Spotted hyena: the ultimate super-carnivore?

Sabi Sand | May 2017

Hyenas are generally not the most popular of animals, and for many decades they received a huge amount of “bad press.” Ugly, lowly, cowardly scavengers. Not good enough to hunt for themselves, they would lurk in the shadows, waiting for lions to finish feeding on their kills, and they would come in afterwards to see what scraps they could scavenge. More recently, however, humans have realised that this is only part of the picture, and the spotted hyena deserves a great deal more respect.

The spotted hyena is the largest of the three species of hyenas that occur in Africa. Brown hyenas also occur in southern Africa, where they enjoy a patchy distribution, while striped hyenas only occur in the northern half of Africa. I have never seen a brown hyena or a striped hyena in the wild, but have enjoyed hundreds of wonderful sightings of spotted hyenas over the years, and have certainly developed a very healthy respect for them.

Hyena society is rather interesting. We know that a hyena clan is led by a large female, the matriarch. We also believe that her high status in the society is passed on to her daughters, even while they are still cubs. A very young female hyena cub, whose mother is the matriarch, can already be a higher-ranking member of the clan than other adult females! Evidence also suggests that it is not uncommon for two female cubs belonging to the matriarch to fight until one of them finally kills her sister! This form of siblicide would presumably ensure that whichever daughter has the better genetic make-up will be the one more likely to carry the strong genes forward to the next generation. Male hyenas are smaller and lower ranking than females, and bizarrely have lower levels of testosterone than the females! They are generally not very welcome in the company of the females, and are often chased away. Long ago it was believed that hyenas were hermaphrodites, a belief which stemmed from the fact that the genitals of males and females look very similar to each other.

Having guided for many years in the Sabi Sand, which has always been renowned for its high quality predator viewing, and particularly for the exceptional frequency and standard of leopard sightings, I have had countless experiences with hyenas. I can certainly say that the more I have viewed them and learned about them, the more I have come to respect them.

Their ability to locate carcasses is mind-boggling, and is a result of having not only the most amazing sense of smell, but also extremely acute hearing. If a leopard or cheetah kills an impala from a herd, other members of the startled herd will be bound to give their sharp, urgent alarm snorts (somewhat more indignant-sounding than if they had merely seen the predator on the move, rather than making a kill.) Any hyena within earshot (and that can be from a distance of a good few kilometres) will be sure to appear on the scene, where in a split second it will assess the situation, before simply muscling in and stealing the kill for itself.

A leopard or cheetah is unlikely to stand up to an adult hyena, whose powerful jaws and lethal teeth could inflict very serious injuries to any big cat. One hyena is a formidable enough foe, but quite often the commotion would be heard by several hyenas, which would then converge on the scene and proceed to devour the carcass at a most impressive rate – and with a complete lack of table manners!

What impresses me about hyenas is their apparently high pain threshold. Many a time I have seen one or more hyenas receive a proper beating at the “hands” (more appropriately teeth and / or claws) of a large male leopard, a couple of angry lionesses or a pack of African hunting dogs. While the hyenas brazenly muscle their way into a feeding situation, whether to steal or share, their arrival on the scene is seldom welcomed warmly. A wise leopardess will usually immediately back down when a hyena comes to appropriate her fresh kill… no point in risking injury to herself by engaging in conflict with a hyena. If, however, the hyena is solitary, the leopard will usually hang around in the immediate vicinity, ready to claim back whatever portion of the carcass the hyena doesn’t manage to consume. I daresay a high percentage of the hoisted carcasses that we find on game drives, have probably already been “shared” by a leopard and a hyena in this way.

Recently we heard frantic impala alarm calls, really a lot more urgent than normal, which suggested that one of their number had been killed. Following up, we found a large herd of impala, with no adult male among them. My tracker and I speculated that the ram had just been killed, most likely by a leopard. Following up further, we found fresh male leopard tracks. I turned off the Land Rover engine to listen, and, sure enough, we heard the unmistakable sound of a leopard interacting aggressively with a hyena. Excitedly following up on these sounds, we quickly found the scene of the kill… and indeed it was the missing impala ram, being consumed by a large hyena! Sure enough, a male leopard (the Torchwood male) lay panting in the long grass just a few metres from where the hyena had stolen his kill. He was waiting to claim back whatever was rightfully his. Moments later a second hyena arrived on the scene, and then a third. These three hyenas gobbled their way through an amazing amount of impala skin, flesh, organs and bone over the next half hour. They remained vigilant, though, ever on the lookout for lions, which also scavenge whenever they get the opportunity.

A week or two after that memorable sighting, just before dusk on a rainy evening, we found the Mhangene pride of lions polishing off the remains of an impala. Three hyenas lurked nearby, and occasionally ventured a little too close. It is well known that lions hate hyenas, and we witnessed the incredible speed of lionesses chasing off these hyenas, amid much vocal indignation from the hyenas. The lionesses actually caught and began to maul one of the hyenas, which somehow managed to escape. Anyone would think that after such an ordeal, the hyenas would turn tail and leave the area immediately. But no, these hyenas, even the victim of the mauling, continued to lurk in the area, from time to time taunting the lions. There are times when hyenas definitely have the upper hand in clashes with lions, but usually they would need to considerably outnumber the lions. I’ve known lionesses to lose their tails to hyenas mobbing them at a kill (this happened to two members of the Tsalala pride, in separate incidents about five years apart, bizarrely on both occasions when the lions were feeding on zebra kills!) One of the adult lionesses of the Othawa pride was reportedly killed and eaten by hyenas last year.

African hunting dogs (or painted hunting dogs – I don’t like to call them “wild dogs”) are fantastic hunters, but their noisy feeding frequently attracts hyenas to the immediate area. Unbelievable scenes ensue, with some of the most blood-curdling sound effects one can imagine! The dogs attack the hyenas with open hatred and unveiled viciousness, biting them fiercely on the rumps. The slower, heavier hyenas often end up retreating into thorny thickets, bleeding and cut up. Again, however, they don’t give up! That high pain threshold must have a lot to do with it, or else they’re just plain stubborn! Gutsy.

We should not forget that hyenas themselves are also superb hunters, when conditions are to their liking. I have seen hyenas killing impala, buffalo calves, adult buffalo, and on one occasion even an adult male warthog – chased at speed and caught in broad daylight, by a single hyena! Lions often scavenge from kills made by hyenas – contrary to old-fashioned popular opinion, it’s not always the other way around. There is even a theory proposed by some, that one of the main reasons that lions have evolved to operate in prides, is to give them a better chance of being able to compete with hyenas.

I have often said that I believe that hyenas are the most successful of the large carnivores in this area, and I stand by that opinion. Their numbers are high and they almost always seem to have full bellies, or at least comfortably satisfied bellies. Whether they filled their bellies with stolen meat, old scavenged remains, or animals that they have killed for themselves, their formula works! They’re not the prettiest of creatures, but they deserve to be respected just as much as the more glamorous lions, leopards or cheetahs do.