A surprise ending

Pamushana | November 2020

Recently I was out and about in the bush, just enjoying an opportunity to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on. With the hot dry season in full swing, the obvious place to visit to get the lowdown during lockdown is, of course, the local waterhole.

All the usual suspects were at Banyini Pan – there were baboons sitting under the trees, zebra, kudu, impala and warthogs all drinking. Flocks of various types of birds were enjoying the water’s edge and the real locals, the hyenas, were ever present.

A hyena knows how to evade the heat by simply running into the water for a swim. I could see about eight different hyenas playing and enjoying the water, chasing each other around, so I found myself a shady spot and quietly spent a bit of time observing them.

It didn’t take long for me to notice a large adult female hyena who wasn’t partaking in the play. I picked up my binos for a closer look at her. I immediately saw she had a bulging udder, a clear sign she was lactating and therefore had cubs somewhere.

I watched her walk around the others, stopping and often staring off to the west, looking back at the others who were living life as though they were on a beach. She would then move away, stop and look west again. Cleary she had other things on her mind. After a bit, she simply walked west, leaving the other hyenas at the waterhole. I watched her with a distinct look in her eye that indicated she knew where she was going. I thought, “Shes’ going to her cubs!” I followed her from a distance so as not to pressurise her. Her route was perfect for me, she was going where there was a good road network. As we travelled 1.5 km through the woods a black-backed jackal joined me in following the hyena mum, which was a bit odd. I was getting so excited at the thought of seeing tiny baby hyenas with their mum feeding them.

We travelled for about 2.5 km and then suddenly she turned off the road and walked over a ridge about 100 metres away, and was gone. I stopped to listen and watch but heard nothing. I was convinced she was still just there. Not wanting to scare or disturb her den-site if it was there, I worked a careful route in that allowed me to see over the ridge from a bit of a distance. As I came over the ridge, I could not believe it – I was correct, but also incorrect. She did have something on her mind that she clearly wanted to get back to, but it wasn’t cubs… it was a fresh baby giraffe kill!

She had led me all the way to a dead baby giraffe that she and a few other equally mature adult female hyenas had managed to catch and kill. A majorly important meal for them as they had young that needed adequate milk nourishment. I had a closer look at the little giraffe and was able to recognize from its coat pattern that it was a recently born calf that I had filmed, together with its mum, only days earlier.

It’s often believed that hyenas only scavenge, but this could not be further from the truth. Hyena will happily scavenge a kill if it’s going, however there are often not enough kills around for them to scavenge on so we tend to find hyenas often being effective hunters. This is the second baby giraffe that I have found this clan of females to have successfully pulled down in recent years. Possibly a strategy they are honing successfully! (See last month’s journal for an account of how they tried to hunt and harass a giraffe family.) A hunting hyena clan will often surround the prey animal and attack from all sides and eventually manage to pull the prey down. This strategy works well on bigger slower animals rather than the fleet-footed smaller animals.

It was evident this was a fairly fresh kill as no vultures were present, although it didn’t take long for them to find it. I spent some time here watching the etiquette and dynamics of hyena society play out in front of me, including how lower ranked individuals would go to great lengths in order get a bite while the more dominant animals closely guarded the precious bounty. There is so much going on at sightings like this, that time simply stands still and minutes become hours of incredible viewing. We look forward to the time when we are able to welcome you to join us on safari soon.

Photographs by Sarah Ball