In the tradition of Jane Goodall’s book about her years with the chimps of Gombe, this book describes the Mills’ 12 years studying brown and spotted hyenas in the Kalahari Gemsbok Park (now the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park) from 1972–1984.
The authors fell under the spell of these animals and their book hopes to encourage people to become more tolerant and respectful of them. It’s a fascinating chronicle that is both personal and scientifically objective.
The first part, written by world-renowned predator fundi and all-round nice guy Gus Mills, follows the daily lives of brown hyenas and spotted hyenas and is chockfull of intriguing insights into hyena behaviour gleaned through rigorous observations.
It’s impossible not to share the excitement that the authors felt while watching and studying hyenas – the thrill of the chase as they hunted, the relief when a mother got back to her den to feed her cubs after a long night searching for food, their triumphs and tragedies, the significance of their behaviour in the Kalahari ecosystem.
Impossible not to feel your prejudices ebb away as you learn about their complex social system and what good mothers, what successful hunters they are.
But there’s a price to pay for living in the Kalahari. In the second part of the book Margie – qualified zoologist, wife, mother, team-mate, expert hyena poo analyst and damn fine 4x4 driver – describes both the pleasures and difficulties of their lifestyle.
The isolation of living 420 kilometres from the nearest town; the searing summer heat and bitter winter cold; the snakes and scorpions; the hidden holes, steep dunes and soft sand that lay in wait to get them stuck when they were following hyenas at night.
Not to mention the challenges of staying in contact with family and friends long before the advent of Skype and e-mail, of living in a tent during floods and dust storms, even of doing grocery shopping and caring for two small children.
Through it all what shines through most glowingly is the deep respect that the authors have for the Kalahari, for the hyenas and for each other.
I devoured the book in just two huge gulps while a friend is rationing himself to three pages a night so it won’t come to an end for a long, long time. But that tells you more about us than it does about the book.
Read it and find out for yourself.
(Watch out for my next post to put to the test all those myths about hyenas that you’ve heard over the years … )
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