Summer is in full swing at Londolozi and the warm heady nights are once again filled with the familiar chorus of frogs, nightjars and the constant ringing of cicadas. However, there is something missing from the nocturnal noises – the spine-chilling whoop and howl of the Spotted hyenas as they set out on their late night foraging.
So what could have happened to these denizens of the night? There was a time when a walk back from dinner to the staff accommodation involved at least two or three close encounters with a big hyena; a time when the kitchen door was shut tightly behind you at night; a time when hyenas would often rush through the boma in the hope of snatching a free meal from the grill. These days, I encounter hyenas in camp at night maybe twice a week at the most, and I have forgotten my shoes outside my room for a couple of days at a time and not had them chewed to pieces.
There is no denying that hyena numbers around camp have dropped in the last two years. We still see them, but nothing like as regularly.
The reason, according to most of the senior rangers and trackers, is the Majingilane.
It is not just other male lions that incur the wrath of the Majingilane coalition. Hyenas are their main competition for food, and any individual slow enough to get caught by the coalition is in for a severe mauling at the very least.
It seems that as the Majingilane tighten their strangle-hold on the central Sabi Sand, the hyenas have responded by moving elsewhere. The once numerous den-sites on Sparta have dwindled to one solitary site, while far to the south, just out of reach of the long arm of Majingilane law, den-sites with at least 15 youngsters have sprung up and have been providing visitors with fantastic viewing opportunities for months.
It is not just the camp staff at Londolozi who have picked up on the hyena exodus. The leopards have also clearly sensed the change, as we are seeing fewer kills being hoisted at the moment. The danger of being robbed as the sun starts to set has dwindled, and leopards are more comfortable feeding off their kills whilst they are still on the ground.
Two years ago, a kill not hoisted anytime near nightfall was going to be lost to hyenas, as evidenced by the following photographs:
This is part of the ebb-and-flow cycle of the bush. There will come a time when the Majingilane are dethroned, and a new coalition will reign supreme. Battle lines will be re-drawn. Hyena populations may experience new pressures from the South or other directions.
Sooner or later, we are confident that the eldritch cry of the hyenas will once again fill the night air around the camp, no longer a distant wail in the darkness.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell