Unravelling Hyena Mysteries With Giggles

©Constant Hoogstad

For 12 continuous hours over five consecutive days, twice this year, a female called Giggles was the centre of attention keeping at least three teams a night glued to their seats.

Though she was only doing what she does every night, her audience was mesmerised by her performance and used whatever means necessary to keep their eyes on her. Giggles is a spotted hyena, the subject of a research focus run by Global Vision International's wildlife research expedition on the Karongwe Game Reserve.

The 8600ha Karongwe Game Reserve is situated between Tzaneen and Hoedspruit and comprises private and commercial lodges.

Incorporating the privately owned Mafunyane, Edeni, Harmony, Chioenbere, Wait a Little, Monate and Mundulea by removing the internal fences, the conservancy created a bigger area for animals to roam.

The conservancy is home to the big five and caters for both the domestic and foreign markets. Giggles has two five month old cubs and was believed to be the matriarch of the hyena clan on the conservancy. She is fitted with a radio collar, which transmits a signal at a certain frequency, allowing the team to follow her using telemetry equipment for distances of up to four kilometres.

The hyena focus took place between January 26 to 31 and again between March 2 and 6, 2007. The monitoring ran from18h00 to 06h00 and was divided into three shifts with the first shift, 'team sunset' being relieved by the 'graveyard shift' at 22h30. 'Team sunup' took over at 02h30 until after sunrise.

"All behaviour and movements were recorded through telemetry location, observation, GPS and data recording sheets. Relevant data included behaviour. (dominance and submissive behaviour is very important in the clan), movement, den sites, kill and feeding information," says Marina van Heerden, expedition leader. She says data was also taken on other hyena when encountered during the research focus.

Reserve manager Constant Hoogstad initiated the hyena focus, "as he wanted information on their feeding behaviour and movements through the reserve." He was also interested in interaction, if any, between lion and hyena, and the degree of competition between predators.

"There has never been any interaction between a lion and hyena recorded in the history of the reserve," says Constant. With the focus on Giggles and her two cubs, Constant hopes to discover the 'true hyena social structure on the reserve.' Initially it was thought from prior observations that Giggles was the matriarch of the clan, but during the focus period, she and other hyenas were observed acting submissively to another larger adult female hyena.

Another surprise was when Giggles was seen taking food to the den to feed cubs. "The apparent 'provisioning at the den' by Giggles is anything but typical behaviour recorded in the literature. Unlike wild dogs, hyenas very seldom provision for cubs at the den, rather cubs subsist off a strictly milk only diet," says Marina.

She believes the observed behaviour could be due to low predator to prey ratio on the reserve or the lack of competition between hyena and lion. "We will have to investigate further to determine the extent to which the hyenas are provisioning." It appears the hyena roamed further before kills and on the night of the kills.

Movements are recorded as the crow flies from point to point and it is likely that the animal travelled much further due to foraging activity in areas where monitored. "Bold and inquisitive by nature, the spotted subjects of our study circled the vehicle smelling various parts for details of its inhabitants. They bobbed their grinning heads in deceptive cowardice yet daring advances.

A shout would deter their approach, but only temporarily as curiosity got the better of them. Finally a juvenile could resist no more and began to chew the tyre wall - all along their ultimate quest it would seem. Another shout from the driver and he thought better, retreating to the shadows of the den," captured a GVI volunteer in his journal during one of the shifts.

The hyena focus falls within the GVI research expedition on Karongwe that has been run in conjunction with the Karongwe Ecological Research Institute (Keri) and the University of Natal since June 2000. Keri has relocated to another reserve and GVI has forged closer ties with Pretoria University.

According to Sophie Greatwood, regional director, Africa, GVI South Africa, runs a wildlife expedition at the Venetia Game Reserve near Musina, as well as the one at Karongwe. GVI expedition members, between 15 to 18 at a time, visit one reserve for five weeks and then move on to the other reserve.

Though the research methodology on both reserves is the same, the focus on the various reserves may differ according to the various wildlife and habitat on each reserve. "At Karongwe research focuses on the management of predators in small reserves through wildlife monitoring projects.

We also assist the South African National Parks (Sanparks), Mpumalanga Parks Board and the Transvaal Museum in a biodiversity study of the fragile fynbos and mountain rainforest of the Mariepskop Mountains," says Sophie. She says with the research GVI aims to determine the impact of reintroduced mammals on game reserves and to help with their management and conservation. "Research of this kind will play an important part in the management of future conservation areas."

The research focus also investigates the impact of predators on the prey species; records prey selection, kill frequencies and the impact on prey populations; and monitors movement patterns, territories and competition between predators. In addition the team also looks into the reserve's prey populations, distribution and density and how this relates to the predators' movements and territories.

Details Activity and Movements Over the Study Period




113.8 kmFed on unidentified carcass
24.8 km
324.5 kmFed on a hippo carcass
418.6 kmFed on a hippo carcass
56.6 kmBrought a giraffe leg back to den. Cubs fed on it. Moved cubs to a new den
69.2 km
76.4 km
814.9 km
920.8 kmAttempted kill of adult wildebeest at a dam in water
1024.6 kmKilled an adult male impala and returned to den with meat

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