Activity around an elephant bull carcass is yielding interesting observations for hyena researcher in the Kruger National Park (KNP), Lydia Belton. Skukuza section ranger, Albert Smith, notified her about the elephant's end on a management road near the Kruger Gate on March 31, 2008, alerting Lydia to the hyena revels.
‘Roly', a young adult male who lives in the Skukuza village about nine kilometres as the crow flies from the gate, has proved to be either ready to move out of his clan or just quite a cheeky hyena after a free meal. For Roly to feed on the elephant, he had to venture about five kilometres into another clan's territory. He chanced the tasty bites while the seven ‘Kruger Gate' hyenas, in whose territory the elephant died, left their snack to investigate the reason for other hyena calls in the Tinga Lodge vicinity.
"Hyenas are territorial and will chase off foreign animals. Luckily for Roly the Kruger gate clan arrived back at the carcass at the same time as five hyenas came in from Tinga to snatch a bite of elephant trunk. During the following clan war Roly slipped off unnoticed into the bushes," says Lydia.
His narrow escape led him back to the Skukuza clan territory where his status as birthright member or immigrant is not quite clear-cut. Lydia is one of the researchers from the Mammal Research Institute (MRI) at the University of Pretoria on a project that aims to investigate whether spotted hyenas behave differently around areas of intense human use and habitation compared to areas of lower human habitation. The former area is measured at Skukuza, while the less-intensely human-impacted area is measured at Doispane, an area closer to the Phabeni Gate from the Kruger Gate turnoff in the park.
As if not to be outdone by the other clans' level of attention-grabbing behaviour, the Doispane clan are boasting babies everywhere. Sporting delectable names, courtesy of nature conservation intern, Taryn Joshua, the young ones are keeping Lydia and their mothers on guard. ‘Sausage' and ‘Mash' are about three months old and the second batch of cubs to be born from the dominant female in the clan since Lydia began studying them in mid-2007.
The family tree of the three months older fellow clan cubs, ‘Spaghetti' and ‘Meatball' has proved more of a mystery. Although almost six months old Lydia hasn't yet identified their mother and only saw them for the first time in February. Another cub, ‘Vleis', born to a subdominant female, is also about six months old.
Another female in the Phabeni road territory has two very small cubs, which she keeps in a den away from her clan at this time. Where she belongs is not yet clear and Lydia is waiting to confirm her grouping when she rejoins a clan. In the meantime, Muttley, a one-year old from Doispane, "has graduated from chewing at my car tyres to collecting snares," says Lydia.
On March 16, she saw the young mister Muttley carting a snare around his neck. The following day there were two snares around his neck. But Lydia and the Sanparks' veterinary wildlife services put their hastily prepared rescue plan on hold when Muttley showed up the next day with no snares.
"Although one of the snares has left a cut on his neck this busy male is appearing to be just fine." Since June last year, Lydia has spent long hours watching various hyena dens to identify clan members and record their activities. 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 following a theme, making it easier to remember each individual in the research group.
By Lynette Strauss and Lydia Belton