Monday 4th of September – A lesson in ecology and nature
A long introduction but you will definitely learn something here!
All animals (and plants for that matter) will do anything in their power to reproduce and pass on their genes. But reproduction costs energy, and to obtain energy is a never-ending job. Every animal species therefore has a different tactic to be as effective as possible, have an optimal number of offspring using the least energy.
In ecology we divide animals roughly into K- and R-species. The R-species reproduce Rapidly. They lay hundreds of eggs and then leave them without any parental care or protection. The young can go and sort the struggles of life out on their own and, needless to say, many of them don’t survive that. But even if 1% survives to adulthood, the parents have successfully passed on their genes. That 1% can reproduce again to create the next generation. Many amphibians, fish and reptiles operate this way. You know, frogs and those hundreds of tiny turtles on tropical beaches you see on the BBC.
Then there are the K species, the mammals, the birds. The species that have one or a few young at a time and provide maximum care and protection to ensure the survival of their precious offspring to adulthood. It’s beautiful how each species has their own tactics. Some spend months building a huge nest, some keep their young in a pouch, some carry it on their belly, the list is endless. And, apparently, they work. The trial and error of evolution has made sure that the effectiveness is at least big enough to, without external factors (which, unfortunately, are plentiful since the human race became too smart), keep populations stable. It’s one of the reasons I like ecology so much, everything links together and balances out (again, if disturbing factors, such as human influence are not present).
I have always wondered about some species and the protection of their young though… Take Blacksmith Plovers (a common bird species that feeds on water-edge of pans in Liuwa). Their chicks are fairly easy to see and sometimes when a potential threat comes close the adult flies up and makes a lot of noise. Useless so it seems. As if a hyena will go like: “oops this plover is obviously not so cool with me being here, let me walk around because this tiny bird will definitely beat me up big time”. BSP’s don’t seem too scared of big predators and don’t bother with protecting their chicks against them the way most K-species would do. Basically, they are noisy when it’s unnecessary and remain quiet when they actually have to switch to noise. Maybe they know they are not interesting to those predators, maybe they are naïve and a bit stupid. You can be the judge, here’s the story:
I’m in South clan and find 2 adult hyenas and 3 subadults at a pan. South clan doesn’t have abundant prey in this season and especially the subadults look skinny. There is a Blacksmith Plover with 3 chicks, feeding on the edge of the pan. The chicks are about 2 weeks old and cute with their long legs, tiny beaks and fluffy down. They are not scared of the hyenas that are not interested in them either. Several times I see them as close as 1m from each other. But then the tides turn. Suddenly, one of the subadult hyenas gets up and walks towards the chicks. He bends down and sniffs one (that doesn’t run away or squeak or anything, I mean… Hello!! Stupid??!!). He opens his mouth, grabs the chick (still doesn’t squeak), chews 3 times and then the chick is gone. One squeak is all the mother has to give in protest.
I watch the scene, I gasp for air, I bite my hand. I want to scream, yell, save the chick, chase the hyena. But I sit and watch, repeating my mantra; ‘This is nature, this is nature, this is nature’. There is nothing I can do. I have to be the observer of natural behaviour, I cannot interrupt it, whatever happens. Hungry hyenas will eat anything, even cute tiny chicks. This chick is better off than wildebeests grabbed by hyenas, at least a chick is dead in one bite.
So I’m watching helplessly as the hyena makes up his mind on the taste of the one chick and proceeds to its sibling, which is up for grabs too (seriously why don’t these guys get the hell out of there? Why doesn’t the mother do anything?) and see no. 2 disappear as well. Number 3 doesn’t get time to flee, it is grabbed and soon joins its 2 siblings in the hyena’s stomach.
Mama Plover now finally starts squeaking and for a moment I think the mass-murder is going to be ended with her death, but the hyena ignores her noise, walks away and beds down as if he didn’t just mindlessly eat 3 Plover kids (it kind of makes me sick about the whole poultry-industry all over again, this is what KFC costumers do too, kind of). I’m trying my best not to imagine mama’s confusion and desperation. Instead I grab a carcass-sheet and start filling in the details of what I have just witnessed. After all, though heartbreaking and sad, it was great data and quite a special sighting. Research is so lovely sometimes.
In the morning I am in Miumi clan. I’m searching for hyenas, not very successfully today…
Until I see one hyena running in the distance and then 6 others going somewhere else, also running. I quickly take photos of all hyenas and observe that they are all coming from the same direction which surely means something has happened there, so of course I have to go and see. Soon I find 10 hyenas standing around a wildebeest-head and its skin. A kill they made between 1 and 2 hours before my arrival. One hyena is struggling to drag it all to a pan. Another one comes to help, grabs the other side and brotherly they lift the wildebeest off the ground and carry it to a pan, flanked by a youngster who doesn’t want to miss out on the fun. All 10 hyenas dig in to steal a bite.
LHY-294 (Keddy) is also there. Only recently (in April) LHY-294 got herself trapped in a snare that was tightly wrapped around her neck. She was darted by ZCP’s vet Dr. Banda and needed a lot of stitches as the snare had cut halfway through her trachea, a hole big enough for her to breathe through. Awesome to see that she is doing so well,she is still the dominant female she always was, hunting and eating well and the fattest of all. A huge scar is all the proof that remains of her life-threatening situation just a few months ago.
A few hours later I go to North clan where I hear the sound of LHY-343’s super young cubs. As I am on my way back to camp I see the red sun setting and it turns the plains into fields of orange, gold and green. It’s stunning.
Then I smell something. A vague sweet scent that disappears within seconds. It reminds me of… Belgian waffles! So now I’m craving waffles.
I’ve never craved waffles before so this is a whole new sensation. I don’t have a waffle iron, let alone the right ingredients, and there was no waffle stall in Liuwa last time I checked. So a craving is all it will be for now.
Friday 9th of September – Morning has broken
It’s 6.45 am, my hands and ears are cold and I’m trying to warm them on the engine of the bike. 30m away from me 2 female hyenas are in a deep sleep and on the belly of one of them is a small cub that has forgotten about drinking entirely and has fallen asleep in the process.
I’ve already taken photos and noted the data, so as a big red firey sun rises over the plains, I have some time for my coffee and “breakfast” (a very old breadroll with peanutbutter). I’m listening to the sounds of all the birds that are busy. Lots of chirping small birdies in the tall grass, the splashing of a duck or goose in the water of a nearby pan, a saddle-bill stork that flies over, creating a distinctive sound.
Apart from that there is no sounds but that of my own thoughts, and even that I have managed to switch off for a minute.
Another perfect morning in Liuwa!
I found this little guy on my way back!