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Workshop for the Hyaena Distribution Mapping Project (HDMP)

    The IUCN Hyena Specialist Group together with external collaborators are updating global range maps for all members of the family Hyaenidae; Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), Striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), Brown hyena (Parahyaena brunnea) and Aardwolf (Proteles cristata). Range maps for these ecologically important carnivores have not been updated since 1998.

Hyaena Distribution Mapping project

This ambitious project began in June, 2018, since then the Hyaena Distribution Mapping Project has compiled over 100,000 data points from hundreds of sources across the vast range (Africa, Asia, and Europe) of the four species, including researchers, protected area managers, government agencies, environmental NGOs, and various online sources and citizen science platforms. This data will be used to update the Red List Assessment for each species as well as in the publication of a new IUCN Status Survey & Action Plan. Moreover, a quantitative status update is desperately needed in order to determine and justify conservation activities in a new action plan.

The key collaborators had carried out a three-day Workshop at the Ongava Research Centre (Namibia) in order to review the available data, to delegate core tasks, and to discuss and analyse the large amounts of information collected by such diverse means. Personally, it has been a great pleasure to meet exciting researchers with a common interest in hyenas’ conservation and an amazing experience to present my PhD project. Moreover, HDMP has collated a wealth of threats and density information through this data collection process, including many unpublished studies. Therefore, it is expected that this tremendous sampling effort will result in the most comprehensive dataset collected for any of the Carnivora yet, enabling a detailed conservation assessment of these species and the influences impacting their sustainable persistence in increasingly humanized landscapes around the world.

Translocation of three black rhinos

   The event of translocation in wildlife conservation has always been exciting and subject to scrutiny. Even more when the species that is going to be translocated is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN and there are around 5,000 individuals in the entire world. Black rhino translocation has been one of the major conservation efforts for the survival of the species. Normally it is from breeding areas or areas with a high population density to new habitats, where the carrying capacity is still low and there are effective protection programs, rhino sanctuaries.

Black rhino (Diceros bicornis) – Critically endangered (IUCN). The main threat is poaching for the international rhino horn trade. Rhino horn has two main uses: traditional use in Chinese medicine and ornamental use.

Black rhino (Diceros bicornis) – Critically endangered (IUCN).
Black rhino (Diceros bicornis) – Critically endangered (IUCN).

The best and greatest of my participation in a rhino translocation was that it came as a surprise, which has always a special feeling. Everything started when I was participating in the Workshop on the development of lion and hyena national recovery and action plan (2019-2024) in Kenya. Then, by chance, I realized there was a translocation event taking place in the Nairobi National Park the day after. After a few conversations, I managed to be present at this exceptional event.

Although each event is unique, there is always a general pattern. The translocation starts really early in the morning when a special team ― a combination of professionals; rangers, scientist, veterinarians, filmmakers and students ― received the last safety instructions for the rhinos and for the participants. The human team requires three trucks with three containers to transport the chosen individuals to Tsavo National Park, four cars and one helicopter to succeed in this enormous task. Teamwork and synchronization is essential to reduce the danger and the stress of the rhinos, and to decrease the time they will be under sedation.

 

 

The helicopter has the responsibility of rounding them up after which they are immobilized by veterinary doctors. Then, the team on the cars approaches and everybody proceeds with their duty; fecal sample collection, body measurements, implantation of transmitters, tissue samples extraction, health control…

 

 

Working close to a sedated rhino is always intense and sometimes happens that the individual may suddenly stand up when everybody is working around it. Therefore, being always ready for the unexpected to happen is key for a timing reaction and for the well-being of the animal.

A sedated rhino standing up before expected.
A sedated rhino standing up before expected.

Introducing the rhino into the container is also a delicate moment. The team is at the back of the rhino helping it to get inside the container when the rhino is receiving the antidote. Again the organisation is crucial to succeeding without any harm for the animal and the members of the team.

 

 

At the moment that the individual is inside the container ― clearly marked indicating the presence of a live animal―, the transport starts and it ends with its release in a new area, but this  will be another story…

Truck lifting the container―with the rhino inside― for its translocation.
Truck lifting the container―with the rhino inside― for its translocation.

The story behind the first documented cheetah in Sibiloi by an international team

Three photographs, an unfinished story.

   It has always been said that science is a matter of patience. This story is a clear example of it.  Almost a year ago, in April 2017, the Global Change and Conservation (GCC) team carried out an interdisciplinary study in Sibiloi National Park, northern Kenya. Among all the interlinked projects, one of them worked with camera traps. Several camera traps were located in different areas to increase the lacking knowledge of current species living in Sibiloi. At times, working with camera traps can be uncertain, cameras not working and not recording anything, cameras being places wrongly and cameras vanishing from where you have placed them.

Camera traps ready for fieldwork.
Camera traps ready for fieldwork.

Sadly, the story started with the GCC team experiencing the disappearance of two camera traps. The team reported the equipment missing to the Kenya Wildlife Service, responsible for the security of the park.  The report was more for the upcoming future work than for the chances to recover the missing cameras. The project had planned a long-term study with an increasing number of camera traps. Therefore, the loss of two camera traps during the first testing was not a good signal.

One year pass by and the GCC team came back to Sibiloi National Park to carry on the long-term multidisciplinary study. During one of the busy fieldwork days and for our surprise, we received one camera trap and a single memory card. They were reported missing one year ago! Finally and unexpectedly, we got them back but… How did they recover them? Why there was a single memory card without the camera trap? These are questions that we still do not know the answer and perhaps we will never know.

Surprisingly, it was not until later at night when we decided to have a look at the memory cards. Checking for possible photographed species by these old-missing camera traps…

Almost one year later, an amazing surprise was waiting for us, a cheetah was photographed by one of the disappeared camera traps! The first ever recorded photograph of a cheetah in Sibiloi National Park.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, especially due to habitat loss and fragmentation. In addition, cheetahs are killed by farmers in retaliation for livestock attacks.

Moreover, when having a closer look at the picture, we realized that the photographed cheetah is carrying a prey, but what is it? Is it a livestock? Is it a wildlife species? By increasing the image we recognised the prey was a grant gazelle!

Excitingly, this specific camera trap was recording for only 6 hours before it was taken away. Nevertheless, from these 6 hours, we discovered an interesting sequence of fewer than 4 hours. The first three pictures of the camera trap were:

06/04/2018 – 06:39:12 – Camera trap placed by one of the researchers.

06/04/2018 – 07:39:35 – Cheetah carrying a grant gazelle.

06/04/2018 – 10:12:31 – Livestock grazing in the area.

This sequence of photographs taken in less than four hours hides interesting questions behind. What do carnivores feed on in Sibiloi? Do carnivores survive by killing wildlife, livestock or both?

This story, as this long-term project, has not yet an end. Further research needs to be done to elucidate these important questions. In addition, patience with the work done has been shown to be rewarded, sometimes one year later and sometimes even longer…

Mara Hyena Project

Who has never dreamed of Maasai Mara?

Sunrise at the Maasai Mara.(Picture by Miquel Torrents-Ticó)
Sunrise at the Maasai Mara. (Picture by Miquel Torrents-Ticó)

    My dream became real and even better that I have ever fantasised before. I had the great opportunity to receive field training at the Mara Hyena Project, in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. This opportunity was amazing, as I was trained in the observation of hyena behaviour, radio tracking, procedures for immobilizing spotted hyenas and basic ecological monitoring methods. Basically, it helped me to improve my knowledge to set up an effective study of spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta).

The first time I saw a hyena was at early morning, before sunrise, at the den, where some cubs came out after the arrival of one adult hyena. Male or female? Impossible, only when she started feeding them I realized she was a female indeed. Sexing hyenas for the first time is quite complicated due to their shared elongated phallus.

The experience of being close to a hyena clan with more than 50 members is inexplicable. Although up to 90 individuals, all clan members are rarely, if ever, found together in one place. Instead, individuals are found in group mates along their home range. It is at the den where one can see most of the clan members and the complex interactions between them, which undoubtedly teach us about the evolution of sociality and intelligence.

In addition to this peculiar carnivore, this majestic landscape offers the viewer an astonishing wildlife spectacle, in the same view one can see numerous species of herbivorous such as African buffalo, African elephant, grant gazelle, giraffe, Thomson gazelle and topi. Black-backed jackal, cheetah and lion are also easy to find in the area.

Therefore, I would always be deeply grateful to Professor Kay E. Holekamp and the Mara Hyena Project for this amazing opportunity. Now it is time for the next adventure in Sibiloi National Park in northern Kenya.

Hyena Mara Project.
Hyena Mara Project.

 

Fieldwork preparation

    Happiness, nervousness, excitement, worriedness…Preparing fieldwork is somewhat of a contradiction, you feel like a boiling soup with numerous blend of feelings, and this soup is even more spiced when you prepare the first fieldwork of your PhD.

Fieldwork does not start when you are in the field collecting data and not even when you are flying to the study area, it begins a long time before one can even remember. The first thoughts are too imprecise that they end up in unclear notes. Nevertheless, overtime and after more preparation, these initial blurred notes become material lists, protocols, field sheets…The success of the fieldwork has become your priority and your goal.

In the field, you normally think you have the entire responsibility and pressure of the work that needs to be carried out. Nevertheless, even when you think so, you are never alone, you will always find help from everyone around you, researchers and local communities work together to sort out the issues that will appear on the way. You dream of everything being ready on time and under control, although you know all your plan could be turned upside-down in a blink of an eye. You are aware that in the field there will be great moments, but also difficult situations that will push your patience and your skills to a new level. Indeed, fieldwork means getting out of your comfort zone and learning new abilities.

The last days before the expedition are especially hectic, last preparations, meetings with the supervisors, dinner with friends, and questions and more questions. Will the field material work well? Are all the permits ready? Is there anything missing? These are the type of questions that you face before any fieldwork, some of them are possible to answer beforehand, but some others will be answered during the journey. Taken together, these questions prepare you for the uncertainty of the upcoming future.

The last night before flying, the fieldwork soup has been slowly boiling for a long time. Soon it will be time to taste the results, the mix of feelings has become the passion. Passion because everything you have been working for is there in front of you and you are ready for it.

Ready to take of to Masai Mara.
Ready to Maasai Mara.

Sibiloi, an expedition with multiple methods

   A variety of techniques have been developed to survey terrestrial mammal populations. The efficacy of these field techniques varies across species and environments. To select the most appropriate technique for a given situation, conservation scientists and managers require a clear knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of each potential technique. Therefore, studies combining and comparing different sampling methods in different species and in a variety of areas are extremely valuable. In our last expedition to Sibiloi National Park (Kenya), the Global Change and Conservation team combined different monitoring terrestrial mammals’ techniques ­live trapping, spoor surveys and camera trap sampling-, which allowed us to document the current terrestrial mammal composition status of the area.

Live trapping is used mostly for small and medium size terrestrial mammals, but may not be suitable for species that required specialized techniques. Trapping techniques need intense effort, they are time-consuming and, in some cases, their high costs limit the size of datasets. Animal capture has the disadvantage of keeping the animal in the trap, with the potential to stress it and alter its normal activities. Many trapping options exist such as modified Hickman live traps baited with sweet potato for subterranean rodents, British Longworth traps for colder climates, Collapsible Tomahawk traps for squirrels and small carnivores, and pitfall traps for mammals under 10 g. The use of bait or not is still in debate. In our expedition, we used Sherman live traps that have become the standard foldable.

Spoor surveys are one of the oldest known methods for identifying mammal species living in an area and include direct observation and signs identification, including scats and tracks in dust, mud, sand or snow. Many studies conduct spoor transects along dirt roads with soft surfaces that register animal footprints and, by using vehicles, spoor surveys have the advantage of allowing extensive distances to be surveyed. It is difficult to determine the age of tracks, which are vulnerable to human and climatic interference and substrate differences. Aerial surveys are frequently used for estimating population densities and trends for large mammals, but this is an expensive option. In our expedition, spoor surveys were carried out along 3 km transects in different habitats -grassland, riverbed and bush-.

Spotted hyena tracks.
Spotted hyena tracks.

Camera trap sampling has become an increasingly common method for surveying carnivore populations. Camera traps use motion- and heat-sensing infrared technology to collect data on a diversity of species, in all types of weather conditions, and without the need for an observer to be present. This technique is considered as a non-invasive, where images of wildlife species are recorded with a minimal disturbance to the animals. However, recent studies suggest that the emission of light (flashlight) and sound from camera traps can be disturbing. Camera traps allow individual recognition by their unique marks, permitting estimates of density. However, the start-up costs of camera trap surveys are expensive. The camera model and how it is positioned affect the likelihood of image capture success. Camera traps may also be vulnerable to damage or theft. In our expedition, camera traps were located along transects and in opportunistic locations.

Check the On the Right Track? publication to learn more about comparing camera trap sampling and spoor surveys.

GCC for the First Time: Initial steps of the journey

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Starting the journey from the remote Sibiloi National Park, Kenya. (Picture by Miquel Torrents-Ticó)

   The 1st of August I opened my eyes and I didn’t know where I was, it was not my bed, after a few seconds of bewilderment I remembered I was starting a new adventure in Helsinki, Finland. I looked at the watch, I have not changed the time yet.  It was very early, here the rise and fall of the sun acts in his own way, but I could not sleep more. I was excited to jump to the new day with my new group, Global Change and Conservation (GCC), part of the University of Helsinki.

Nobody knows the exact instant in which my relationship with GCC started, it was long time ago since I contacted them for the first time. During this time, I have been in two expeditions to Sibiloi National Park, Kenya. I discovered this amazing location and I met their friendly people, but perhaps most importantly, these experiences stimulated the solid decision to be part of the group and develop my own conservation research project. As happens sometimes in life, all these thoughts were crossing my mind on that first day, on my way to the University and I felt I was ready.

The first month is always confuse. However, everything seemed to be under control when I received my own desk, my sanctuary. Here, from this reduced space of the university I started meeting colleagues and learning their diverse and exciting studies. In such environment, with people open and always happy to help, I have begun to analyse some social data collected during the last expeditions.

Taking together, it has been a demanding month. On Fridays, it is stimulating to participate on the weekly journal club, an excellent place to discuss and learn. I have been lucky enough to be invited at the last Metapopulation Research Centre (MRC) Annual Meeting in the beautiful Åland Islands. It was a great opportunity to meet the rest of this large and multidisciplinary group. But above all, I understood the significant history and the scientific impact of the MRC, by listening all the conferences. Moreover, I gave a brief presentation about my proposed study on `Human-Hyena interaction in Kenya`. And of course, writing funding applications has been the pillar of my existence.

If there is one thing I wish I did more, I would say going to the sauna. An important part of Finnish tradition, a place for quiet reflection or noisy meeting. The classic experience combines sauna hottest temperatures with a dip in the sea, which in a few months this will mean ice-swimming.

Where have the time gone? Today is 1st of September and the time has slipped away. I open my eyes and I know the new month will begin with new challenges, but this is still to come.