The Life of Bryan
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By Richard Yarnell, Dawn Scott, Lynne McTavish & Steven Dell
Project Phiri – South Africa’s Brown Hyaenas

On April 17th 2007, after many months of effort, the brown hyaena project had a major breakthrough by managing to capture and collar a brown hyaena, which we affectionately named Bryan. He weighed 43kg (which is average for an adult) and was clearly a male. Unlike their close relatives the spotted hyaena, brown hyaena are easy to sex as female brown hyaena do not have a pseudo-penis. We estimated that Bryan was old from his tooth wear, but despite this still in relatively good condition. The collar fitted was a Global Positioning System (GPS) system that automatically records the animals’ location via satellites and transmits this to the researchers via SMS, i.e. text messages. This allowed us to monitor Bryan’s movements from the comfort of our desks, provided he was in cell phone coverage! This is not often the case in Pilanesberg, so occasionally we had to wait several days for Bryan to move into cell coverage to retrieve his locations.

As expected, Bryan was more active at night than the day. Only 23% of locations were recorded on the hillsides and 27% of all locations were within 20m of roads, so it seems Bryan liked to use the easiest routes to get around. He often spent his days resting in thickets, often denning in a different place each night. Between April and June, Bryan had travelled most of the eastern section of the park from Kwa Maritane, up to Mankwe dam, to north of Bakgatla and over to Manyane gate (see Map below), an area of approximately 150km². He travelled at an average speed of 4km per hour and on some nights covered more than 10kms (if measured as a straight line). In 3 days between 13th and 16th May, 30kms distance was recorded between his two furthest points, which means he probably travelled much further than this. Although this sounds big, this is actually much smaller than the movements of male brown hyaena in the Kalahari and Skeleton Coasts, which can travel 20-30kms in a night and cover a total area as large as 200 to 400 km². A hyaena’s territory size will be smaller if there is more food available. So one explanation could be that hyaena food is plentiful in Pilanesberg, for example the large amount of scavenge as a result of kills from lions and other predators. Our other research on brown hyaena numbers suggest the numbers in Pilanesberg are high compared to research elsewhere and Pilanesberg may have the highest densities anywhere in the world.

By the 2nd of June we had received over 93 locations for Bryan and had started to build up a comprehensive picture of his movements. But then suddenly we stopped getting text messages from Bryan. We were very worried that something had happened to him. He could be out cell phone coverage, the collar could have malfunctioned or the worst case scenario, he had died or been killed. If we didn’t receive another signal we would never know…………After a month of worry we finally received a long awaited message. At first we were elated, but as the data came in we realised something was wrong. Bryan had not moved for a month. Had the collar come off? Had he died? But then how had the collar come back into cell coverage after a month? We went into the field to find out what had happened to Bryan.

To our great regret we found the collar attached to the remains of decaying Bryan. The body was too far gone to determine the cause of death. We know he was old and may have died of natural causes, but before he went missing he was still moving around the Park and had covered 22km in the previous two days, not an indication of an animal in ill health or starving. Therefore it is more probable that as an old animal he was more susceptible to being injured or killed by lions, although we can only guess this. Whatever the cause of Bryan’s demise, we know he lived to a good age for a brown hyaena. Bryan must have died out of cell phone coverage, near Tilodi Dam. Then possibly another brown hyaena found his remains and carried him and the collar back to a den in cell phone coverage. Brown hyaenas often bring animal remains back to the den for the cubs to eat. So in a way he was supporting the next brown hyena generation.

Through following Bryan, we have gained insights into the behaviour and movements of a brown hyaena in Pilanesberg National Park. We hope that over time we will be able to collar and follow more brown hyaena, not only in Pilanesberg, but also in other parks and surrounding areas. This will help us gain a better understanding of their needs and ecology, which in turn will help to conserve the brown hyeana into the future.

If you would like to help the Brown Hyaena project by sponsoring a collar and/or a hyaena, please send a donation to Lynne McTavish, c/o Mankwe Wildlife Reserve, PO Box 20784, Protea Park 0305, Northwest Province, cell: 083 453 3133.

The Study Site
The study area
Distance covered by Bryan
Distance covered by Bryan
Bryan's death annotated
Bryan's death annotated