There’s more to spotted hyenas than meets the eye

Kruger National Park | August 2017

This species has been shrouded in myths since time immemorial. Even the great Ernest Hemingway had this to say about them in The Green Hills of Africa in 1935.

“Fisi, the hyena, hermaphroditic self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off of your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp follower, stinking, foul, with jaws that crack the bones the lions leave, belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain….”

As you can see, there is not much by way of praise in the great writer’s view of this animal, and he is not alone in his belief.

They are, however, essential and important to the ecosystem. Despite the mostly negative impression of them that most people have, and there is a lot more to them than meets the eye.

The Facts, Figures and the basics:

Oddly enough spotted hyenas are more closely related to cats than dogs, though they are completely in their own family. Males are actually lighter than females, weighing in at 45kg rather than the 65kg of their counterparts. In some areas can live in clans up to eighty members.


Within the clan, male spotted hyenas rank below the females in the pecking order. Females are larger and this slightly abnormal situation for a large mammal is attributed to a high level of the hormone, androgen. It allows females to mimic the male physical dominance that is evidenced in other large predators such as leopards and lions by making the females bigger, stronger, heavier and more aggressive. It is also this hormone that leads to the unique appearance of a female hyena’s sexual organs. They are not hermaphrodites as many believe, despite the misleading looks. Incidentally, the unusual genitalia play an important role in the greeting and bonding ceremonies of hyenas, with meeting individuals adopting a head to toe position, raising one leg and sniffing.

What do they eat?

Yes, we have all heard the tales. A beast that slinks through the night, feeding on the remains of carcasses, and profiting off the hard work of other animals. There is an element of truth to this, but this is not unique behavior to hyenas, nor is it the only way they get their food. They are actually excellent hunters and catch and kill about half of their food themselves. They do this by simply running down their prey and then using incredibly powerful jaws to kill it. Once down, it will be consumed at a mind-boggling rate, with very little left for anything else. All but the largest bones of the prey will be eaten, which is evidenced in the calcium-rich white colour of the faeces.

The rest of their food is sniffed out and found. If there are enough hyenas at a carcass where lions are present, they will even press their numerical advantage and displace those lions. Although much demonized for this behavior, lions do exactly the same thing to other lions and other predators. It’s not easy staying alive in the bush, and any animal must take what they can get, whatever the means.

Hyenas can even smell things that are underground, meaning that they will actually dig food up from underneath the earth.

They travel massive distances each night in search of a meal, sometimes covering more than 30km on their travels.


The Young:

After a 110 day gestation period a hyena will give birth to one or two little cubs. They are born with sharp little teeth, and if both are the same sex, they may fight to the death to establish the hierarchy before they can walk. If one is born male, and the other a female, the female will automatically dominate and there will be no need for them to fight.

The mothers’ milk is extremely rich, which allows the cubs to go long periods between feeds. They are fed at the communal den to which the cubs are moved a few days after birth. The cubs are fed solely on milk for the first seven months of their lives and are only totally weaned after a year of dependence.

They are sexually mature after three years, after which life becomes very complicated for young spotted hyenas. Males are forced out of their natal clans to find potential mates. Young females have a choice to make: Because they have a class system, if the female in question is not the offspring of a high-ranking female, she can never rise in the clan hierarchy. Therefore, she must either remain a subordinate within the clan, find a new clan or start her own.


Spotted Hyenas Today:

The modern world presents the wildlife of today with numerous challenges. The growth in population of the human race is not slowing down by any stretch of the imagination, and in many ways, it is the wildlife that suffers most because of this. Spotted hyenas are extremely adaptive, and their competition with humans has led to some interesting developments.

One of the most interesting of these is their incredible interactions with the ‘hyena men’ of Harar in Ethiopia. Here, these much-maligned animals encounter humans more so than ever. They rummage in the garbage dumps, and live in the cities. There are men who have ‘trusting’ relationships with the hyenas, and even feed them from a wooden spoon held in their mouths! The hyenas have reportedly never hurt their handlers, except when their young have been threatened.

According to the IUCN Red-list, although decreasing, the spotted hyena population numbers are still high enough for them not to be listed a ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’ just yet, with up to 47 000 individuals in Africa today. Nevertheless, seen as ‘problem animals’, spotted hyenas do face persecution from humans in the form of culling. They also die in snares and their body parts are used in traditional witchcraft because of the powers they are erroneously believed to hold.

Beautiful as they are brutal, intelligent as they are cunning, they play an incredibly important ecological role in our environment, and are always a pleasure to see on any game drive.