Life and death can be a strange thing. Here at the IAPF we recently had the opportunity to see how the death of an animal can have an emotional, educational and cultural effect on people from very different backgrounds.
A call came out across the radio that the rangers had picked up the spoor of a wounded spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) that appeared to be moving towards a large dam. A few nights previously, we had heard the distinct sounds of fighting between hyenas but had since seen or heard nothing else. After some expert tracking by rangers John, Chelepele, Senzani and Paul, the animal was finally located.
It had sustained major injuries to its flanks, rear legs and neck. Paying little attention to us, it chose to wash its wounds in the dam and then lay in the shade. After about 45 minutes, it slowly regained some strength and began to limp off.
At this time we where unable to either treat or euthanize the hyena so all we could do was follow it and keep a close eye on its condition. It’s surprising how often an animal, which appears to be on the brink of death, can make a recovery when given a bit of time and space. However, this time it was not meant to be. The hyena lay down in a small stream (presumably to keep the flies out of its wounds and shelter it from further attack) and died just after nightfall.
The next morning we recovered the body and transported it to the Wild Horizons Wildlife Trust www.wildhorizonstrust.org , where visiting vet Dr. Foggin, began work on the autopsy. During this time, the IAPF’s Green Army had a family of five from the UK/Australia visiting and they had been with us through the whole experience. We watched as the staff and volunteers of the Trust dissected and took samples from what was now determined to be a young male hyena of around 2 years old. The wounds seem to have been sustained during a fight with other hyena, most likely from another clan. There is often little space for competition, especially in a hierarchy like that of hyenas where the males sit at the bottom of the food chain. Necrosis had already settled in on the neck wounds and even had we tried to sedate it, it’s unlike that he would have survived.
A huge thanks has to go to Dr. Foggin, Roger and Jessica from the Wildlife Trust, their volunteers Becky and Anna and of course the Wright Family, whose 13-year old daughter’s interest in the whole thing was inspiring. She even managed to convince the vet to measure the hyena’s intestine, which turned out to be roughly an incredible 15 metres in length! We will now preserve the skull so it can be used here on the reserve as an educational tool and hopefully this (natural) loss of life will not be in vain.
In the end, this hyena showed everyone involved something about the world we live in. The educational aspect of showing people how hyenas are built, their incredible muscles, crushing jaws and even the stomach contents which held complete pieces of bone, including a piece of vertebrae!
The emotional aspect, as some people find the “gory” scene of an autopsy a bit much to take, especially when they saw the animal living and breathing less than 24 hours previously. Also, there is a cultural aspect, which is often lost on us. For most “Westerners”, this animal is a necessary part of the African bush and environment, one we strain our necks to observe from the back of a safari vehicle. We tend to forget that they may be held in a completely different regard for the people who were born and raised here.
In many African cultures the hyena is seen as an “evil” creature, often the messenger of the Sangoma (witchdoctor) and parts of its body hold very magical properties, especially the tail. I had to confirm with our ever-brave chef Hope and some of the rangers that the tail was indeed still attached when we collected it and that yes, after the autopsy the body would be burned. Most of the guys here did not even want to see the body and seemed visibly relieved when it was gone. These are educated and intelligent rangers, who spend everyday in the bush. I wouldn’t say they feared the hyena but once dead, they where glad to see it gone before it could “fall into the wrong hands”. In this light, is it really that much different between the way we see the use of rhino horn compared to the way it’s viewed in Asian countries such as Vietnam? Definitely food for thought.
However, whether it is indeed a witch’s steed or simply an unfortunate individual who moved into and area where he was not welcome, and paid the price, this hyena certainly had an affect on the property and all of it’s inhabitants during its short time with us.
Go well hyena, and please don’t curse our chef on the way.