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Sunday, July 1, 2012

The very lucky safari family or "Not a good day to be a porcupine."

I wanted to write something special for my 100th post and have had my heart set on telling our African porcupine saga. It isn’t that I have any shortage of things to write about. We have just finished our Conservation Field Camp and I have more I can post from that. The Cuddeback Attack in out half-hedgerow has been getting some nice displaying woodcock video. And I am currently writing this entry while in the Chicago airport waiting to meet family in Yellowstone National Park. But all of that will have to wait…
M'tanganika (center) our guide in Tanzania
(8/11, Tanzania)
Last August, our family vacation was a photo safari to Kenya and Tanzania. As I have mentioned in previous posts, we travelled through African Servalcat Safari and have nothing but great things to say about their service. Every detail was arranged for us. Our guide in Kenya was William and over the course of the ten days we spent with him he became a part of our extended family. So it was an emotional departure at the border between Kenya and Tanzania. William handed us over to M’tanganika with a handshake and some instructions. “John likes to look at the birds and Laura wants to see a leopard in a tree.” M’tanganika said he would do his best!
Guides from Kenya are not allowed to work in Tanzania (and vice versa) so we spent our final leg of the safari with M’tanganika with Leopard Tours. I am not sure if ALL the guides in this part of the world are as capable and friendly as our two were or if we were just lucky. Our experience in Tanzania was every bit as flawless as our time in Kenya. And it was in Serengeti National Park that we had our most dramatic encounter. Four species of mammal and two species of birds played a role in the drama that unfolded. In addition, the entire story occured with no other visitors present! In the midst of one of the busiest national parks in the world, we found solitude. And that made the experience all the more enjoyable.

I can still hear M’tanganika’s voice in my head as I remember him telling us how the day would unfold. With our agreement, we would load into the Land Rover with our camera gear, binoculars and boxed lunches, turn off the radio and “disappear into the bush”. This style of searching for wildlife was a point of pride for him. He made a point to tell us more than once that there were many guides out there that would merely listen to the CB radio chatter among the guides in order to find game. We would have our own adventure and feel that sense of accomplishment that comes with earning your rewards. We all liked that idea. So much so that Danika took to calling the other guides “vultures” for feeding on the information left-overs…
Crested porcupine
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
The rules of the Park say that vehicles must stay on the existing tire tracks  worn into the ground. There were plenty of those tracks to choose from. And it seemed everywhere we went, there was wildlife. We found a pride of lionesses and cubs that totaled 21 in all. We saw all three species of jackal. We saw a leopard – in a tree of course. And we saw birds. We were all having a fantastic time. As we rounded a bend I saw a shape ahead of us that my mind kept telling me was a bear cub . I knew I was wrong and convinced myself that I was SO wrong that it wasn't even an animal at all. But as we got closer it moved and I knew what it was: a crested porcupine.  This is a vastly different species than the porcupine of North America. For more info on "our" porcupine, view this entry from Bearly Alyssa

Hyena and crested porcupine
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
We were so excited to see this animal out and about in daylight. Our guide said this was only the third one he had ever seen in his entire life and the other two had each been dawn sightings. We were so excited by our find that we never thought to ask "Why?" -- as in "Why WAS this porcupine out of bed in the middle of the day. We snapped a few photos and continued on our way. We progressed about 10 minutes down the road when M'tanganika suggested we turn around and try another route. That suggestion made all the difference in our safari! As we reapproached the porcupine, I could see that it had retreated into the bushes and a spotted hyena was very close by. I assumed the hyena was harassing the porcupine but as we got closer, I could see the hyena was eating something.
Spotted hyena eating crested porcupine
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
At first, we thought the hyena was eating young porcupines. I did not know that more than one porcupine adult would be found in a den, so it was a logical (if incorrect) conclusion. In addition, the size of the item the hyena was eating was small.  In the photo to the right you can see a few quills sticking out of the hyena's mouth.

Spotted hyena trying to remove porcupine
quills (8/11, Serengeti National Park)
The story was beginning to unfold. We knew that the hyena had killed a porcupine (still thinking it was a juvenile) but we had yet to meet all of the players. As I was taking photos, my daughter Danika was taking video. This first clip is about two minutes long and shows some interesting behavior. In the photo on the left you can see the hyena trying to work some quills loose from its mouth. In the video, I call this tool use and I stand by that assessment here. Using a woody branch or forb to remove quills from its mouth, the hyena was utilizing an object in a novel way. There is no one definition of "tool" so there is no consensus on what constitutes tool use. This hyena never modified the vegetation so that it performed the required task better, so perhaps this is akin to an animal rubbing against a tree to relieve an itch. Comments welcomed!

Here is the first segment of video shot by my daughter Danika Van Niel:

The bat in the video turned out to be an Egyptian slit-faced bat. They are known to live in porcupine burrows and as this video shows, that includes active ones. There turned out to be two bats present and we watched them fly in and out of the den several times. I have one nice photo of a bat here:
Egyptian slit-faced bat
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
In addition to this photo of a perched bat, Danika was able to snap a picture of one in flight:
Egyptian slit-faced bat in flight
Photo credit: Danika Van Niel
(8/11, Serengati National Park)
Spotted hyena carries crested porcupine carcass
(8/11: Serengeti National Park)
But back to the hyena.... At the end of the video clip, the hyena was cleaning its mouth of quills. Apparently, it had gleaned all the meat it could from that meal and was ready for more. We watched as it entered the porcupine den and since we were still under the impression that it had killed a young porcupine, we thought it was going for another. After a few short minutes, the hyena reemerged with its actual kill, the mate of the live porcupine. What a sight! The hyena could barely lift its head high enough to keep the carcass from dragging on the ground. Our guide kept telling us that we were a very lucky safari family to be seeing such sights. We agreed.

It is easy to cast the hyena in the roll of the villian. It is creepy looking. It laughs in an almost maniacal way. And we often have a soft spot for the underdog. But as the events unfolded, we began to feel sorry for the hyena too...

With the carcass removed, the remaining porcupine immediately headed for the protection of the burrow. Check out that foot in the second photo.

Watch another clip from Danika's video. It is a little over two minutes long and you get to hear the "laugh" of the hyena as it echoes from underground as well as our genuine reactions of suprise and amazement as the hyena emerges with the porcupine kill. As the video ends, we notice several other hyenas coming in to try for a bit of food.

I have some really graphic photos of the hyena tearing apart its meal, but I will leave those for class. Here, let me post one that is only sort of gross :)

Spotted hyena eating crested porcupine
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
Within two minutes of this hyena bringing its kill to the surface, other scavengers took notice. First, it was a handful of hyenas. Our original hyena stood its ground!
Spotted hyena defending its kill
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
In the end, the hyena had to relinquish some of his kill. He kept the biggest chunk for himself but lost out on some of the smaller pieces. It may be a better idea to loose a little to keep a lot and stay safe rather than try to have it all. Then the vultures arrived. I will have to consult my journal (not with me at the moment) to determine the species, but I do remember that there were two kinds. Here is a nice shot of the vultures soaring in. They never did get any of the meal...

At one point, Laura prophetically comments that it would be awesome if a lion came in and stole the kill. Well, a lioness saw the vultures decend and knew what that meant. M'tanganika was the first to spot her charging across the plains towards the scene laid out before us. In the photo below, you can make out a small dot in the upper center -- that is her.
African lion approaches hyena with kill
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)

As the hyenas notice the lion, they scatter. As she rushes into the scene, she is unable to locate the food. She trots from one hyena to the next trying to locate the food. When she didn't find anything, she went to see if the vultures had the food. That gave the hyenas the opportunity they needed. Two of them rushed to the carcass and each managed a small chunk of food before the lion rushed them and claimed the "lion's share" for herself.

The first thing the lion did was to lick the kill. I am not sure why. Maybe she had previous experience with porcupines and knew to smooth out the quills. Maybe she was licking off blood and getting some nutrition. Perhaps it was a way of replacing the hyena scent with her own. Maybe it was none of these. But it did make for a nice photo.
African lion claims crested porcupine carcass
(8/11, Serengeti National Park)
After only a few bites, she picked up her carcass and headed back in the direction she came. A few hyenas followed, hoping for some scraps. We watched her depart knowing that we had just witnessed something truly amazing. If I had to select a single photo from the entire African safari as my favorite, it would be the one below.

Notice the position of her ears. She is looking ahead but listening behind. The reason is evident in this photo:
African lion with trailing hyenas
(8/11, Serengati National Park)
An hour had passed since we started. We were hungry, hot and drained. Only one hyena remained; THE hyena, the one that started it all and made the original kill. It did not follow the other hyenas. He watched as the vultures flew off. When he was alone, he turned and headed to the porcupine burrow to procure another meal...

EPILOGUE: We waited for another hour. We had no idea what was happening underground -- whether the hyena would be able to repeat his feat or not. We waited. We decided to eat our box lunches. The smell of our food wafted into the porcupine burrow and out popped the hyena, seeing if he could get an easier meal. We of course, did not feed him. But as he stared at us intently, we could see the evidence that below our feet was a fight for life. Once the hyena concluded we were not a source of food, it headed back into the burrow. We left before the final chapter was written.


  1. Wow! Incredible stuff, JVN! I've never been to the old world....what a treat for you to experience that with your family....

  2. Alright John, I'm impressed :) If you should ever have the opportunity to give the full account of this trip at FLCC, I hopefully will be invited! Perhaps the President of TWS will set it up?

    I saw another porcupine tonight just after I read this earlier- so many porcupines!!!

  3. What an adventure that was! such experiences are pinned to the heart of a wonderful trip,Happy to be part of your memorable trip to Kenya and Tanzania.
    Hope to serve you again in future,
    Sylvester Mwendwa.
    African Servalcat Safaris.

  4. Great post John. Life and death on the African plains can sometimes be a bit distressing - but its always fascinating.

  5. This. Is. One. Amazing. Story!

    Porcupine quills have been reported to kill predators, so this hyena apparently was either lucky or an expert:

    Would you add the bat photos as a citizen-science observation to the AfriBats project on iNaturalist?:

    AfriBats will use your observations to better understand bat distributions and help protect bats in Africa.

    Please locate your picture on the map as precisely as possible to maximise the scientific value of your records.

    Many thanks!


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