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(Courtesy of Christine Wilkinson, Ph.D.)

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Hyena Helpers for Human-predator Harmony

Biologist Christine Wilkinson, Ph.D. sat silently in a Jeep, parked on a broad plain in Kenya, preparing herself for the tumult that was to come.

Beside her sat two government-mandated armed guards. Up until a few weeks ago, she thought their presence was overkill. She changed her mind after they saved her from a herd of buffalo. Once the last member of their party, Dr. Ruoro Mukami, a Senior Veterinary Officer at the Kenya Wildlife Service, showed up, Wilkinson readied her equipment. The field experiment was about to begin.

A carcass hung on a tree to attract hyenas. (Courtesy of Christine Wilkinson, Ph.D.)

Seconds later, the silence was pierced by whoops, shrieks, and sounds of flesh being torn apart. The sounds came from speakers Wilkinson placed on top of the jeeps and were accompanied by the smell of torn-apart flesh, emanating from carcasses wire-tied to nearby trees. The smell-and-sound show was put on to attract a clan of spotted hyenas, the target population of Wilkinson’s dissertation research. The young biologist from UC Berkeley was interested in human-wildlife conflict. Hyenas in this area posed a challenge to researchers in her field: how do we assess people’s relationship to neighboring carnivore species while protecting both populations? In this case, spotted hyenas frequently dug holes under the fenced border separating Kenya’s Lake Nakuru National Park and human communities, despite the wires being installed a meter below ground in some stretches, and often right after attempts to repair holes in the fences. To get a better idea of where the hyenas would cross the fence, Wilkinson and her team collared and tracked the animals, cross-referencing their data with government reports.


Collaring could be difficult, as hyenas are known to be skittish. Wilkinson chose her spot carefully: close enough to be accessible, but far enough away that the animals wouldn’t be scared off. Sometimes, the hyenas don’t arrive. Wilkinson’s team would then have to pack up their gear, relocate to a new spot, and try again. This time, though, they were in luck.


The hyenas approached slowly and calmly, looking curiously at the cars. They lifted their heads as high as they could and sniffed the air, trying to ascertain the source of the shrieks and smells. Dr. Mukami, the vet accompanying Wilkinson, grabbed a rifle filled with tranquilizer darts. After spotting the target, the vet looked through the scope and pulled the trigger. After piercing through thick, spotted fur, the dart released a medicine that put the hyena to sleep. Wilkinson and Mukami approached the animal, checked its breathing, and looked for injuries. After assuring the animal’s safety, they quickly took measurements, collected data samples, and fastened a tracking collar around the hyena’s neck. Wilkinson’s final step was reversal, the administration of the tranquilizer’s counter-drug. Moments later, the team watched as the hyena’s breathing slowly returned to a natural rhythm. Some would wake up right away, but others would keep lying down and want to take a nap. Wilkinson nudged the animal from its slumber, and her team watched as the hyena woke up and returned to its clan.

Christine Wilkinson, Ph.D. (right) and her colleague, Dr. Mukami, captures hyena #1626 from the Naishi Clan in an early morning (Christine Chepkisich)

 

Animals like hyenas seldom inspire warm feelings. Tales historically told across much of the African continent have associated them with witchcraft. Their notoriety continues into the present day, where their reputation as dangerous pests contributes to their negative image. Like coyotes in the United States, hyenas are often viewed as pests.

Christine Wilkinson, Ph.D. (Jessica Ortiz)

Animals that live alongside us often turn out to be the most vilified, Wilkinson explained. “Think about coyotes, rats, cockroaches — we end up coming into contact with them over time, more than other animals that just can’t survive when we take over the landscape.” Humans and their livestock live near spotted hyenas due to the rapid development of areas surrounding Lake Nakuru National Park (At nearly 600,000 residents, Nakuru is now Kenya’s third-largest city.) Combined with these animals’ cultural notoriety and their tendency to cross the border, many Kenyans felt threatened by spotted hyenas. Because of this, Wilkinson recognized that just tracking hyenas’ movements wasn’t enough to understand the human-carnivore relationships near the park.

“It's just as much about the emotions and values that drive our interactions and our feelings about wildlife,” she explained. Wilkinson’s team wanted to assess the community’s attitudes towards hyenas, specifically regarding the perceived threats of these carnivores. They interviewed almost 400 people about their attitudes toward carnivores. They also asked where, when, and how often livestock was attacked by wild animals. After conducting interviews and mapping sessions, the team found a significant difference in the community’s perceptions of human-wildlife conflict and the attacks documented in government records. This discrepancy suggested that gender, education, how folks made their living, exposure, and possibly even a “sense of place” mattered significantly in people’s relationship to carnivores. This, in turn, affected what solutions they were likely to support when it came to mediating human-carnivore conflict.


“People want to be listened to. They want to feel heard and want to see that there are efforts being made, regardless of the evidence behind what works,” Wilkinson said. “Having scientists, conservationists, and managers actually listen to people’s concerns really matters.”

While much of Wilkinson’s research was aimed at community education and involvement, she also wanted to galvanize Lake Nakuru Park’s leadership. When she returned to Kenya for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic started, park rangers bugged her about where they could get more hyena project-branded T-shirts. She shared her findings about community perception, hyena behavior, and human-hyena conflict with Park stakeholders. After hearing Wilkinson’s presentation, Lake Nakuru’s senior warden approached the biologist and asked her for advice regarding the fence separating humans from hyenas.

“People want to be listened to. They want to feel heard and want to see that there are efforts being made, regardless of the evidence behind what works. Having scientists, conservationists, and managers actually listen to people’s concerns really matters.”

“It was this coming home moment for me,” Wilkinson said, feeling proud that someone was ready to apply her research to real, tangible solutions. She recalled that the warden was interested in bringing together research and community experience to design a collaborative, interdisciplinary solution.

“When people think about conservation in general, what comes to mind for many people is just wildlife; but wildlife conservation by its very nature involves people,” Wilkinson said. “It needs to account for the needs and values of community members living alongside wildlife to work.”

Wilkinson was excited to learn that her research made a difference in the community’s relationship with hyenas. According to Lake Nakuru Park staff, her work helped people learn more about the animals and increased their positive attitudes toward wildlife. After hearing the good news, Wilkinson reflected upon the success of a project that was both fun and forward-thinking. “Even though this was a drop in the bucket as far as the broader community, this enthusiasm exemplifies what I hope to gain from any coexistence research I’m involved in.”

A coyote wanders around San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in 2019. Coyotes can be distinguished from wolves by their smaller size, narrow snout, tall and pointed ears, in addition to their brownish coat. (Lance Anderson/Unsplash)

Wilkinson is currently applying her findings from the Hyena Project to human-coyote interactions in California. While the humans, carnivores, and geography of these areas differ considerably, there are parallels between the two scenarios. Like hyenas, coyotes are vilified carnivores that pose a threat to humans and livestock alike. Furthermore, human support is integral to protecting coyote populations: a recent peer-reviewed paper published in Science by researchers at the University of Washington found out that coyotes move closer to humans in regions occupied by large carnivores, indicating that they perceived humans to be less of a threat. However, rather than shielding them, humans kill coyotes at almost three times the rate of black bears or cougars. Finally, there may be discrepancies between perceived and actual threats regarding coyotes.

With this research in California and continued collaborations abroad, Wilkinson hopes to connect human-predator interaction with important outcomes ranging from environmental impacts to public health: for example, in an interview with Mongabay, Wilkinson explained her goals to explore how climate change and wildfires influence coyote behavior on a long time scale; a Scientific American article published last year suggests that hyenas may have prevented diseases such as anthrax from infecting villagers by gobbling up carcasses near human settlements.

 

Most The Xylom readers won’t have to share their backyards with hyenas anytime soon. However, most of us do share our ecosystems with predators, even those of us who live in urban areas — we ourselves could be apex predators in certain contexts. Wilkinson offers some advice for improving your relationship with local predators, no matter where you live: making sure there’s no leftover food outside, half-open trash bins, or bird feeders is a good first step. Additionally, avoiding artificial turf and non-native lawn grass in favor of indigenous plants supports local species all the way up the food web. Wilkinson also advises that people research how to behave around their local predators and whether the government encourages reporting certain species to animal control. Finally, it’s important to scale these actions to neighborhood and community-wide initiatives.

“When people think about conservation in general, what comes to mind for many people is just wildlife; but wildlife conservation by its very nature involves people. It needs to account for the needs and values of community members living alongside wildlife to work.”

Spreading awareness on message boards or social networks is a great way to involve more people in environmental stewardship. From neighborhood gardens to supporting an unofficial mascot—like UC Berkeley's Cal Falcons and Smiley the hyena —it can be a great way to build community, advocate for conservation, and help researchers. In fact, some scientists—like Wilkinson—rely on local knowledge and support.

Wilkinson takes measurements with a sedated Smiley the hyena, named after his trademark missing lip. (Courtesy of Christine Wilkinson, Ph.D.)

“Community science plays a huge role in our work,” she explained. Her projects have used tools ranging from participatory mapping, iNaturalist, and NextDoor to gather data about people’s experiences. “How they feel about wildlife is super important to us in understanding what will work long term for coexisting with wildlife.”

When most of what we consume comes boxed, barcoded, and wrapped in plastic, it’s easy to forget that it’s other species, not just other people, that make our lives possible. Part of improving our relationship with others — both human and non-human — involves taking the extra time to give thanks to the organisms we rely on for food, shelter, and knowledge. For example, Wilkinson always retrieves the collar after she’s finished studying a particular hyena. And that’s not the end-all, be-all: they also make sure the decollared hyenas are free of parasites. Before administering the reversal on a de-collared animal, Wilkinson practiced gratitude. As she says goodbye to each animal, she quietly thanked them for helping her understand human-hyena coexistence.

“I was really glad we got to finally take this thing off its neck,” she said. “And I’m really grateful that this animal has done a service to both of our species.”

 


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Navya Pothamsetty

From Orlando, Fla. Navya graduated with a B.A. in Public Health and an M.P.H. in Epidemiology from the University of California, Berkeley. She is now an analyst for Kaiser Permanente and a freelance writer with bylines on smART, Mental Floss, and Planet Forward. Navya and her sister named their dog after Appa from Avatar: The Last Airbender, the only TV show she has re-watched multiple times.

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