas, as well as bright white hyena latrines and several pastings (hyena markings on tall grass) scattered amongst the red earth and black “baboon tail” plants. Louis showed us the giant capture cage they use for vultures, and told us about the study’s tagging methods (and misadventures). Enormous vulture feathers were scattered here and there, and we learned to identify which type went with which variety of vulture—white-backed, cape griffin and lappet-faced vultures all make their home here. Back at camp during lunch break, Louis set up his telescope to show us a close-up view of the rock python that lives on the small island in the middle of our lake. The huge snake was coiled up in a patch of grass by the shore, sunning.

This afternoon we drove about 45 minutes to our third research site, Kgaswane Mountain Reserve. On the way we stopped at a huge shopping mall in Rustenberg where everyone had a chance to use the ATMs, buy snacks and camera supplies, and feel a bit of culture shock after a week living at camp. The biggest difference between this mall and one at home in California was that Lynne had to pay a guy to guard our car in the parking lot. It felt almost overwhelmingly bright, crowded and noisy after the peaceful surroundings at Mankwe. When a friend and I went to use the restroom we had a bit of a shock seeing ourselves in the mirror—we were so tan and wind burnt from driving around in the winter cold. We did have small mirrors in our tents but not nearly so much light, so I’d really gotten used to not having to look at myself! J and I picked up some Stoney ginger sodas (our favorite African junk food) and a tray of funny meringue animals from a little bakery in the mall—they were meant to be farm animals, but if you used your imagination you could pretend they were brown hyenas, caracals, etc. We passed them around the car on the way to Kgaswane.

This reserve was more like what we’d call a regional park, with popular hiking trails and roads, and a notable lack of dangerous predators. It’s considered a “semi-protected” area, in terms of wildlife conservation. Our two vans headed off in different directions to do latrine surveys. We found just a few hyena scat here, and not many jackals, either. At one point we drove past a large burned area, where we saw baboons searching the charred ground for dead reptiles and rodents. A gust of wind kicked up and blew stinking ash into our van, which mingled with the stench of the poop samples and made us all cough and gasp. The one saving grace of this drive was seeing eland and kudu along the way.

After we finished our transect, Lynne drove to the top of a winding road that curved up the side of the mountain. From here we had a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape, made slightly hazy from the recent fires. We also spotted a big male sable far away on the hillside on our way up the mountain. Even at a distance he was impressive, with his glossy black coat and long, curving horns.

We met up with Team B at a trailhead partway down the other side of the mountain, and from here took a short but very scenic hike out to a lovely waterfall that fell in several tiers down into a deep canyon. On the hike in, we saw another male sable very briefly—his head popped up out of the brush, startled, and he bounded away. The views at the falls were gorgeous, and also vertigo-inducing if you went too close to the edge of the cliff. My husband, who is a mountain goat by nature, walked near the edge to peek down into the canyon… but the rest of us got down on our bellies and crawled up to peer over the cliff. It was stunning, a deep cleft in striped red-and-orange rock, laced with the rush of clear water from the falls.

On the drive back out of Kgaswane we saw zebras and impalas—overall, not a bad animal count for such a small park. (Team B had also seen a large herd of female sables on their drive.) We stopped to fuel up the car and everyone went into the mini-mart, sparking a frenzy of South African junk food in the van on the way home: biltong, “sour enerjelly babies,” candy bars with Afrikaans names like “P.S. Ek dink aan jou,” chips and candies being handed back and forth. We were all pretty punchy by the time we arrived back at camp.

Tonight’s dinner was impala shepherd’s pie. Afterwards, we had a great time gathering around Louis’ computer to look at a slideshow of the results from our camera traps so far. Success! We caught some great images of brown hyenas at Mankwe. It was especially hilarious when he clicked through the pictures really fast, so that it looked like a stop-motion movie of a hyena: first the eyeshine in the distance, then multiple shots of the hyena itself climbing all over the carcass and trying to tear it loose from the spike anchoring it to the ground, and in the last shot everything disappeared—both hyena and carcass gone, and the camera recording just an empty spot. What fun to see the results of our work, and to get to enjoy them with our team. We stayed around the campfire late again, with no night work to do. Tomorrow would be our day off—an entire day of game drives in Pilanesberg.
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Feb 14th, 2010, 03:36 PM
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Sable--another bonus.

It appears you discovered more brown species than brown hyenas but it required the assistance of a restroom mirror.
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