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'Homesick' Malawi hyena treks back to her city - researchers

30 June 2016, 12:27News24 Correspondent

Harare - Everyone knows about homing pigeons. But have you heard about Malawi's homing hyena?

Researchers working in Lilongwe were astonished to find that a large hyena, which was moved from the busy city centre to Liwonde National Park - a distance of at least 200km as the crow flies - has finally found her way back home again, more than a year later.

Spotted hyena "RC4's" determination to return to her city den is all the more remarkable given the very difficult - and long - journey she had to make.

She even had to swim through a crocodile-infested river, according to the group that is monitoring her clan.

RC4 was the dominant female of her clan when she and three other clan members were captured over a period of several months in the second half of 2014, says Rob Davis of Carnivore Research Malawi.

The decision was taken to relocate the four because residents in the busy area the urban hyenas were living in were reporting an increase in human-wildlife conflict.

"It was deemed too unsafe for the clan to remain in the area," Davis told News24.

Working with the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, the researchers embarked on a time-consuming relocation exercise: each captured hyena had to be tested for rabies, among other things. RC4 was the last of the four to be captured in December 2014.

Four months later, in April 2015, she was taken to her new home in Liwonde. Located on the Shire River, the park has "low densities of competing carnivores and a large prey base and was felt to be an 'optimal site' for release", said Davis.

But RC4 clearly wasn't thrilled with her new home and left almost immediately. However, she took a rather meandering route home.

Travelled 750km

Her collar kept working until June. In that short time, she travelled 750km. After that, researchers were no longer able to track her movements.

It wasn't until the end of May this year that Carnivore Research Malawi announced that they had positively identified a "new" hyena at the urban den as RC4, calling the discovery "amazing". The distinguished female has a very distinctive ear notch that made her identification easier, according to the group. Spot patterns are also used in identification.

Davis says that, although this is the first time his group has seen a hyena trek her way home over such a long distance, they're not totally surprised.

He told News24: "The highly complex social structure of spotted hyenas means it is not that surprising that RC4, who was the dominant female of her clan, would go to such lengths to return to the clan."  

He added: "Her collar came off in June and then she was out there for the best part of a year before she returned to Lilongwe, so how much distance she must have actually covered I'd love to know!"

'Learnt to avoid contact with people'

The other three relocated hyenas have stayed put, it seems.

So, are RC4 and the rest of the Lilongwe hyenas dangerous for the humans who live so close to them?

Davis says there have been no reports of hyenas attacking humans in the city, though indications are that feral dogs are a favourite prey.

"The clan has learnt to avoid contact with people and their usual reaction is to run upon being spotted," he said.

Sometimes members of this clan are seen crossing roads: the biggest danger to the hyenas, according to Davis, is traffic accidents.

RC4 was last seen in Lilongwe two weeks ago.

Hopefully the rest of the clan was pleased to see her!

- News24


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