The last laugh

June 26, 2022 12:00 am | Updated 05:32 am IST

With flower-like paws and peculiar gait,the elusive striped hyenas are now in dangerous territory

Back when hunting was legal, Priya Singh’s great-grandfather, a land-owning villager with a large vision, advised his son, “Shoot anything you want but not the hyena.” Little did he know those words would become part of family lore and set his great-granddaughter on a lifelong quest. The directive was unusual for that time, since striped hyenas were held in disdain as carrion-eaters. This was precisely why he wanted them spared, because the scavengers kept the periphery of the Rajasthani village clean.

Three generations later, as a postgraduate student of wildlife sciences, Singh set out to study the species in southern Rajasthan. This was meant to be, as far as she was concerned, but the local villagers were dismayed. According to superstition, witches descended from their lairs in khejri trees in the dead of the night, and mounted the waiting hyenas. They sat astride the beasts whose hind legs were shorter than their forelegs and together, they scoured the countryside for the deceased. The scavengers consumed the flesh while the witches fed on the souls. The communities hadn’t met anyone who studied wild animals, and certainly not someone interested in a ghoulish creature. Two elderly Rabari trackers, who worked for a wildlife lodge, became her field assistants. They had eyes only for leopards. They claimed hyenas were all over the place, but the big cats were rare.

“Each hyena leaves two large flower-like fore paw tracks and two smaller ones created by hind paws in the soil,” says Singh. “So one wandering up and down a trail would give the impression that an entire clan had loped by.”

Dens in the hills

Villagers asserted the scavengers lived in caves up in the rocky Aravalli hills, which overshadowed their settlements. Singh scrambled to the top in the heat of the day and found nothing. When she reported the lack of evidence, they replied with various versions of, “You climbed all the way up? None of us has ever done that. People used to say hyenas live there.” Eventually, she discovered dens in the rocky hills and developed a general idea of the areas frequented by the animals. Since digital trail cams were not yet in wide use in 2008, Singh was constrained to deploy film camera traps. She positioned them between 4 and 6 in the afternoon, taking care not to spook the hyenas. Then she pleaded with the villagers not to return home along those trails or all she’d have would be photographs of sheep and goats.

Since the cameras had to be left overnight, Singh worried they might get stolen. None was in the village area. Instead, a few were filched from within the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. She travelled to the nearest big town, Desuri, to file a police complaint, a procedural requirement for her organisation. A crowd of curious people followed her from the bus stand, across the road from the police station, to watch the free entertainment. She explained the nature of her work and the problem of stolen devices to the bewildered constable.

Giving the slip

“You mean to say you left a camera worth Rs. 15,000 in the forest and walked away?” he asked at last. He eventually processed the paperwork. Her camera traps captured porcupines and jackals, with hyenas making a rare appearance. The field assistants grasped the species wasn’t as common as they had assumed. The few animals that inhabited the area were also masters at giving the slip. Singh followed their tracks, which made a detour around the cameras, avoiding them altogether.

In the course of her travels between her study sites, hyenas crossed her path several times. Often, they trotted into fields of trellis-supported bitter gourd. “What could possibly interest them?” Singh wondered. Maybe a village lay beyond, where a carcass had been discarded. Although the undigested remains in the hyenas’ white poop included the bones of livestock, hare, and even snake scales, they also contained seeds of gourd, melons, and sesame. The amount of vegetable matter in the diet of animals with bone-crushing teeth and powerful jaws was a revelation to Singh. Farmers pointed fingers at species, such as nilgai and jackals, for eating their produce. The researcher didn’t tell them hyenas were responsible for their losses, too.

A decade after completing her study, Singh returned to the area and found it ravaged by miners. Dust made it hard to breathe, and the deafening din of stone crushers and other machinery assailed her ears. The boulders, among which the scavengers made their home, were being pulverised for the construction industry. “The striped hyena is the only large carnivore that is not being actively conserved by anyone,” says Singh. “It’s managing on its own.” If it is to survive, the species needs champions like her great-grandfather.

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