USIKU’S STORY: PART 1

Projects: Wildlife Emergency Response Unit, Wildlife Centre and Hyaena Re-introduction – Rescue & Research
Project sponsors: Olsen Animal Trust.
Project partners: Department of National Parks & Wildlife, Conservation Research Africa

‘Big Mama’

Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, still boasts diverse wildlife but the remaining fragments of habitat are under immense pressure and wild animals are increasingly coming into conflict with the rapidly expanding human population. In July 2014 the government alerted us to a clan of hyenas within the city that were coming into conflict with the local community and were at risk of being killed. With agreement from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife we intervened to successfully capture 4 spotted hyenas with the aim of relocating them to Liwonde National Park. After a stay at LWT’s Wildlife Centre (delayed longer than originally planned due to unprecedented floods that year) the release was rescheduled for April 2015.

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Capture and translocation of 4 hyaena

Usiku is born

On 27 March the dominant female of the clan (originally named RC4 – release clan 4 – but affectionately named Big Mama by the team) gave birth to a cub whom we called Usiku. Initially Big Mama nursed Usiku well, but unexpectedly abandoned her on 12 April, just one day prior to release.

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Usiku health check at 1 week old

It was an extremely tense time for the team as we tried to balance the welfare of the hyena cub against those of the adults and the likelihood of success of each of the options available. Should we delay the release? Take Usiku down anyway and see if they re-bonded?  Keep the cub in captivity or give him a chance in the wild?  After much debate, it was agreed that Big Mama was unlikely to care for her cub during and post-release, and therefore the clan would be released and Usiku left at LWC for care and rehabilitation.

Growing up at the Wildlife Centre

Usiku spent the next year being raised by our staff and a small team of volunteers.  Our view was always to give him the best chance of survival in the wild, and it was a delicate balance ensuring he got the comfort but also the minimal human contact to give her the best possible survival in the wild.  As soon as it was possible to move him from the orphan care centre, he was moved into a 1800 m2 natural enclosure.  Just four staff members went to his enclosure on rotation to put out food in the early evening because we want to limit human contact.  Habituation to humans would increase the risk of him coming into conflict with communities putting both himself and people in danger.  But this also means that we don’t have many photos since then!  Here are some when he was young, before he moved into the big enclosure.

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Usiku at 2 months old before he was moved to his big enclosure.

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In the big enclosure – spots are coming on nicely!

To release or not to release…

As hyenas are highly social animals that live in clans, it is best that Usiku live with his own kind back in the wild.  The likelihood of more hyenas coming to LWC, especially in the short term, is slim. Hyenas live up to 20 years or more in captivity, and this would not be a good decision for Usiku in terms of his welfare.  The team looked into moving him to another wildlife sanctuary with other rescued hyenas, and ideally a place where the animals are prepared for release, but no viable options were found.

The favoured option then was a soft release programme, giving Usiku the best chance of survival in the wild, whilst also leaving the option open to abort the release if the research team felt that he was not ready.

Next was to identify a place a good distance from human populations where wild hyenas are known to be present.  Unfortunately due to logistics it was not possible to choose Liwonde, but this was not a major concern for Usiku’s welfare or chances of integration. Whereas female hyenas usually remain in their natal clan, males typically disperse from their clans after reaching adulthood usually taking in lower ranked positions.  Usiku should be able to interact with the resident clan whilst he is in the release enclosure, and the younger the better. Observing the interactions between the wild clan and the cub would also help determine the best time to integrate the cub.

Grand plans however come with a price, and we have been extremely grateful to the Olsen Animal Trust for stepping in to sponsor the translocation, release and research.  Whilst success cannot be guaranteed, we believe that this is the best course of action and would offer Usiku the best chance of freedom back in the wild.

The big move

Usiku’s move finally came around in May, and it took several months of preparation and planning.  Making an enclosure hyaena proof is no mean feat!  It took the field team over a month to build it, and we’re most impressed with the results.  How to feed Usiku without being seen by him, and encouraging interaction through the fence with wild hyaenas whilst also preventing dangerous fights were just some of the considerations.

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We were pleased to welcome Dave Higgs and Olga from Olsen Animal Trust to help out with the move – these are Dave’s photos and you can read his blog here.  The move started early, with Usiku having his final health check and the fitting of the all important satellite collar.  Usiku was then loaded onto the trailer in a specially made box and taken on the 3 hour journey to Kasungu.  Once there the team worked as fast as possible to release him into the enclosure.  Watch the video below to see him bounding out of his box!

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More on Usiku’s time in Kasungu coming soon…

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