Today’s guest blogger is Lucy Hughes, an undergraduate working with us since “Serengeti Live” (Snapshot’s predecessor). Lucy lived and worked on a private nature reserve in South Africa for four years, carrying out field research that included a camera-trap study into the reserve’s leopard population and twice monthly bird surveys for Cape Town University’s Birds in Reserves Project (BIRP).
Brown Hyena !!! The shout went up so loud I don’t think I really had need to pick up the radio and call head office with the news. The news being I had just got around 30 camera-trap images of a brown hyena polishing off the remnants of a waterbuck carcass followed by several shots of a rather disgruntled looking leopard whose meal I suspect it had originally been. This was news because in the 20 something year history of the reserve no one had ever spotted a brown hyena. The camera-traps had done it again; they had shown us something we didn’t know!
The brown hyena replaces the striped hyena as you move from eastern to southern Africa. Larger than its striped cousin, it rivals the spotted hyena in size and has a rather shaggy appearance, looking more dog-like. It is, like its Serengeti striped counterpart, a tantalisingly elusive creature with few sightings in the surrounds of my study area, South Africa’s Lowveld. In fact, in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, it has been hotly debated for years as to whether they are even present in the park — that is, until a camera trap study finally came up with concrete evidence of their existence there.
This is the beauty of camera traps. They lay there in the bush performing tirelessly capturing image after image, both mundane and exceptional. Admittedly pictures of impala and zebra passing by are not hugely thrilling even though they give us valuable insight into the ecology of these animals and are the mainstay of any research project. Every once in a while though a camera-trap captures something truly remarkable and this is every researcher’s magic moment. The thrill that pulses through you when you click from one repetitive shot to something totally unexpected is addictive. Some of you have probably experienced it when working through the snapshot Serengeti data. Camera-traps are wonderful tools that help researchers gain valuable insight into the animal world with minimal human disturbance and their place in the field will continue to grow.
As for my brown hyena, in two years he passed through the study area on average once every four months turning up in every corner. (It was a tiny study area compared with the Serengeti.) A camera-trap even captured a brown hyena using its anal gland to paste a blade of grass. Unfortunately we never knew how many individuals used the area as it was outside the realms of our study, but this side track from our leopard survey shows what a powerful tool a camera-trap is. You never know what the pictures might tell you about the wildlife in your area, be it your target species or one of the many others that make up the ecosystem.