The Hyaena Diaries
Hyaenas have established a tentative home in the outskirts of Maharashtra’s Mayureshwar Wildlife Sanctuary. Mihir Godbole, Milind Raut, Viraaj Apte and Siddhesh Bramhankar followed the feliforms and urge that such ‘marginal’ wildernesses’ be protected.
Photo: Milind Raut.
It was a cold winter morning in December 2009 when we left Pune to check on one of the wolf packs that we regularly monitored in the dry, scrub habitat of Maharashtra’s Mayureshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, 72 km. away. We arrived before sunrise and halted on a small hillock that commanded a panoramic view of the surroundings. As dawn broke, we spotted movement in the apparently empty landscape. Just beyond, stood a striped hyaena, still and fearless. After watching us for a few seconds, he unhurriedly moved away.
It was a surprise encounter since the creatures are nocturnal and seldom seen. Determined to find out more, we decided to monitor them as well.
Photo: Viraaj Apte.
A Tiger in the Grass
While enquiring about wolves, we often heard from locals of a tiger (wagh) being spotted around their villages. Well aware that there were no tigers in this habitat, we dismissed their claims as exaggeration. The striped hyaena sighting, however, got us thinking. Could their stripes have led the villagers to mistake them for tigers?
We visited these areas extensively to crosscheck reported sightings, covering much of the ground on foot, over several months in 2011 and 2012. Once, we chanced upon a pathway, mostly used by village cattle, where we came across hyaena tracks that we followed to a natural waterhole. We decided to focus on this area and monitored the waterhole for several days, working shifts through day and night. No luck. Then early one morning in February 2012, a female hyaena with a small nick in her right ear turned up at the waterhole. After quenching her thirst, she moved on to a patch of undulating terrain with rocky outcrops and dense scrub forest. We continued to observe her at the waterhole over the next few days, and she followed the same pattern… disappearing into the scrub after a quick drink. We had struck it lucky and in time discovered a whole series of dens used by the hyaenas.
Photo: Mihir Godbole.
The Elusive King
Thereafter we tracked this female regularly at the den site, and discovered that she would spend considerable time outside the den, even after sunrise. One morning we saw another hyaena approach the den site. As it drew closer, we could see that it was a huge male. He approached the site, sniffed around for a bit and settled down. Shortly after, our female arrived. She had possibly sensed his presence long before she reached the den. She approached cautiously, and a confrontation ensued with a lot of vocalisation. Eventually, they retreated to different, adjacent dens. We christened the male ‘Hyaena King’ because of his enormous size.
Not surprisingly, these two paired up. Predictably, locals soon began reporting sightings of two tigers! It was peak summer and the two began visiting the waterhole regularly, making it easy for us to track them back to the den site.
On one occasion, the female approached us much closer than usual and this surprised us. Of course we knew she was aware of us, but she normally kept a much longer flight distance, barely even acknowledging our presence. When we returned to base that evening, the images revealed the reason for her uncharacteristic behaviour. Swollen nipples indicated she was a nursing mother. Her pups made her extra cautious and protective around the den site. Suitably warned, the next day onwards, we kept our distance and only observed them through binoculars. To our delight we soon saw the pair with three pups. The denning site had been carefully chosen, and was located in one of the remotest parts of the landscape. With virtually no disturbance, the pups were able to gambol around outside the den even after sunrise.The pups stayed with their parents until November that year. They gradually began to move out on their own, and would sometimes vanish for days on end. But just when we thought that they had moved away permanently, they would return to their parents. By January 2013, however, the pair was on its own again. The pups had become independent and had found territories of their own.
That year we decided to observe their denning activity in more detail. We set up a hide near one of the frequently-used dens to watch them closely without disturbing them. Though we kept regular track of them, sightings actually decreased and then stopped completely by March. To put it mildly, we were extremely disappointed. We searched nearby areas with the hope of locating them, occasionally finding a few signs… but no actual sightings. Then, one day, we saw the female emerge from a thick patch of grass. In her mouth she held a pup, barely one-month-old. It was a beautiful, heart-lifting sight. She walked slowly and confidently, directly to the den. One by one we watched as she brought out all her pups. We had just witnessed one of those ancient survival strategies used by hyaenas and many other carnivores – the shifting of den sites.
By September of the same year, we heard that a hyaena was being seen regularly with pups close to the main road just outside the village. On our very first visit, we found three pups hanging around a den surprisingly close to the main road. A short while later, a female hyaena emerged. Much to our surprise and delight, it was the female from the original pair we had observed, easily identifiable by the small nick on her right ear. After feeding the pups, she walked in the direction of the first den site, watching out for danger on both den sites. That she had littered twice at such short intervals astounded us. The female would only visit the den in the morning and then leave soon after feeding her young ones. The male accompanied her just twice to the second den site and for the most part, the pups were on their own. After a few weeks we saw two pups from the second litter with only one from the earlier one, we wondered whether the second litter might have been motivated by the loss of one. So very little is known about the breeding habits of these hyaenas that we can only guess. Clearly much more scientific field study is needed.
Photo: Siddhesh Bramhankar.
Food sources and feeding habits
After several visits to other potential hyaena-inhabited areas, we found several other active den sites. Clearly a healthy population of hyaenas find sustenance in the area. We were curious to know which food sources such a relatively large population depended on, in a largely human-dominated landscape. A close examination of den sites provided us with vital clues. Poultry feathers were strewn about at every den site. Interviews with poultry owners revealed that 20 per cent of their birds die before being slaughtered and that these carcasses are dumped outside villages, thus offering food for both hyaenas and wolves. Dead cattle and village dogs too are eaten by hyaenas. At one regularly monitored den site, we invariably found dog carcasses, and even saw an old female hyaena chasing down some dogs.
For us, the joy of watching these hyaenas came with mixed feelings. We worried about their future. Pune’s hyaenas face a multiplicity of threats. Prime among them is, of course, habitat loss. Currently these populations survive in an agriculture-dominated landscape, largely a mosaic of private farmlands, forests, government lands, and pastures set aside for domestic livestock grazing. Agriculture is increasingly becoming unviable due to the high cost of irrigation and other farm inputs. Thanks to its proximity to Pune, land commands high rates and farmers are prone to selling off their holdings to real estate developers. These lands are then converted into townships, thus destroying the natural habitat of all grassland species.
Other threats come in the form of road-kills and poaching. As roads cut across these grass and scrub lands, speeding vehicles mow down animals at an alarming rate. Hyaenas dispersing to new areas are particularly at risk. Poaching is also a real and present threat. Though hyaenas are not actively killed by people in these parts, we have come across some such incidences. Often they are killed and their hides passed off as tiger skins. Some tribes believe that their body parts have magical and medicinal value. Hyaenas also occasionally litter in porcupine dens, but porcupine meat is considered a delicacy in some parts and hyaena pups get killed when hunters looking for porcupines encounter them. The adverse impact of chemically-tainted poultry (which humans too consume at a cost to their health), and diseased dogs can only be properly understood through long-term studies.
Photo: Mihir Godbole.
While the nation’s focus is justifiably on the more charismatic animals, in the best-known wildernesses, we hope our ‘Hyaena Diaries’ will help to awaken our nation to biodiversity that is being lost because of our propensity to write off what are considered to be ‘marginal’ wildernesses. If these areas receive even a modicum of protection, many more species than just hyaenas will benefit.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, December 2015.