Pick from the Past

Natural History, June 1996

Little Criminals

A true story of a lonely plant ecologist
and his mischievous neighbors

HEN you study large mammals, you have plenty of company: other scientists attracted to the same animals, visitors (and sometimes filmmakers) interested in your work, and the animals themselves, who become known to you as individuals and sometimes friends. Getting on personal terms with a plant is harder. Add to that a cold and inaccessible study site, and as I found out, you are sure to have a lot of time to yourself.

I spent four years living in a tent at an elevation of 14,000 feet in Mount Kenya National Park, trying to decipher the secrets of tropical alpine plants. The locale was spectacular. Mount Kenya is an ancient volcano that was born two million years ago, before Homo erectus roamed the plains. At that time, it was one of the tallest mountains in the world, its bulk a great barrier in the path of the seasonal monsoons. Soon its slopes were clothed with thick, wet forests above the arid plains. Above tree line, snow fell profusely. Great glaciers carved deep valleys. Over the millennia, the upper 6,000 feet of the cone were ground away by glaciers, revealing an impervious lava plug that, at 17,000 feet, now stands like a fortress thousands of feet above the valley floors.

My camp was nestled on the wall of the Teleki Valley, in the shadow of Mount Kenya's central peaks, Batian and Nelion. Every morning these peaks hid the sun until midmorning, and most evenings were bathed in a glorious, rosy alpenglow. In all the years that I lived there, I never tired of this scene.

The campsite was not quite ideal, however. The end of the passable road was 4,000 feet down the mountain—if it hadn't rained lately. With rain, the road became slippery and deeply rutted and ended from one to fifteen miles farther away. Either way, I still had a considerable hike to reach the campsite—through a forest in which buffaloes and elephants often treed hikers and up a massive quagmire appropriately called the Vertical Bog. With time and conditioning, the trip became more of a three-hour bore than a six-hour trial, but there was often a race with the afternoon shower to enliven the trip.

Botanist Olov Hedberg has described tropical alpine climate as “summer every day and winter every night.” Hedberg is Swedish, which may explain his definition of summer. Granted, if the afternoon sky was cloudless and the air was dead calm (an occasional combination), I could work comfortably in the intense high-altitude sun in a T-shirt and shorts. But a little shade or a light breeze was all I needed to remind me how cold the air was. On a partly cloudy day, I spent my time alternately disrobing and bundling up.

One of the few wild animals mentioned in the Bible, hyraxes are found in Africa and the Middle East. They are the size and shape of woodchucks and marmots (not quite as big as a bread box), but unrelated to them.

When I was not doing this quick-change act, I was studying the giant lobelias of Mount Kenya. Very different from their garden relatives, these giant lobelias resemble artichokes the size of basketballs. After growing for several decades from a seed the size of a pinhead, each plant produces a ten-foot-high stalk with 5,000 flowers and a couple of million seeds. Then it dies. I had come to Africa to discover why.

By and large, I was content with my solitary life. I generally enjoy being alone and have always been able to amuse myself. However, when I began giving plants individual names, I knew I was in trouble. Into this life came an invasion of four-legged munchkins.

Hyraxes are curious animals. One of the few wild animals mentioned in the Bible, hyraxes are found in Africa and the Middle East. They are the size and shape of woodchucks and marmots (not quite as big as a bread box), but unrelated to them. Long suspected of being the closest living relatives of elephants and manatees, they have recently been linked by some authorities to rhinoceroses instead. Having come to appreciate their devious intelligence first hand, I am firmly in the elephant camp.

Rock hyraxes live in colonies, and the jumble of boulders left by retreating glaciers provides ideal homes and refuges from predators such as eagles and leopards. I chose to erect my camp in the middle of just such a boulder field, which put me in the middle of an active hyrax colony.

Hyraxes eat a wide variety of plants. But unlike most herbivores—which bite off leaves with their front teeth—hyraxes turn their heads to the side and use their molars, with one eye in the dirt and the other to the heavens, as if on the lookout for a swooping eagle. The reason for this contorted position is that hyraxes don't have normal incisors. Instead, they have two tusklike teeth in the upper jaw, with which they can inflict vicious wounds and pick up objects, but not bite off leaves. In the lower jaw is a set of four teeth, each of which has two narrow slits. Hyraxes use these lower teeth to comb through their hair, grooming themselves.

At my camp lived a colony of about a dozen adult hyraxes with their most recent litters. There was a single male, a battle-scarred veteran named Rick. His harem was composed of females of several ages, and my favorite was a young adult named Elizabeth. She was always the most curious and adventuresome and was as cute as a hyrax can be.

I was the first human to live in the territory of this particular colony, which may explain the grace period during which the hyraxes were disarming and I was disarmed. It began innocently enough. The hyraxes, although wary of me, enjoyed freedom from predation near my tent, making their daily siestas even more relaxed. I thought nothing of leaving my tent open during short absences.

Then food began to go missing. Early on I suspected both hyraxes and the rapacious mountain chats, but never caught anyone in the act. I would return to camp to find all of my neighbors at a respectful distance, but hadn't I had more breakfast leftovers? When confronted by a stern look or harsh word, the hyraxes always vigorously protested their innocence (or at least vigorously protested). Being a trusting North American in a strange land, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

As long as I was within sight of the camp, the hyraxes knew that I would come running and deliver a barrage of insults and missiles if they tried to sneak into the tent. However, they soon discovered a singular exception to this rule.

Merely by not having rocks thrown at them, the hyraxes became calmer around me than around the park rangers (who knew them better than I did). But this was not good enough. I wanted friends, not just neighbors. So I began giving them food. Leftovers, mainly, and deposited far from the tent. Slowly, I became less careful and would toss out scraps as I cooked and ate. Sure enough, I made many “friends.”

Still, the paramount rule was: no hyraxes in the tent. This was a shame in a way, because it was obvious that they could have made interesting houseguests. I didn't need to worry about house-training them; they had their own toilets outside my home and theirs. No, the problem was that they were too smart and too insatiable to be trusted around food.

As long as I was within sight of the camp, the hyraxes knew that I would come running and deliver a barrage of insults and missiles if they tried to sneak into the tent. However, they soon discovered a singular exception to this rule. I can still remember the first time it happened: I was in the middle of a visit to my open-air latrine, basking in the glory of the view and the midday sun. Several hyraxes were in the area in front of my tent, scavenging the morning's scraps. The one nearest the door looked inside, found me absent, and looked around. Upon discovering my location a hundred yards away, she thought for a moment, and then boldly walked into my tent. She had figured exactly right. I could (and did) scream and shout all I wanted, but was just out of rock-throwing range and in no position to launch a quick counterattack. By the time I got back to my tent, she was long gone and so were my cookies.

From then on I vowed to zip up my tent whenever I left. Sometimes I would forget, however, or get careless, figuring I would be back very shortly. At these times, the smorgasbord was declared “open.” Even when I was sure I had zipped the tent, I imagined an inexplicable loss of leftovers. These little criminals had me paranoid.

Hyraxes are just about the only land mammals I know that do not use their feet or hands as foraging or fighting tools. Primates, bats, rodents, raccoons, and mongooses all have manipulative hands that they use to gather and eat food. Carnivores swat, slash, grab, and dig with their feet. Even ungulates use their hoofs as weapons and to dig at food. Elephants harvest grass by grabbing a tuft with their trunks and then kicking it free.

Slowly the zippers began to move. I sat mesmerized. Behind the nose appeared a snout, behind the snout a pair of beady eyes. The whole head was now battering the zippers open.

Hyraxes will have none of that. When faced with an obstacle, they face it head on. An overturned cup hiding a piece of potato (during my foolish “feed the cute hyrax” phase) would be inspected from all sides and then knocked over with the hyrax's snout. This snout dexterity had other uses as well. One historic morning, I was reading quietly in my tent when I heard a snuffling at the door. Usually I left the doors open when I was home, and the hyraxes used this as a sign of my presence. On this occasion, the doors were zipped up, and the hyraxes were operating on the assumption that I was safely out of the way, off counting lobelia leaves.

The snuffling continued and quickly zeroed in on the junction where all the closed zippers meet. The tent jiggled and a little black nose appeared. The nose twitched, smelling the irresistible aroma of stale cookies, and then began to work right and left, up and down. Slowly the zippers began to move. I sat mesmerized. Behind the nose appeared a snout, behind the snout a pair of beady eyes. The whole head was now battering the zippers open. Finally the opening was large enough to admit the hyrax. It was Rick. He stepped quietly into the tent (into my home!) and began walking an obviously well-known path toward my cooking area. But he stopped midstride and stared right at me. Something was terribly wrong. I was not supposed to be there. But as long as I wasn't moving, he wasn't going to move either. He was betting that either (a) I had not seen him or (b) I was not really me. There was a long pause. I blinked first. He let out a startled squeak and scurried in panic back though the opening, which now seemed barely adequate.

I was outraged. So my leftovers and cookies were disappearing after all. I was not (yet) losing my mind. From then on I had to increase my security measures, actually putting a lock on the zippers when I was out. The battle of wits had escalated. But I was working on my doctorate, and these guys couldn't even count to ten. It was going to be no contest.

I began keeping a pile of small rocks by my cot. Bopping a hyrax is, as you can by now imagine, an immensely satisfying achievement, but the hyraxes learned so quickly that I rarely got a second shot. So I upped the ante. Instead of merely disallowing hyraxes inside the tent, I decided to draw an imaginary line several feet beyond the door and reclaim the territory. This led to a renewed but short-lived bout of pebble tossing. These guys learned too quickly for me to alleviate months of pent-up frustration.

Then a friend brought me a long-awaited gift from the United States, on order since my early run-ins with my neighbors. It was one of those guns that shoot plastic darts with suction cups that are supposed to stick to your little sister's forehead but never do. I was determined that this ultimate weapon would finally turn the tide.

By this time, all the hyraxes had memorized the location of my imaginary line and would not cross it. I sat with gun in hand for hours, for days, but they never transgressed. The time was not wasted. Hours of practice made me a crack shot. Still they did not put so much as a toe across the line. I took to pretending that I was engrossed in a book, hiding the gun between the pages. No go.

Each of us has a breaking point. It may come when your hard disk crashes. It may come after climbing the twelve flights of stairs to the office for research clearance for the twentieth time. It may come when your discover your thousands of individually placed plant identification tags have become local collector's items. It often happens in the presence of your mechanic.

For me it came several frustrating weeks after the arrival of the gun, as I watched Elizabeth carefully tiptoe the line between her territory and mine. It became clear to me at that moment that she was taunting me, teasing me with her baleful eyes. There comes a time when the rules of appropriate human conduct no longer hold. I slowly lifted the gun, aimed just behind her left shoulder, and fired.

It was a perfect shot. The dart hit true and rebounded harmlessly a few feet away. Elizabeth let out a little squeak and bounced back herself. She gave me look of outraged disbelief. It was not the new weapon or my marksmanship that amazed her. It was that she was hit on her side of the line. I had broken the rules. I managed to suppress a twinge of guilt. I had no conscience. I was in charge.

I stared back, smug. She looked from her adversary to the dart and back again. I did the same. She looked long and hard at the dart. So did I. She looked at me again, but this time there was something other than sadness in her eyes. We looked at each other. We looked at the dart. We made our moves simultaneously, but she was quicker and closer. I arrived a half second too late. Elizabeth grabbed the dart in her mouth and took off just ahead of my desperate leap, disappearing into the boulder rubble.

I still had two darts left, but it didn't matter. I was defeated. Morally, intellectually, and strategically, the hyrax had won. Life would never be the same. Luckily, my thesis committee never found out, and a few months later they awarded a doctorate to a guy who couldn't outsmart a pack of five-pound rock hoppers.

Adapted from a chapter in I've Been Gone Far Too Long: Field Study Fiascoes and Expedition Disasters, edited by Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and Wendy Logsdon (RDR Books, 1996)

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