Researchers from the Mammal Research Institute (MRI) at the University of Pretoria are looking into how close contact with humans is affecting the behaviour of spotted hyenas. The Skukuza hyenas are thought to be making use of the rubbish available from bins in the area.
Lydia Belton from the MRI is currently identifying individual clan members in and around Skukuza. Hyenas are often seen patrolling the streets of the Skukuza staff village or walking up and down the fence of the Skukuza camp, sniffing the smoke from all the campers? braais.
This monitoring work forms part of a larger project which aims to compare the spotted hyenas around areas where people live in Skukuza with those on the Doispan road away from human habitation. Masters student Brad Ryan from the MRI will be starting behavioural research on the clans in August. The Skukuza clan is also being investigated to see to what extent they scavenge from the rubbish bins. Four study animals were fitted with collars in March this year and Lydia is busy following these animals to see where they go.
Once their favourite hangouts have been identified, the collars can be set to automatically tell the researchers how often the collared animals visit these places. The dominant females at each study site have been identified for collaring. Getting to know the animals involves sitting long hours at the den site each night, recording who’s coming and going and trying to get photographs from each side.
The unique spot patterns are used to identify each animal – their spot patterns are much like an individual fingerprint. Each clan member is also given a name, making it easier to remember each individual in the research group. Identification of individual clan members is going well.
"Most people living in Skukuza will have seen the clan, especially recently whilst they have a den near Scientific Services. What they may not realise is quite how big the clan is. 19 animals have been individually identified at this den site” said Lydia. Although this is probably not all of the clan members, getting clear photos or sightings can be difficult and there are at least five small pups.
The newest pup was seen for the first time on June 16, 2007. "During observations I have to put up with the juveniles and sometimes the adults chewing on my car. There are some big toothmarks in the bumper from Demon, one of the collared animals" said Lydia.
Lydia is appealing to people around Skukuza to be aware of the hyena dens as there have been two incidents of hyenas being hit by cars, although none sustained serious injuries. One of the hyenas at Doispan had a snare removed from its neck and although he appears a little thin, the scar on his neck is almost healed.
It seems as though people are having an impact on hyenas and the valuable work done during this research project will help provide more insight into the nightly activities of these spotted characters.