Hyaenas - Scavengers or Skilled Hunters?
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Unlike lions, cheetahs or leopards - which are considered great predators and on many tourists must-see list - hyaenas are largely ignored and misunderstood. Thought to be “cowardly” scavengers, hyaenas are actually skilful hunters running down their prey over distances of up to three kilometres. Furthermore, being apex predators (feeding at the highest trophic level), they are essential indicators of ecosystem health and thus unique and vital components to most African ecosystems.
Previously the only carnivorous animals monitored by Ol Pejeta’s Ecological Monitoring Department were lions and cheetahs. But after preliminary studies showed that Thomson’s gazelles, impalas and other small herbivores were on the decline; hyaena species also started being monitored. With three hyaena species (spotted, striped and aardwolf) residing on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the Ecological Monitoring Department believes they have the potential to negatively affect numbers of prey species. Hence the need to study spotted and striped hyaenas in the Conservancy.
In April of this year, thanks to a donation of six infrared cameras from the Department of Animal Environment and Health at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Sweden, the Ecological Monitoring Department intensified the hyaena monitoring programme. All active hyaena dens in the Conservancy have been mapped and will be observed using the infrared cameras to establish the number and distribution of hyaenas.
Patrol teams report any active dens they come across and thereafter two cameras are strategically set up near the dens. In contrast to cameras that produce a flash, infrared cameras produce a beam not detectable by animals therefore does not disturb them. The cameras store images on a memory card which is then retrieved every three days and the pictures studied to identify individuals through their unique patterns – spots for spotted hyaenas and stripes for striped hyaenas.
With the camera traps, researchers get accurate data and no longer have to rely on patrolmen’s sightings. The pictures from the cameras establish the number of hyaenas in a particular area, identify individuals and eventually help the Ecological Monitoring Department to accurately establish the hyaena population estimate. It is also possible to capture hunting data from the cameras. In addition, cameras set up along the wildlife corridors that connects Ol Pejeta to the greater Laikipia/Samburu ecosystem will also be used to monitor the number of hyaena coming into and leaving the Conservancy.
The information generated is critical in making management decisions and intervention may be recommended if prey species are affected. Though hyaena have never enjoyed good publicity, we hope that by getting more information on them, perceptions will change and they will finally get the respect they deserve. After all they are not only highly successful predators but also provide an essential role of cleaning up the ecosystem by digesting entire animals - meat, skin, bones and all!
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