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Born Free USA Global Field Projects

Public Enemy Number One?

Published 03/07/13

The following was written by Stephen Brend, Director of Ensessakotteh - a Wildlife Rescue, Conservation, and Education Centre.

Meet Matama, an orphaned spotted hyena. He is about 6 weeks old, weighs 3 kilograms, and is lucky that he isn’t in Sudan. From the story we were told, he was caught near the town of Matama in western Ethiopia, apparently destined for sale in across the border in Sudan where some people keep hyenas as a sort of magic charm. This little cub, however, was purchased by an Ethiopian man who took him eastward to the city of Bahar Dar. We understand that the man kept him for about three weeks before the authorities were notified and the little cub was confiscated by the police.

The police then contacted the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA) who contacted us, or more specifically me. That was just before lunchtime on Monday as I contemplated the already busy week ahead. Five minutes later I was on the phone to Alison Hood, in the United Kingdom, and so managed to upset her week at just after 9 a.m. on Monday morning. Fortunately, the cascade ended there. Alison gave the go ahead for the rescue, and so yesterday evening Asmare Tigabu, from EWCA, and I boarded a plane to Bahar Dar.

We were up at 5:30 this morning, met the policeman and went to the police station to pick up Matama. To our surprise, the first place the police looked for him was inside a stack of old car tires. As a makeshift enclosure, car tires win points for inventiveness but score terribly on “space available.” The cub was not in the tires; rather he had been tied up on the other side of the compound.

I do not know how many times you need to see an animal tied around the neck with a scrappy piece of skin before it ceases to disturb you, but I am not up to that number yet. Even though it was expected, there is something awful about seeing any animal — let alone a wild one — tied up.

To be fair, though, Matama seemed OK. After some initial nervousness, he approached us. First glance suggested that he was reasonably healthy despite a couple of cuts and scrapes. We untied him, shepherded him into the carry box and then Asmare completed the official paperwork to formalize the handover. Once all was in order, we headed back to the airport to catch a 9 a.m. flight back to Addis.

All went well until about 8:25. The airline officials then stopped us and asked for a health certificate. Now, that’s a perfectly reasonable request for an airline to make, but was a tall order for us to meet given we had had the little hyena in our care for less than two hours. Attempting a bit of antipodean humor and quipping “he looks fine to me” didn’t work. As the other passengers headed to the gate, our case was referred to the pilot — did he agree to carry a boxed-up hyena accompanied by no documentation, but a sincere man from EWCA and a nervous-looking Born Free staff member? He did! And we were on our way.

Back in Addis, we were met by Deputy Project Director Bereket Girma and driven back to the Born Free compound, where Matama could finally walk around freely. Rea Tschopp, our consultant veterinarian came over to give him an inspection — and that went both ways. Matama concluded the interview with a quick chew on Rea’s stethoscope, as it to verify she was indeed qualified to check him out.

Based on what we were told, his dark coat colour and teeth, we reckon he is less than 2 months old. Certainly, he shows no interest in solid food but loves milk. So milk it will be for the next few weeks. That is not too difficult, but still leaves me with a couple of problems.

Firstly, hyenas are reviled by most Ethiopians, and moreover a lot of our staff are farmers, who have a particular hatred for them. It is not an overstatement to say they are considered “public enemy number one.” Convincing them that “a life is a life” no matter whether it is lived in a majestic lion’s body, as a human, or as a hyena, is going to be tough.

The second problem is much more personnel. I am left-hand-rearing another nocturnal animal. Great.

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