Masai Mara Hyena Research

You don't expect to find a beautiful blond woman studying hyenas alone in the heart of the Masai Mara. Carrie Hampton spent time with such a woman and found she had a fascinating story to tell...

A small tented camp guarded by six-foot tall, red-robed Masai warriors, is not the type of place you expect to find a beautiful Californian woman with crystal blue eyes, luxurious long blonde hair and a handshake like a vice.

One of Santa Barbara's more intrepid residents had been working in unusual places for many years, but had never been quite this far before. Deep in the heart of the Masai Mara bush, she allowed me a glimpse at her unique lifestyle and recounted some of her bizarre every-day experiences.

Paula White is a professional biologist with a BSc in Biology from University of California Santa Barbara, a Masters Degree in Wildlife Management from University of California, Berkeley and a PhD in something similar. She travelled ten thousand miles to the East African wildlife haven of Kenya in order to add her considerable research experience to a sixteen year study of Masai Mara Spotted Hyenas.

This was originally started by Lawrence Frank of UC, Berkeley, in 1978. The somewhat solitary lifestyle of field researchers is more than made up for by the simple pleasure of living at such close proximity to nature.

Unlike many of the Masai Mara game reserve tourist lodges, there is no protective fence around this camp and hippos, lions, elephants and buffalo are at liberty to wander as they please. Nonchalant big-bottomed Baboons descend surreptitiously from the safety of the tress to wander through the quiet camp loooking for an opportunity to raid the food store.

Knob Hill And Lone Tree

No tourist ever came to this camp. There were just four tents: two used as sleeping quarters, a kitchen tent and a storeroom. A pale grey canopy is strung between the broad boughs of a sprawling Fig tree to provide shelter for a dining area. At 6am every morning and 5pm every evening, Paula and her colleagues head off in an old green land-cruiser, in search of members of the eighty strong clan of hyenas, who have been studied here for many hyena generations.

Their territory spreads across rolling grass hills and valleys, bordered by muddy creeks and patches of dense bush where landmarks such as the 'lone tree' - a solitary prickly Acacia, help them find their way back to camp. Unfortunately this did not work quite so well for me and I got hopelessly lost when everywhere I looked I saw a 'lone tree' just like the one I wanted. I discovered 'knob hill' was a more distinguishable landmark to save me from wandering aimlessly around the plains of the Masai Mara.

Testosterone Overdose

Paula took me to see 'Jabba' - the newest mother in the clan. Her den was a customized abandoned Aardvark burrow, in which she had given birth to her twin cubs. Round teddy-bear ears peeped above the leafy bush as two almost cute jet-black week old cubs came out to play. I had previously despised the hyena for its scavenging aggresive nature and ugly sloping appearance but quickly changed my mind when I witnessed scenes of great maternal tenderness and a complex social structure.

Scientists have found that their aggressiveness is due to the presence of abnormal amounts of hormones, particularly testosterone, in both males and females. The cubs are literally bathed in this male hormone in the mothers womb and emerge with a strong fighting spirit.

Painstaking research has resulted in identification of specific hormones responsible for this highly aggressive behaviour and tests are being carried out to analyse whether the same hormones may play a significant role in uncontrollable human aggressive behaviour.

The nursing dens can be long and deep and a camera probe mounted on what appeared to be a child's remote-controlled battery operated car, is sent down the hole to observe the cubs behaviour. One occasion when it got well and truly stuck, Paula - being the smallest of the research team, had to go in head-first to recover it.

She knew the aggressive cubs were safely on the other side of the wedged probe, so she crawled reluctantly into the dark narrow passageway. Her reluctance was not at the potential danger, but because she had just had the luxury of a long hot shower at one of the lodges and was for once feeling fresh and clean.

The full length of her body dissapeared into the tunnel until only her feet were visible from the entrance. Finally it was within reach and she grabbed the probe shouting 'Pull!' through a mouth full of dirt. Three feet under and six feet in, she hoped, with repressed panic, that her colleagues would hear her. They did, and dragged her out triumphantly clutching the precious probe and covered from head to toe in clinging red dirt.

Seals With a No Go Territory

This was not the first time Paula had to grovel around in the dirt in the name of science. Studying Fur Seals in Alaska as trying to find out why their numbers had not recovered from pre-exploitation levels. It had been discovered that the only way to safely enter a breeding colony of huge angry males weighing over six hundred pounds, was to ascertain the boundaries of each male's territory and crawl in along the borders, on your stomach. The males then fake an attack but stop short at their invisible boundary with a one foot no-go area between each territory.

'You just hope to hell you have not got it wrong' said Paula, shuddering as she remembered how terrified she was every time she did this. I asked her how scientists ever found out that this was the only way to go into the seal rookery to tag study animals. Paula said 'I believe they they found out conclusively when two researchers fell into a rookery from an observation platform.

One panicked, stood up and began to run through the colony, the other lay still. The first man made it only a few yards before he was brought down and ferociously killed. The other was repeatedly attacked as he slowly crawled his way through the territories and was badly injured, but alive!

Montana Wolves

In Montana's Glacier National Park, Paula meticulously tracked the much maligned and endangered wolf, to help understand them better and try to ensure their survival. On cross-country skis, she followed them from early morning to dusk, camping in remote log cabins if too far from base camp.

When many tracks converged indicating a frenzied hunting attack, she knew she was very close to a kill. It was not the wolves that worried her, but the possibility of coming face to face with a highly dangerous grizzly bear, who might have been polishing off the wolves meal of deer, elk or moose. Contrary to popular belief, bears do not hibernate all Winter, and can often be found roaming around the forests during warm spells.

Paula told these stories as if they are every-day occurrences and not potentially life threatening situations. She told me about a terrifying underwater river crossing in Washington state, a close encounter with a grizzly bear in Alaska and being adrift three hundred miles from land when the engine on the research vessel from which she was carrying out a marine survey, blew up!

A Wonderful Place

We sat at camp, chatting by flickering candle light (because the battery connecting the fluoroscent light had burned out), eating a meagre evening meal of bread and soup (because the food delivery had not arrived from Nairobi that week). A tall thin Masai watchman brought us hot sweet tea and then disappeared silently into the shadows.

I suggested that compared to some of her other experiences, she must find life in the Masai Mara very comfortable. As she balanced precariously on a wicker chair leaning dangerously at nose-height to the table and I on a wooden box (the only seat from which you could actually reach the table), she agreed what a wonderful place it was.

Being so far from the coast, Paula admitted to yearning for some west coast seafood and the sound and smell of the ocean. To make up for this she treated herself to a fine seafood meal whenever she undertakes the five hour drive to Kenya' capital city, Nairobi.

Paula's life is never dull and I realised that here is a very special woman who does not live within the normal boundaries of experience. She is dedicated to science and the understanding and protection of wildlife, and after just a few months in the Kenya bush, she said she could not imagine ever wanting to leave.

Postcript: 2002 - this Masai Mara hyena project has now come to an end and Paula returned to California to continue her intrepid research into other mammals. Other research projects in the Masai Mara still continue.

Copyright © 2002 Carrie Hampton. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.

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