Hyenas get a bad press. Perhaps it’s because they look like they’ve been designed by a dysfunctional committee. Or maybe it’s their (false) reputation for being cowardly and timid or the (true) fact that they will steal food from cuddly looking big cats. Perhaps it’s their link to witchcraft and other supernatural activity, or their reputation for stealing children and killing livestock. Maybe it’s the way they look, resembling a child’s early attempts at drawing a dog.
It’s about time that Africa’s most populous large predator received some good PR.
I first fell in love with the spotted hyena in 1985, while staying in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. We were staying in some cheap bandas within the park, where we talked to our neighbours who were primate researchers. They told us the location of a hyena den in the middle of nowhere.
Following their instructions, we aligned our Isuzu Trooper with a couple of trees and drove out into the middle of a dried up lake-bed. Nothing was visible in front of us and we wondered if we would find the den. Finally we spotted a small hole in the ground, turned our engine off and freewheeled up to it, as instructed, and waited silently.
After about 10 minutes a nose appeared at the hole, sniffed the air and emerged. It was attached to a juvenile spotted hyena. Soon the whole den emptied out onto the sand. We spent hours watching them play all around us. They only disappeared, briefly, when a van full of noisy tourists came to find out what we were looking at. On seeing nothing they turned away and peace returned and the hyenas reappeared and carried on as before.
They had an intricate family structure. Given the similarity in age of many of the young hyenas, they were obviously the children of more than one female. The sub-adults looked after the younger cubs and took their turn in keeping them under control.
Since then hyenas have been on my wish list every time I go on safari. One of the books that inspired my love of Africa and its wildlife was Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens. Their adventures with brown hyena made me really want to see that animal. Regrettably, to this day, I’ve only ever seen them in the distance.
I had to wait more than 30 years before I was able to visit a hyena den again. This time, because there were other people in the vehicle, I could only spend a short time with them. Or, to be exact, two short times with them. On the first occasion, before sunrise one morning, a tiny cub and some juveniles ran around the Land Cruiser. On the second, slightly later in the morning, we arrived at the den in an old termite mound in Sabi Sands, to find a solitary juvenile waiting at one of the entrances for the clan’s adults to return from their night’s hunting.
We had seen the adults earlier when they had chased a leopard up a tree and spoiled her attempts to hunt some impala. As soon as they returned to the den, the younger ones came out to greet them and play with each other. I challenge anyone to watch interactions like this and still dislike hyenas.
Some fact about hyenas
- They are neither cats nor dogs but, in spite of looking more like a dog, they belong to the same sub-order of carnivores as cats but have their own classification within that group. (The simplified taxonomy is Animalia → Chordata → Mammalia → Carnivora → Feliformia → Hyaenidae.)
- Female hyenas appear to have a penis, which makes it difficult to tell the sexes apart; the external appearance of their genitals is similar to that of the males.
- Females are larger than the males.
- Large numbers of hyenas live in clans that are controlled by the females.
- In spite of their lolloping walk, hyenas are fast runners and can cover large distances when they are hunting.
- They can run at up to 60km/h (37mph).
- Hyenas, in spite of their reputation as scavengers, may kill up to 95% of the animals they eat.
- Their digestive system allows them to extract nutrients from skin and bones. Only hair, horns and hooves cannot be fully digested and are regurgitated as pellets.
- They nurse their young for longer than most carnivores, probably because they often hunt and find food far from the den.
- It is true that hyenas start eating their prey while it is still alive. They kill an animal by disembowelling it and some people think that this leads to a faster death than the suffocation method used by other predators. I have my doubts but I have never seen a hyena kill, so cannot justify this.
- A hyena’s hearing is so good that it can hear another predator eating 10km (6 miles) away.
- The hyena’s “laugh” is a means of communication. In the case of a lion kill that I witnessed, the hyenas may have been calling for reinforcements from the den to help them drive the lions off the kill. The calls certainly didn’t intimidate the lions, if that was their intention.