Friend or foe?
Cute or ugly?
Hunter or scavenger?
So many safari visitors view the Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) with a negative mind set. Wildlife documentaries and Disney movies have just hardened that perception in many people’s minds. But how much of what we perceive about the Hyena is actually true and just why should we give them a little bit more time and respect when viewing them on safari. It is not without reason that those of us who live in the bush for long periods at a time have come to treasure those moments spent visiting a hyena den site, watching the antics of the new born pups as they come to terms with the new sights and smalls of their African home.
The Blue Canyon has continued to enjoy the strong growth and territorial expansion of it’s hyaena population over these past few years. When I first started working across the reserve the frequency of viewing and indeed the sound of their iconic calls, was few and far between. Given the overall low density of our lion population it was the perfect time to give the hyena that were already ensconsed in the reserve, the opportunity to prosper. Lions and hyena are eternal enemies. Each species will seek out the young of the other and in nearly every case will kill the youngsters to protect their own growing families. We are now getting regular, almost daily, sightings of these animals and have discovered their dens on a number of occasions which has allowed some very special viewings for our home owners, visitors and lodge guests. Once the animals become habituated to the vehicles the youngsters in particular will sniff curiously around the vehicles in a very relaxed manner and allow for fantastic game viewing opportunities. We take great care to ensure that no more than 2 vehicles are present in the area of the den at any one time and these must be parked at a sensible distance from the den itself, allowing the animals to approach the vehicles only when they feel relaxed enough to do so.
So what do we know about these incredible mammals …
The spotted hyena is one the most highly gregarious of all carnivores; it can live in groups containing up to 90 individuals, and exhibits the most complex social behaviour. The society is characterised by a strict dominance hierarchy. The entire social life of a clan is centered around the communal den. Some clans use particular den sites for years whereas others may use several different dens within a year or even several den sites simultaneously. We have already seen one clan return to their den site of last year to rear their cubs this year. The dens are not excavated by hyenas, instead they have usually been abandoned by other species, mostly warthog, aardvark and bat-eared foxes. This structure of small channels underground has been considered an effective anti-predator device which protects pups during the absence of their mother. The structure of dens does not normally permit the access of adult animals, so pups must emerge at the den entrance to have contact with their mother who is often found lying at the entrance with older brothers and sisters etc. Spotted hyenas live in a society in which clan members do not remain together continuously, but instead frequently forage alone or in small groups. Clan members co-operate in communal defence of the territory, of food resources, and the den site. Females are dominant over males, and even the lowest ranking female is dominant to the highest ranking male. Although males typically disperse from their natal clans when they are between two and six years of age, females usually remain in their natal clan. “Social politics” among clan members are very important in hyena society, with individuals regularly forging alliances and coalitions. Unlike many other social species where all group members are usually seen together, spotted hyena clan members frequently wander alone or in small groups and only sometimes meet in large numbers. This occurs at kills, at the communal den, or when clan members rally together to defend individual carcasses or group territories
The picture below shows a typical stand off between two hyenas. The one on the left is “winning,” as indicated by its forward-cocked ears. Note the ears of the hyena on the right are flattened back, and its mouth is open in a defensive display.
The highly social nature of the spotted hyena has led to the evolution of a wide variety of vocalisations. The best known spotted hyena vocalisation is the whoop, which can be heard over several kilometres. Spotted hyenas can recognise each other individually by their whoops, at least within their clan. Whoops can function as a rallying call to gather scattered clan members together to defend territory boundaries, food resources, and the communal den. Mothers whoop to locate their wandering cubs and some animals whoop to recruit hunting partners. Whoops are also used as a form of individual display, particularly by animals of high rank. Adult males whoop more frequently than females, and top-ranking males put more effort into vocal displays than lower ranking males. Another well-known vocalisation is the laugh or giggle, which is a signal of submission. A submissive individual giggles to signal to its partner that it accepts a lower status.
As we travel around the estate, more especially when we are on foot enjoying our walking trails, we see evidence of the fact that spotted hyenas scent mark their territories by pasting a secretion from the anal gland onto grass stalks, as well as defecating in communal latrines. Keep an eye open also during your safaris for the tell-tale “white stools”, evidence of the high concentration of calcium in the hyena diet from the consumption of large quantities of bone material.
What surprises most observers is the extent of co-operative intelligence and problem solving ability demonstrated by hyenas. In fact, recent tests involving lions and hyena undertaken by one of the resident film makers in the BCC, Virginia Quinn, showed that hyena far out perform their feline counterparts in both intelligence and inter species co-operation. Indeed further studies have showed them to be able to outperform chimpanzees also. Also, spotted hyenas have been recorded as using deceptive behaviour, including giving alarm calls during feeding when no enemies are present, thus frightening off other hyenas and allowing them to temporarily eat in peace. Cunning indeed!!
The spotted hyena is the most carnivorous member of the family Hyaenidae from which it comes. Unlike its brown and striped cousins, the spotted hyena is a predator not a scavenger. Spotted hyenas hunt as much as lions despite continually being mislabeled as scavengers, often even by ecologists and wildlife documentary channels. The spotted hyena is very efficient at eating its prey; not only is it able to splinter and eat the largest bones, it is also able to digest them completely. Spotted hyena can digest all organic components in bones, not just the marrow. Any inorganic material is excreted with the faeces, which consist almost entirely of a white powder with few hairs. They react to alighting vultures more readily than other African carnivores, and are more likely to stay in the vicinity of lion kills, as well as hanging around lodges and camps where they learn quickly that humans are generally poor in disposing of unwanted foods. A single spotted hyena can eat at least 14.5 kg of meat per meal. Although spotted hyenas act aggressively toward each other when feeding, they compete with each other mostly through speed of eating, rather than by fighting as lions do. When feeding on an intact carcass, spotted hyenas will first consume the meat around the loins and anal region, then open the abdominal cavity and pull out the soft organs. Soon enough, the carcass is disassembled and the hyenas carry off pieces to eat in peace.
Hopefully now, you will understand and appreciate more the intelligence and complexity of this adorable African carnivore. Ignore the media representations and form your own opinion when on safari. Like me, you will soon be capitivated by the antics and the solidarity demonstrated by these most family orientated animals. I just adore them!!