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Surviving against the odds

During our stay at Idube Lodge in the Sabi Sands Wildlife Reserve, we came across these three sub-adult lions. Their mother had been killed before she had a chance to teach them fully how to hunt.

Mrs Footprints getting some shots of the siblings

Mrs Footprints getting some shots of the siblings

Two of the siblings look for somewhere to rest

Two of the siblings look for somewhere to rest

The third preferred to keep its distance

The third preferred to keep its distance

Obviously they had learnt some skills because they were surviving without her. Some days before our arrival the trio, two females and a male, had managed to bring down a buffalo.

Drinking from a puddle

Drinking from a puddle

Even when drinking they were never fully relaxed

Even when drinking they were never fully relaxed

When we saw them the siblings were quite skinny and in need of another meal.

Just checking out what's going on

Just checking out what’s going on

Nothing much apparently

Nothing much apparently

Just having a wash

Just having a wash

Lions have rough tongues

Lions have rough tongues

If you can't beat them join them

If you can’t beat them join them

I might as well have a wash too!

I might as well have a wash too!

Not having learnt to hunt properly, these cats have developed their own hunting techniques. One of these involves chasing prey into the nearby boundary fence.

They operate close to the boundary fence

They operate close to the boundary fence

That looks tasty

That looks tasty

By operating on the periphery of the reserve, the three lions have reduced their chances of coming into conflict with other lions. With the Birmingham Coalition (more details about this group in a previous post) operating nearby, however, their future is not secure. The young male, in particular, is likely to be chased away by larger males and is unlikely to survive on his own.

Looking into an uncertain future

Looking into an uncertain future

The Flehmen response helps the lions to "sniff" the air and find out what other animals are around

The Flehmen response helps the lions to “sniff” the air and find out what other animals are around (this includes those that threaten them as well as those that might provide a possible meal and, when they’re older, a sexual partner)

They may be the king of beasts but it is a tough life being a lion.

Keeping a look-out

Keeping a look-out

Just keeping an eye on us

Just keeping an eye on us

Tired after a long night

Tired after a long night

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Much misunderstood

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.

Hyenas may look like they've been designed by a disfunctional committee

Hyenas may look like they’ve been designed by a disfunctional committee

It’s about time that Africa’s most populous large predator received some good PR.

Cubs are born with their eyes open

Cubs are born with their eyes open

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.

Hyenas often used disused termite mounds as dens

Hyenas often used disused termite mounds as dens

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.

A juvenile hyena in an entrance of the den

A juvenile hyena in an entrance of the den

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.

Juveniles practice their hunting skills

Juveniles practice their hunting skills

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.

Sub-adults keep an eye on the younger cubs

Sub-adults keep an eye on the younger cubs

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.

An adult hyena

An adult hyena

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.

A juvenile waits for the adults to return

A juvenile waits for the adults to return

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.

The cub carries a stone out of the den

The cub carries a stone out of the den

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.
Hyenas are inquisitive animals

Hyenas are inquisitive animals

  • 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.
A subadult keeps an eye on the younger members of the clan

A subadult keeps an eye on the younger members of the clan

  • 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.
Hyenas call for reinforcements at a lion kill?

Hyenas call for reinforcements at a lion kill?

Hyenas can extract nutrients from skin and bone

Hyenas can extract nutrients from skin and bone

Every part of the kudu is eaten

Every part of the kudu is eaten