Donovan Antonie, a senior ranger at Mountain Zebra National Park (MZNP), scratches his head and gently nudges the zebra’s skull with his scuffed boot.
“Lion?” he asks Dan Van de Vyver, a predator researcher from Rhodes university.
“Yup,” replies the scientist, his H shaped antenna held high; his eyes straining out across the dome shaped mountains of the Karoo. “They made the kill a little further up by the service road, but jackals, and perhaps a brown hyena dragged the carcass down here.”
‘Oooh,’ I think to myself ‘A brown hyaena. Now wouldn’t that be something?’
I am standing on the side of an acacia strewn hill overlooking a landscape of golden grassy plains and rolling mountains.It’s typical Karoo. Vast vistas and oversized skies blended with an overall dash of dryness despite it being summer (the wettest time of year).
Don and Dan and a few other SANParks staff are scouring the ground for signs of hyena activity. But, sadly, we encounter none.
It’s been like that all day.
“We reintroduced three of them to the park in 2008,” says Don, “but we see them rarely (if ever at all). Brown hyenas are smart you see; smart,silent, illusive, wary of humans, and unfortunately, completely without collars.”
Within a few months of being released, all three radio transmitters failed or fell off, leaving the research team with no reliable way of tracking their newly freed hyenas.
“We know they were breeding here,” says Don,“because we picked up youngsters on a camera trap, but that was some time ago, and since then we have released three lions into the park.”
The presence of lions (the first to roam the area for well over a hundred years) should, on the face of it, be a very good thing for brown hyenas. After all, most of their food comes from scavenging kills.
“But we don’t really see evidence of their presence anymore,” Dan tells me. “I mean, it is entirely possible that jackal activity could mask a hyenas footprints, but take a look at this zebra skeleton here. There are no teeth marks on it. No tell-tale signs that a brown Hyena has eaten.”
The sun beats down on us whilst flies, enlivened by the summer heat and the whiff of decay, buzz around our heads like excited little protons.
In years gone by, the death of a mountain zebra would have been bad news. After all, the species was so close to extinction in 1937 (when the park was gazetted) that there were literally only a handful left. But since then the zebra’s lot has improved dramatically, and there are now somewhere in the region of 800 running free across 28412 hectares of wild open space.
“We can afford to lose some to natural processes,” says Don as we get back into his patrol vehicle. “In fact, its SANParks mission to conserve whole ecosystems and restore biodiversity rather than just to protect individual species. That’s why in 1997 we reintroduced buffalo, followed by black rhino, and Gemsbok.”
But that was just the beginning of a much larger plan to restore the ecological integrity of the MZNP, and in 2007 the first big predators (cheetahs) were introduced.
“We ended up with 32 from a founding population of just five,” Don tells me as we drive towards the lowland areas of the park passing herds of Eland, zebra and wildebeest en-route. “And all that in just 4 years. Eish! There were antelope corpseseverywhere. Vultures are absent from this region you see, as were Hyenas.”
SANParks decided it was necessary to bring in brown hyena to clean up the mess.
Spotted Hyena were considered (and they still are on the list of possibilities for the future), but unlike browns, spotted hyena are known to hunt big game.
“We don’t yet know if MZNP is large enough to support another big predator,” Don tells me. “We shipped out most of the cheetah (now only 5 remain), brought in the brown hyenas and then, eventually, we let our lions loose.”
“My research,” says Dan,“aims to understand the interactions between the park’s Lions and cheetahs and their prey, and, if the collars hadn’t malfunctioned, the brown hyenas too.”
We park off at the base of a mountain next to a flooded dam where blacksmiths plovers and black winged stilts patrol muddy shallows, leaving rows of little footprints in their wake.
There are other footprints too. Jackal a plenty, storks and cranes, mongoose, civets, baboons, vervets, lions and cheetah too. But as for brown hyena? Nada!
“We have remote cameras in the park,” says Don as he attends to a boxy infrared unit attached to a tree. “And if and when we confirm the presence of a brown hyena on a photograph, we will go place a baited cage trap in that area in the hopes of capturing it.”
“The idea is to get some radio collars on our hyenas again so we can at least find out if they are doing well, doing badly, breeding or not breeding. We just don’t know. There could be as many as 10 in the park right now. There could be far fewer. ”
There might, in fact, be none.
I peer over at a concealed wire and metal cage that is hidden next to a game trail near the watering hole. There is meat hanging in it. Tasty, tempting, aromatic meat. But no hyena. Only flies.
“They’re so suspicious,” says Dan looking disappointed. “The merest whiff of a human and they turn tale and walk away. It makes them damn hard to catch. They’re even wary of our camouflaged cameras.”
“They chewed one up once,” interjects Don. “Put teeth marks all over it, but they didn’t leave a selfie for us.”
I am starting to wonder if indeed there are any brown hyena left in MZNP. Perhaps the Lions killed them. It happens sometimes and besides, these particular hyena would have been naïve to the dangers of big cats.
They had never seen a lion before. Perhaps they had been careless at a kill and allowed themselves to get too close.
Growl, snarl, swipe, crunch….Game over little hyena. Game over!