When news broke that Phiri, the only female striped hyena on Sir Bani Yas Island, was sporting a figure fuller than usual, the man in charge of the thousands of rare animals on the island was cautiously optimistic.
For Marius Prinsloo, the manager of conservation and agricultural services at the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), the change in appearance could mean only that the rare animal, extinct in the wild in the UAE, was breastfeeding a young litter. But no young ones had been seen and Phiri was not showing any of the typical behaviour associated with hyena motherhood. Also, both Phiri and her "husband", Arnold, were relative newcomers, relocating to the island in 2008 after being raised in captivity at the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah. While the animals had adapted well to life in the wild, staff expected them to take at least two years to produce young.
Still, if they were new parents, it would be one of the most significant events for conservation efforts in the Middle East. There was just one problem - how to prove their suspicions with an animal as secretive as Phiri? Mr Prinsloo had some advice for Aimee Cokayne, a research and conservation officer on the island: "Follow her and become as sneaky as she is." In December, after days of intense observation, the news was confirmed. Phiri was seen in a den with two three-week-old cubs.
"It was only through perseverance that we managed to find them," said Mr Prinsloo. "The mother was very clever." To protect her young ones from danger, she had chosen her den's location with care. "It is a very difficult area, it is all ravines and loose stones. In addition, no one can approach the den without being seen," said Mr Prinsloo. The birth of the hyena cubs was a huge event in the world of conservation, he said. "None of the parents has ever tasted freedom, and now they are free, breeding and raising their young independently." The mother in particular "never knew her own kind", only humans.
"It is the first time in the Middle East and possibly in the world that a hand-raised animal is raising pups in the wild," Mr Prinsloo claimed. Although striped hyenas can still be seen in Oman and Saudi Arabia, it is widely believed that they are extinct from the wild in the UAE. The hyenas are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the body which monitors the status of wildlife globally, as "near threatened" worldwide, with only an estimated 5,000 to 14,000 in the wild.
While there have been reports of striped hyenas spotted between Liwa and Dubai, the last official sighting in the UAE was in 2002. The striped hyenas were brought to Sir Bani Yas Island to help control the number of antelopes and gazelles, complementing the presence of the island's top predator, the cheetah. "Hyenas are much too slow to catch a healthy animal," said Mr Prinsloo, explaining that hyenas usually feed on the remains of animals killed by larger predators.
But more importantly, they help keep populations healthy by removing sick animals. "Their instinct tells them who is sick, injured or weak, and these are the animals they go for," he said. Sir Bani Yas Island is a very closely monitored ecosystem. Veterinarians are always close at hand and the antelopes and gazelles are given food and water. But the striped hyenas are free to roam and hunt for food, and for them this makes the island closely resemble life in the wild.
The island's two new arrivals are, of course, blissfully unaware of the fuss caused by their births. They are just starting to find their feet and are becoming aware of the world around them. Their mother, however, is keeping a close watch nearby. Her tiny cubs would been a tasty snack for large birds and cheetahs that roam around the 4,100-hectare Arabian Wildlife Park. Meanwhile, the creatures are still under the care of their mother, who now supplements their diet of milk with meat.
They are still too young to venture out of the den, but that would soon change, Mr Prinsloo said. "As they grow bigger they will go bold. In another month from now, they will start wandering with their mother." Exploring the island, the cubs will have a chance to encounter the Arabian oryx, some 4,000 gazelles, more than 30 giraffes and other assorted creatures that share their new home. The gender of the two cubs will not be known until they are six months, when the animals will be mature enough to be handled by the staff.
People are invited to help name the babies via the island's website, www.desertislands.com. But Mr Prinsloo is determined to ensure that the newborns grow up as truly wild creatures. "We are merely spectators. We do not interfere with the babies," Mr Prinsloo said, explaining that staff never get within 40 metres of the animals. "They must see us humans as intruders into their world." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org