Thursday 17th December 2015

Heinous hyaena harassment

Although our experience of wildlife watching on the Little Rann of Kutch was generally positive, with excellent sightings made of animals and birds going about their business peacefully, and us observing them from a suitable distance and not disturbing them, a case concerning Indian Striped Hyaenas came to our attention that I found deeply distressing and distasteful.

It is perhaps hard for many people to feel sympathy for hyaenas, animals which are seen as leering scavengers that show no mercy towards their victims. However, these preconceived negative impressions refer mostly to the African Spotted Hyaena, which epitomises many people’s most horrifying animal nightmare.

Few naturalists are even aware that hyaenas occur not only in Africa, but also in India, where the much more discreet, almost gentle, Striped Hyaena can be found sparingly across the north of the subcontinent, nowhere conspicuous and mostly nocturnal. It is usual solitary or occurring in small family groups, and is not often seen.

My grandfather F W Champion managed to obtain tripwire photographs of Striped Hyaenas several times in the 1920s and 30s, mostly in the Lansdowne Forest Division, where they have now virtually disappeared, but I have never yet managed to connect with this secretive animal. Rosemary and I came close at the Velavadar Blackbuck National Park, where a German guest observed a hyaena in broad daylight sheltering from the bright sunlight under a tree…but he was berating his guide for showing him a mere hyaena, when as he put it, “I came here only for ze vulf (the wolf)”!

A Striped Hyaena photographed by F W Champion in the 1920s

On one of our morning safaris from Desert Coursers camp, we were offered the possibility to observe a hyaenas’ den, and as I knew that the animals would almost certainly be safely tucked up underground at that time of the day and so would be unlikely to be disturbed by our presence, I accepted.

Visiting this den was an eerie experience. The den itself was in an area of slightly raised ground made up of compacted sand, and there were several holes into which the hyaenas retreat during the daytime. They had a specific area as their toilet, in a collapsed tunnel entrance, showing that they are hygiene-conscious animals. Fresh urine could be seen in the sand in one of the entrances, indicating that a hyaena had fairly recently been in or out.

The hyaenas had one specific toilet area

The den had several entrances

The entire den area was completely encircled with bones including nilgai and dog skulls, all absolutely white. Some pieces of dried hide were also to be seen, but apart from one area where I did catch the scent of rotted flesh, the whole area was remarkably clean. My feelings were only positive towards these hyaenas, who were going about their task of clearing the surrounding area of carcasses, transporting bits of them here to consume them in peace and feed their young. I found the whole scene surprisingly moving, in a macabre sort of way.

The area was littered with clean bones and skulls

I should have been alerted to what was coming by the presence of large numbers of human shoe prints (to which we added) in addition to the hyaenas’ own paw marks. This place was far from being an unmolested site, although the Forest Department had dug a ditch that would be impassable to vehicles some distance away.

More of the bones left by the hyaenas around their den

That night, our hosts sent one of their drivers to check the den area at dusk, with strict instructions not to approach or to disturb the animals in any way but just to see if they came out of the trees and onto the open sand, in which case we might be able to see them the following night. What he found was deeply disturbing. Four vehicles were apparently present, with loud chatter and obtrusive noise being made, and the occupants leaving the vehicles and approaching the den on foot.

But what was far worse was the report that he received from one of the other drivers of an unscrupulous resort owner throwing a firecracker into one of the den entrances in order to force the hyaena family out so that his clients might obtain photographs of the startled animals.

I cannot vouch for the veracity of this story, but if it is true, then I see that as the most despicable, grotesque form of wildlife tourism I have perhaps ever heard of. Striped Hyaenas are unobtrusive members of India’s mammalian fauna, and they are already hard-pressed enough as it is, suffering as they do from habitat destruction and persecution, and it is difficult enough for them to find a quiet home where they can go about their daily lives in peace. And then when they do find a place, in a protected area, they suffer the abuse of being forced out of their underground home by unscrupulous resort owners throwing firecrackers into their dens.

The Forest Department authorities must be aware of such activities taking place in this protected zone, with vehicles involved, but they do not seem to be taking sufficient action to prevent such behaviour (although the digging of the ditch had impeded the vehicles from driving any closer). Perhaps money had been passed in order that they might look the other way. Whatever the explanation, such actions have no place in wildlife tourism, and will only result in there being no hyaenas for anyone to photograph.

Another hyaena caught by my grandfather F W Champion’s tripwire camera trap in the 1920s

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