Shenzi, Banzai and Ed are three names that anyone who has watched Disney’s The Lion King would be familiar with, and let’s face it, most of us have watched this iconic movie at some point in our lives. They are a trio of spotted hyenas who are loyal henchman to the evil Scar and trigger the infamous wildebeest stampede that kills Simba’s father, Mufasa. Shenzi is the only female and leader of the three and her name means ‘uncouth’ in Swahili. Banzai is the most aggressive of them and his name means ‘to skulk’ or ‘lurk’ in Swahili, and then of course there’s Ed, who only communicates in crazed laughter and has squint eyes. The reason I bring this up is because this trio are what most people who haven’t spent time with actual hyenas think of when they come across one on safari. The perception is not a positive one.
The Lion King portrayed hyenas as being evil, idiotic, murderous and mangy. In short, they were the bad guys, much to the dismay of hyena researchers around the world. In fact, when Disney animators went to a hyena research facility to make sketches for the movie, scientists there made a plea for the hyenas to be cast in positive light but, as we know, that was not to be. So enraged was one researcher that he even tried to sue Disney for defamation of character because of how they portrayed these creatures.
This was not the first time hyenas had been portrayed in a bad light though. In “Green Hills of Africa”, Ernest Hemingway wrote about “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 lion leaves, belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain . . . ”
In Tanzania and India, hyenas were regarded as the favourite mode of transport for witches, while in Sudanese folklore and Persian medical writings from the 14th century they warn of a combination of man and hyena that attacked people in their sleep. Hyenas have had a bad reputation and negative publicity for centuries and it really is unfair, especially when you have spent time with these intriguing and, dare I say it, beautiful animals! I believe a lot of the stigma attached to hyenas stems from a few myths that people hold true about them and I intend on busting them wide open.
Myth 1: Hyenas are part of the Cat/Dog family
Even though they are more closely related to the cat family the answer is actually they are neither a cat (Felidae) nor a dog (Canidae). Hyenas belong to their own family called Hyenidae. The Hyenidae family includes the Spotted, Brown and Striped Hyenas as well as the Aardwolf. The only one of these that we find on Londolozi is the Spotted Hyena.
Myth 2: Hyenas are Hermaphrodites
The fact that a male and female hyena’s reproductive organs are almost indistinguishable from one another meant that for centuries people believed that they were hermaphrodites capable of changing gender and performing witchcraft. However, this is definitely not the case. Researchers and scientists refer to the female genitalia of a hyena as a pseudopenis and despite looking almost identical to the male hyena genitalia it performs all the same functions that the female genitalia should. Biology lesson over!
Myth 3: Hyenas only scavenge
This for me is the most satisfying of all the myths to bust. While it is true that hyenas do scavenge and steal carcasses from other predators, lions and leopards and most other predators for that matter do exactly the same thing. Hyenas probably do it more often but despite this, they are also very effective hunters. In fact, in some areas in Africa, researchers have discovered that they themselves kill as much as 95% of their food and we have even witnessed this here before at Londolozi.
Myth 4: Male hyenas are bigger and more dominant than females
This couldn’t be more wrong. While males dominate their female counterparts in most relationships in the animal kingdom, the opposite holds true when it comes to hyenas. In the hyena social structure the females are more dominant, aggressive and bigger than the males. The clan is ruled by an alpha female who has 100% say on what goes on, and the power structure she enforces is heavily skewed against the males. The lowest ranked female in the hyena clan still ranks higher than the highest ranked male and males need to watch their step and even put up with abuse from the young hyena pups in the clan otherwise they risk a violent punishment from the female coalitions in the clan.
Yes, hyenas may not be as noble looking as a male lion, majestic as a cheetah or beautiful as a leopard but nevertheless they possess their own uniqueness that is not celebrated as often as it should. Steve Kemper who writes for the Smithsonian Magazine sums it up well;
“Science’s version of the spotted hyena—smart, matriarchal, obsessed with status, biologically and socially complex, jam-packed with surprises—has not displaced the repulsive cowardly scavenger of popular imagination.“
For me, the sound of a hyenas whooping call echoing through the night is one of the best sounds of the bush and I challenge anyone who may hold a “Disney” view of hyenas to come and spend some time here at one of the den sites on Londolozi. You will discover a newfound appreciation and respect for these animals as you watch them playing and interacting around the den, nursing their young and showing a compassionate side that mainstream media tends to ignore.