Scrapping for Scavengers
A Zookeeper Steps Up for Jackals and Hyenas in South Africa
“What is that?”
It was the first morning of our 12-day expedition this past June. The sound—a raucous “ha-ha-a-a-a-a” call—woke me up in our wooden cabin at Mankwe Wildlife Reserve. It was winter in South Africa’s North West Province, and the temperature outside was 33 degrees. As I peeled back my four wool blankets, duvet and sleeping bag, I heard it again. The hadada ibis wanted to be sure we knew morning had arrived. When it finished, the pied crows took their turn. Not to be left out, the jackals joined in as well. Mornings were noisy at the camp.
I’d come to South Africa as the 2013 recipient of the Feay Earthwatch Grant. The grant, made possible by the generosity of zoo donors Mary and Bruce Feay, enables one Lincoln Park Zoo staff member annually to participate in an Earthwatch Institute expedition. As part of a 12-member volunteer team, I conducted field research on scavenger species—namely, black-backed jackals and brown hyenas.
Since 2004, Mankwe has been one of several sites providing research on the brown hyena. The field work measures carnivore populations in areas with different levels of protection and management. The goal: to better understand these animals’ ecology and the conflicts they face and aid future conservation directions.
Persevering for the Persecuted
We were also there to assist Rob James, a Ph.D student from the University of Brighton in England. James’ research will determine how lethal carnivore control and resource availability affects the population dynamics of the black-backed jackal on game farms. Our objectives included:
- assessing scavenger species presence, abundance of foraging (dead animals) and breeding ecology
- assessing availability of food for scavengers
- investigating the effect of community composition on biodiversity
- promoting coexistence of humans and wildlife
Scavengers serve an important purpose in the wild. They act as a sort of recycling service, cleaning up organic material such as dead animals and waste, which helps reduce disease.
Scavengers, though, are heavily persecuted in South Africa. Farmers hunt jackals and hyenas they find near livestock killed by other predators—a fatal case of guilt by association.
The slender black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) is a long-legged, medium-sized canid with a pointed, fox-like muzzle. The black and silver saddle marking on its back gives this species its distinctive appearance and name. They are the country’s most persecuted scavenger. They still occur in large numbers throughout South Africa, except in many farming areas. However, they are only safe from persecution in wildlife and nature reserves and national parks.
Brown hyenas (Hyaena brunnea) can be distinguished from other hyena species by their long, shaggy coats and pointy ears. They have dark brown or slate-colored coats, short brown tails and striped brown and white legs. Cream-colored fur around the neck in adulthood forms a distinct mane, which, along with the hair on the hyena’s back, stands erect in aggressive or defensive situations. The species numbers less than 1,700 in South Africa according to current estimates. Many live on unprotected land where they can be shot, poisoned, trapped or hunted with dogs.
Traditional herbal medicine in South Africa, an indigenous practice known as “muti”, also contributes to declining numbers of all kinds of animals. Muti healers claim hyena bones, for example, help them commune with their ancestors. Some people believe smoke from a burning hyena tail held under a door puts the home’s inhabitants to sleep, making it easy for burglars to steal property undetected.
Mankwe provided the team’s base camp, but our research also took place in the adjacent Pilanesberg National Park. The varied landscape at both includes grassland, woods, scrub and thicket habitat. Differences between the two sites give researchers more opportunities to assess how scavenger species fit into the ecosystem.
Mankwe covers approximately 12,000 acres and contains a variety of “prey” and large mammal species and more than 300 bird species. It’s surrounded by a “predator-friendly fence” with gaps big enough to let hyenas and jackals cross back and forth but not let larger prey species out. Antelope species (often prey) include impala, kudu, zebra and blesbok. Warthogs are also common. Sixteen white rhinos live on the reserve. Besides hyenas and jackals, predators include caracals, servals and the occasional leopard.
Pilanesberg National Park stretches across 132,000 acres. It’s situated in an ancient, extinct volcanic crater with a predator-proof fence at the crater’s base. Pilanesberg is home to predator species such as lion, leopard and brown hyena as well as elephant, buffalo, hippo and both black rhinos and white rhinos. It’s surrounded by villages, so what lives on Pilanesberg stays in Pilanesberg.
Getting in Gear
During our first few days we were trained to use navigational equipment, such as a range finder (to determine distance) and a handheld GPS, and identify tracks and feces. We also learned about the complications involved in managing a reserve and some of the challenges faced by those who try to make a living through conservation.
Over several days, we divided into two groups and set camera traps in the two reserves. Each group set four to five. The motion-triggered cameras helped us record black-backed jackals, brown hyenas, caracals, genets, servals, civets, owls and leopards making their nocturnal rounds. The data helps researchers learn more about population densities, territories, social behavior and diet.
We strapped the cameras to trees throughout different sections of the reserves to provide good representations of the whole area. They were set at specific GPS coordinates separated by roughly six kilometers to make it unlikely the same hyena would visit two cameras the same night. We placed them about 75 centimeters above ground—the average height of a hyena. The sites were then baited with organs or meat secured by metal L-shaped stakes pounded into the ground. Bait for the camera traps came from animals on the game reserve. Kudu and wildebeest were the most common bait.
Each group also went “spotlighting” during evening game drives. At Mankwe we could use open-air trucks for this activity, but at Pilanesberg we traveled in secure vehicles due to the threat posed by the park’s more dangerous residents such as lions, leopards and elephants.
Two volunteers, one on each side of the truck, swept the surrounding landscape looking for “eye shine.” When something was spotted, everyone with binoculars tried to figure out what it was and if it was something we needed to record, which was pretty difficult. We were interested in all the predators we saw, as well as prey species of the jackals and hyenas—so steenbok and springhares qualified but larger antelopes did not. We attempted to identify the species, distance and location along the set route of each sighting.
During sunlit hours on some days, we drove specific transects to look for hyena and jackal scat. Gathering fresh scat allows Rob to collect DNA from the samples later at a university lab. The data helps him assess populations at each site. Finding scat in a vehicle moving 20–30 kph is also not easy.
As part of the game reserve management activities, we also got to walk across Mankwe with a ranger to count large mammals such as giraffe and rhino. It was a rare opportunity to be out in the wild with amazing animals. This census data gives management a snapshot of the current population of species as well as their distribution in the reserve. Other activities included visiting previously known dens of jackals and hyenas to see if they were currently occupied.
Some days included anti-poaching patrols and rhino inventory. There are two kinds of poachers found in game reserves and national parks: those who poach for meat and those who poach critically endangered white and black rhinos for their horns. Mankwe’s white rhinos are counted daily by the reserve’s rangers, who are constantly patroling for poachers. Unfortunately, despite such vigilance, tragedies cannot be entirely prevented. At Pilanesberg, even with several Earthwatch and lodge trucks spotlighting, a rhino was poached during our last evening game drive.
Carrying the Torch
At Mankwe, managing the reserve’s populations and their food supplies is a balancing act that also involves the controlled burning of grassland vegetation.
An explosives factory happens to lie within Mankwe’s borders, so preventing fire from lightning strikes is critical. Fire breaks are created to protect various areas. But controlled burning is also used to move animals around, kill ticks that spread disease, and improve grass nutrition by getting rid of pest grass and allowing nutritional grass to grow in abundance.
To accomplish all of this, the reserve is divided into four quarters and each is burned every four years. The controlled burns are only done on days with favorable wind conditions that facilitate “cold burns,” which are aligned against the prevailing wind direction. This helps control the direction of the spread and keeps firebreaks stable.
During one of our last days at Mankwe, our team was allowed to participate in a controlled burn. The fire was started in one corner of the site. Then well trained rangers used metal rakes to gather dry grass, which they set on fire. As they moved through the area, the fire spread at a slow burn. We acted as “beaters”, armed and ready to put out any stray embers carried by the wind.
During this process, only the grass burns—trees easily survive. Because the burn happens so slowly, animals are able to move out of the way.
On our last morning at the reserve we could have slept in. But I wanted to soak up every possible second, from sunrise to sunset, in this special place. It had been the experience of a lifetime. Participating in research and conservation programs in Africa was only part of the reward. I’d met amazingly dedicated people. I’d witnessed how challenging it is to manage a wildlife reserve and protect the animals entrusted to its care. It’s renewed my own dedication to caring for the animals here at Lincoln Park Zoo.
Jill Gossett is lead keeper at Regenstein African Journey. Her trip was made possible by the generosity of zoo donors Mary and Bruce Feay, who support annual field expeditions for Lincoln Park Zoo animal care staff.
SLIDESHOW: South African Journey
Past Earthwatch Expeditions
Update from the Arctic
Lead Keeper Anthony Nielsen shares digging up permafrost in the Arctic to study climate change, a trip made possible by the Feay Earthwatch Grant.