Hyaena, where art thou?

Black Hyaena Down – the search for Betton by chopper

A quick recap of our collared hyaenas, four had been collared last year, Chomma, Betton, Bill and Hermione. Earlier this year in February we had a helicopter flight courtesy of the Bateleurs and wonderful pilot Eugene, where we managed to find Chomma and Bill (click here for the full story) but that still left two hyaenas M.I.A. – hyaenas we were desperate to find.

Betton was collared first, and so her collar was due to fall off first as well, on May the 27th, our first flight was right after this day, so we were technically looking for the collar to recover rather than the hyaena. This collar has not been downloaded from yet, so it carried over a year’s worth of valuable data for Katy’s PhD. Katy had organised with Eugene to fly for a couple mornings and evenings to search for Betton’s collar in his super cool ex-French military helicopter. We flew for a total of four flights which equated to 7.2 hours.

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But despite Katy and Sam pouring over maps and fastidiously planning sweeps across the mountain, we did not get a single sausage. Nothing! When I went up I had a false alarm – I got very excited. But sadly it was just interference. It is beautiful to fly over the Soutpansberg, and I would get excited to see where I’d hiked from the air.

‘There’s the cave painting rock’,

‘Oh, station 12!.’

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Once you get north of the mountain you also see a lot of game running around – even some giraffes. It is amazing to see them from the air. But still, I’d rather have seen nothing and got Betton’s collar. It could be literally anywhere because we have not the slightest inkling of where she went.

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We haven’t given up though and we are hoping that a local landowner might find the collar lying on their farm. Katy wrote an article for our local newspaper, the Zoutpansberger, (click here to view article) and Oldrich did an interview on the radio station, Jacaranda FM, to inform landowners about our search for Betton’s collar.

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Hyaena Ninjas Go! – the search for Chomma

Chomma is a lot easier to find than Betton because we have already downloaded a year’s worth of data from her collar. Katy mapped out her range and also her potential den sites. She often would divide her time between one den and another den, which could indicate that she spends time at the main den and also has a den with her cubs. (Brown hyaena cubs are kept separate from the rest of the clan in the very early stages.)

With these two points on a GPS, Katy and I set out in the afternoon to try and find Chomma and download from her, but also to drop off her collar as it will be falling off soon, and it would be better to drop it off in a location we know. The first location was the one Katy thought could be the cub den, and was less likely to have Chomma at this point (She may have moved them to the main den by now.) Unfortunately Katy hadn’t got hold of the owner to ask permission to go on the land, so we went as far as we could up the road and were trying to listen with the VHF much to the bemusement of a couple cops, who asked what on earth we were doing. As they drove off, we saw the manager’s bakkie driving away. Nooo! Katy and I sprinted with the VHF in a very ungainly fashion and the cops kindly got him to stop so we could catch up. He turned out to be a lovely person who gladly let us have a look around to try and find Chomma. By the time we got a reasonable distance to the den though and the VHF was still very quiet, we figured she must be at the other den.

So we had no time to lose. We needed to be in position at the den before the sun sets and the hyaenas wake up. We dashed away to the other den site. We drove to about 300 metres away from the den. There was no signal from the VHF. Time to go in on foot. We don’t know if Chomma’s den was a rocky cave or burrow in the sand, and it was a bit of a mix of rocky and sandy areas as we clambered towards the GPS point.

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We snuck up to a handy rocky outcrop some 200 metres from where we guessed the den was. It was a quiet evening and I winced with every branch that snapped loudly. Also, imagine trying to undo a zip or velcro while trying to be sneaky, it doesn’t work. So Katy and I sat from our vantage point as the sun slipped down the horizon, waiting for 6 o’clock to arrive so we could work the UHF. The VHF receiver reported the thump thump thump of Chomma’s presence. 6 o’clock came, and the UHF didn’t work. Oh no! Yes, so we’ve had some problems with the UHF recently, but we’re a bare 200 metres away! How could it fail us now? We couldn’t work out if it was distance or a time problem (the UHF internal clock was also being unreliable), so we decided to try and get closer. The sun had pretty much set by this point, and we moved closer to the den, as a huge full moon rose to light the way. The VHF signal faded in and out, which I think was to do with Chomma perhaps moving in and out of the den before she decided to head out for the night. We eventually got some 50-100 metres from the den site and tried again with the UHF, but alas, nothing, despite a very loud VHF signal.

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I have to admit, sometimes the VHF signal would suddenly get louder and clearer, and I’d be very much aware of how close they were, and where we were. We were on a little rocky clearing surrounded by bushes, and I definitely felt a little exposed. The rational side of my brain pointed out that brown hyaenas are very shy scavengers and will run away from humans. The irrational side of my brain was pointing out that look, two women all alone on the mountain side right by a den of wild animals with big teeth that might have cubs and what if they feel threatened and want to protect any cubs they might have? The rational side said to shut up, we might get to see a brown hyaena and that would be awesome. Still, Katy and I inched a little closer to each other.

My internal debate aside, it was very frustrating to know that Chomma was right there, and yet we couldn’t get the data. We couldn’t drop the collar either, seeing as we couldn’t connect to the collar. We also didn’t want to move any closer, brown hyaenas will move dens if there is too much disturbance around them. So we were kind of scuppered for the night. Despite trying for a very long time, eventually Katy called it, and we walked back to the car guided by torchlight and the beautiful full moon.

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Later on in June Shannon and I picked up the search for again. By this time the collar had dropped off Chomma and we spent a fair bit of time scrabbling up and down the koppies with VHF antennas each but for the life of us we couldn’t hear the collar. There was definitely evidence of hyaena activity but we couldn’t find any obvious den. It is possible that the collar didn’t drop off at this den site and it’s now somewhere else across her large range. So another heads up to everyone in the Soutpansberg area, if you happen to come across a GPS collar, give us a call, it might just be from Chomma or Betton.

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– Sophie Tuppen, PPP Research Assistant

Photos taken by Sophie Tuppen and Shannon Finnegan

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