URBAN HYAENA PROJECT
Globally carnivore populations are in decline. The distribution and abundance of carnivores is affected by anthropic pressures including habitat fragmentation and degradation, human-wildlife conflict and hunting. As the global population expands, carnivores living closer to humans are decreasing in number. While extensive studies have been conducted on ecology of carnivores, fewer studies focus on urban ecology of carnivores which is of research interest because villages, small towns, and rural farmland can prove difficult for carnivore adaptation. Previous research of human influence on spotted hyaena has focused on east Africa, where some hyaena-human coexistence has been studied in urban settings or protected areas.
Hyaenas of Lilongwe
Believe it or not, the capital city of Malawi (Lilongwe) has a healthy population of urban spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta). We have been working in community areas since 2013 to understand the ecology and drivers of conflict between people and spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) in urban areas in Malawi. Malawi is characterised by high population density and our work has identified high levels of human-hyaena conflict outside protected areas.
We are working to understand the behavioural ecology of the urban population (including spatial behaviour, clan composition and diet) to inform conservation and human-wildlife conflict management. We conduct a variety of research and conservation activities as outlined below.
Our team frequently deploys GPS collars on our focal hyaena clans in order to follow their spatial movements.
The use of GPS collars allows us to monitor spatial patterns and determine cluster points, which are areas of interest to study the elusive urban hyaena. By exploring these cluster points, we discover new dens and latrine sites. These, in turn, help us determine potential locations for the placements of our camera traps and the collection of scat.
Currently, deployment of GPS collars is focussed on male hyaenas, that are around the age of 2/3 years. These hyaenas are expected to start dispersing in order to find other clans and potential mates. This is phenomenon is called male-biased natal dispersal, which prevents inbreeding as the females of a clan are philopatrical and thus permanently stay in their natal clan.
The cross sections allow us to look at the medula and cortex of each individual hair. The medula and cortex of the hair of each species has its own characteristic shape and size that allows us to identify the species that the particular hyaena has eaten.
Over the past eight years CRM has conducted research on the diet of hyaenas in Nyika NP, Kasungu NP, Liwonde NP and Lilongwe. This research entails collecting hyaena scat, washing it and sorting its components in pre-determined categories. After the hair has been separated from the other components, a diet analysis is performed by using the cross section methodology.
Often, our camera trap data also provides us with an insight into the clans diet. On numerous occasions, we have seen the hyaenas bringing dead stray dogs to the den. Given the amount of stray dogs in Lilongwe, it's no surprise that they make up a large part of our urban clan's diet.
CRM monitors hyaena dens in order to understand factors why specific dens are are used. In various different sites in and around Lilongwe, we take measurements of the potential hyaena dens that we come across. We record any signs of activity such as loose soil resulting from scratch marks, left over pieces of prey, urine and faeces.
Hyaena survival and breeding behaviour
Hyaenas are often maligned and suffer from a lack of understanding through a history of negative myths and legends. This is often compounded when hyaenas come into close contact with humans such as in Lilongwe, where they are often feared.
We are monitoring three clans in the city and are using satellite collars to track their movements and record new den sites. Once we find dens we monitor them and set cameras to record activity over the year. Through cameras and tracking we are able to identify key population parameters such as birth and death rates to assess the status of the population.
We aim to raise awareness of the hyaena to dispel myths and misunderstandings and use field research (GPS tracking and behavioural research) to quantify spatial and foraging behaviour to inform human-wildlife conflict mitigation in Lilongwe.