The Striped Hyaenas – A Taxonomic Relict
The cold desert wind had picked up speed and the temperature had plummeted to less than two degrees celsius. It was possibly one of the coldest nights of January 2008. Savoji, my field assistant and I sat still and silent.
We had taken all precautions; the wind was blowing against us, the buffalo carcass was emitting a repulsive odour and we sat in the shadows of the ziziphus shrubs, ensuring that not even the cleverest of hyaenas would be able to sense our presence. Three hours of discomforting silence in a winter chill, an inadequately-clad and consequently numb body and a carpet of sharp-edged pebbles acting as a seat can possibly kill the enthusiasm of the most dedicated hyaena watchers. The lack of any activity had begun to take a toll on our spirits, until a sounder of pigs, forced us to leave the place. After a series of similar unsuccessful adventures, I gave up my pro-active strategy of searching for hyaenas and decided to wait for the elusive animals to reveal themselves.
Northwestern India is primarily characterised by arid ecosystems which are unique in their ability to support life. The arid tracts of western Rajasthan support higher human and livestock densities than those of any other desert region in the world. Nonetheless, life is a struggle for most of its denizens. The paltry rain that reaches this part of India, decides to what extent the ‘marusthali’ (land of death) lives up to its name. Each year thousands of cattle die due to shortage of fodder and epidemics. Since most cultural groups in this region refrain from consuming dead livestock, scavengers like the striped hyaena find life relatively easy.
Though striped hyaenas inhabit diverse landscapes, they show a decided preference for arid and semi-arid ecosystems. Their distributional range spans across northern Africa into east Africa, through the Arabian Desert and into India right to the shores of the Bay of Bengal. Across much of their range, they evoke a strange fear and loathing among most humans.
I spent six months in western Rajasthan trying to understand the clandestine life of this much-maligned, enigmatic carnivore. Within a span of 40 days, I covered over 700 km. on foot, recording geographical coordinates of each hyaena spoor, scat or den encountered. This involved spending several nights sitting besides rotting livestock carcasses, in the hope of seeing my ever-elusive study animal. While I frequently encountered hyaena signs; I saw no hyaena!
Horses of witches?
Savoji, by then, had begun to withdraw his original hypothesis of the area having over 2,000 hyaenas! Frequent sightings of hyaena spoors and scats often mislead local communities into believing that the species is abundant. News of my desperate attempts at recording every hyaena signature had started mystifying the village folk. Given that hyaenas are believed to be ‘horses of witches’ by most rural communities in this region, I was beginning to wonder if they suspected I was the witch! I was often cajoled by people to abandon my study and move to the more charismatic leopard. In fact, Savoji had taken it upon himself to initiate this transformation and began showing me only leopard signs instead of the relatively more abundant indirect evidences of the hyaena.
While several reasons can be attributed to the prevalent attitudes of people towards hyaenas, two of
them stand out clearly. All wild animals are opportunistic and hyaenas are no different. When scavenging opportunities exist, not surprisingly, they resort to that. Often, this makes people associate the species with death, a bad omen. Also, hyaenas are often mistakenly believed to be able to change their sex, which adds to the mysticism associated with them. For the record, adult striped hyaenas unlike their spotted brethren have normal genitalia and even amongst juveniles, it is possible to identify their gender. Considering that spotted hyaena distribution is restricted to the African continent, misconceptions egarding the hermaphroditic nature of the striped hyaena have possibly crossed continental boundaries without much physical evidence to support them.
Superstitions associated with the hyaena often result in the species being killed for its hair and other
body parts which find use in sorcery and witchcraft. The animal’s body fat is also used in traditional medicines dispensed by quacks. Pastoral communities often lace livestock kills with pesticides and set carnivore dens on fire when targeting leopards and wolves and this takes a toll on several species, including the hyaena. The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, categorises the striped hyaena as a Schedule III species, giving it the dubious distinction of being the only large carnivore in this Schedule. My field study revealed that like most other large carnivores, the hyaena too is seeing bad times. That most hyaena habitats are not covered under the Protected Area Network of parks and sanctuaries only makes life more difficult for them. The key challenge they must face is the constant alteration of habitats thanks to developmental activities, urban spread and an ever-expanding road network.
Joining the dots
During my days in the field, I realised the importance of secure denning sites for hyaena survival. In western Rajasthan, where natural vegetation is sparse and provides little cover, hyaenas take to the hills during the day. My first hyaena sighting in the region, took me by surprise. I found the individual resting within a cluster of boulders in the middle of an agricultural field. In time I realised that hyaenas are masters at adapting themselves to circumstances that give them an edge on survival. With the crop harvested, the field attracted little human presence and the boulders provided a perfect hide-out during the day. I began to notice the importance of hills in such landscapes. These hills composed of large boulders, have cavities within them that provide good denning sites that shelter nocturnal animals. The unrestricted quarrying for granite in western Rajasthan casts a dark shadow on the future of not just the hyaena but most other large carnivores of the region.
According to scientific studies, the striped hyaena spread to its present range from a single Pleistocene refugium, which was possibly in Africa. Under such circumstances, the species harbours low genetic diversity. Thus, any threat to the current hyaena population could have serious implications for the species as a whole. The hyaena occupies a niche in tropical ecosystems that can only be poorly substituted by other carnivores. While the species is highly adaptable, how long will it be able to hold its own amid a sea of man-made disturbances? The hills that provide safe lairs to the hyaena are crushed to provide raw material for roads, which in turn act as killing fields for this nocturnal species further expediting their collapse. Unless policy changes are brought about to protect wildlife outside Protected Areas, there is little hope for large-ranging carnivores including hyaenas and wolves.
By the time my study ended, I was able to see hyaenas more than once. The magic was difficult to describe in words. But they are naturally wary of humans and I witnessed one young hyaena demonstrate his anger by snapping twigs when we approached closer to his resting site than he wanted. I also saw one steal vegetables from a bitter-gourd field! On most occasions I was provided glimpses of individuals trotting up hills, and taking off like the wind on sighting us.
While most researchers focus on the more charismatic predators, my experience with hyaenas was amongst the most rewarding experiences of my life. I still keep track of my subjects from time to time and know that the cluster of dens that played home to the young hyaena and his family I studied still offers succour to hyaenas. And despite having to spend those cold winter nights alongside rotting carcasses, I would not change the experience for the world. I only hope that studies such as mine are able to convince our government to take timely measures to provide a safe haven to the striped hyaena, India’s most specialised scavenger and that it continues to enrich our culture for centuries to come.
By Priya Singh