I thought I’d write this just to clear up some of the relationships between the dominant predators here at Londolozi.

Whilst spotted hyena versus lion conflict is widely documented across Africa, the reality is that different areas and ecosystems vary in both the numbers of the top predators they sustain, as well as the way in which those predators interact with each other.

The commonly held belief is that hyenas travel in packs all the time and are constantly battling lions for the kills the lions have made. This is certainly true in some parts of Africa – although still dependant on fluctuation predator populations – but at Londolozi, the behaviour of the hyenas in particular is not of the type generally seen on the Discovery channel.

Adult hyenas across Africa adopt different strategies to successfully obtain food.

When not at a den-site, hyenas are most likely to be viewed singly here. It is a common question from guests, when viewing a hyena loping along by itself, “Don’t they move in packs?”, but for the hyenas, that would be less than efficient, and the primary reason is the number of leopards on Londolozi. Let’s look at this a bit more closely.

For hyenas to compete with lions over a kill, they need to outnumber them significantly. A common number thrown out is four hyenas needed for every lioness; more if a big male lion is present. Where that number came from I can’t say for sure, although it sounds like a reasonable figure upon which to base the debate. Far more factors are at play than just a simple numbers game, but for arguments sake, lets take the 4:1 ratio as gospel.

Say, then, the Ntsevu Pride killed a buffalo in concert with Matshipiri males. Looking solely at the numbers, you’d need in excess of 30 hyenas to drive the lions away from their kill. Having done so, the clan would then need to share those spoils between thirty of them. There more than likely wouldn’t be quite enough food to go around, and the chances are high that at least some of the clan would be injured in the brawl, possibly even killed.

Serious lion-hyena interaction is not often witnessed on Londolozi. The hyena population finds it prudent to look for food elsewhere, rather than trying to drive lions off their kills. Photograph by James Tyrrell

So the main factors that count against hyenas taking on lions are:

a) They need big numbers.
b) It’s dangerous.
c) They’ll have to share if they manage to commandeer the kill.

All of the above are very valid arguments why it might just be easier for hyenas to look elsewhere for their food if they don’t necessarily have to take on a pride, and fortunately at Londolozi, that elsewhere comes largely in the form of the local leopard population.

The Mashaba female snarls angrily at a marauding hyena that had just stolen the remains of her kill, but she stops short of physically attacking it. Photograph by Amy Attenborough

Leopards, as many people are aware, are solitary predators, relying entirely upon themselves to hunt and obtain food. With no pride to rely on, it stands to reason that any serious injury sustained by one of these cats that hampered its hunting efforts could endanger its life. Leopards are therefore notoriously conflict-averse, preferring to avoid direct physical contact in stand-offs with each other, but in particular with larger and stronger predators like hyenas.

A hyena drags the remains of an impala kill back to its den to feed its cubs. The hyena had in fact killed this impala itself! Photograph by James Tyrrell

When it comes to defending a kill, a leopard will back off over 90% of the time when a hyena is rushing in to claim it, knowing that it is far better to seek out another meal than attempt to fight the hyena away and potentially get hurt. That other 10% is dependent on a number of factors; size of leopard, hunger of leopard, size of hyena etc. One can make a number of predictions based on prior observations but it’s always hard to say with 100% certainty what’s going to happen. I remember watching the old Camp Pan male leopard defend a kudu bull carcass against three huge hyenas. The leopard was long past his prime and in serious need of a meal. He happened upon the kudu bull (who we believe was killed by another male), and considered it worth the risk to try and drive the hyenas away, as he desperately needed some sustenance. He managed it for a while, but the whoops of the clan summoned more individuals, and when they outnumbered the leopard five to one he eventually had to concede defeat and move off.

Although the den-site forms the foundation of a hyena clan, with numerous adult females and cubs inhabiting it, adults still head off in different directions to forage as individuals come nightfall.

Knowing how leopards will generally surrender their kills, hyenas find it most profitable to forage as individuals, because if they happen to come across a leopard with an unhoisted carcass, they will more than likely be able to appropriate it for themselves without too much danger, and they won’t have to share it when they do.
Although multiple hyenas will sometimes converge on the same leopard kill, attracted by the smell, they generally set out for the evening patrol as individuals, which is how we usually encounter them.

Hyena clans are tightly bound social units, demarcating and defending territories much like lion prides. When it comes to finding food on Londolozi however, it’s far better for the hyenas to go it alone.

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

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12 Comments

on Why the Hyenas are Alone

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Patsy Crisp
Guest

Thanks very much – an interesting and well reasoned read to explain the solitary hyena behaviour in SS.

Gerrit
Guest

Hi James. Derick Joubert made an interesting observation regarding total mass of predators in a pride or a pack to swing the balance in a predator’s favour. They found in Savuti that one lioness equals three hyenas in weight. If the total weight of a hyena pack outweighs the total weight of the lionesses in a lion pride, the favour generally swung in the hyena pack’s favour. Thought it may clear up your comment of where the 1 lion to 4 hyena ratio comes from. With big male lions, its a completely different situation as you are well aware of. Thank you for a great blog. Regards (Hunting with the moon – Derrick and Beverly Joubert)

James Tyrrell

Hi Gerrit,
That’s great info, thanks very much. Nice to know about the origins of that kind of thing, and I’d take Derek Joubert’s word as being pretty reliable as an authority on the subject! I haven’t read Hunting with the Moon myself but will try get hold of it.
Thanks again.
Best regards

Victoria Auchincloss
Guest

As always I look forward to your blog. I have a question, we are coming back to your wonderful place in January and bringing a friend. He would love to get the blog if possible. His name is Mike Mort and his e mail address is mmort44111@aol.com. Thank you for your help. We are so looking forward to returning. Victoria Auchincloss

Amy Attenborough

Hi Victoria. I’ll happily add him to the mailing list! Look forward to seeing you in January. Many thanks, Amy

Mike D
Guest

From some of the amazing lion-hyena interaction videos from Londolozi and the history of the two tailless lions and the one young male that was nearly killed by a clan of hyeanas I thought it was safe to assume that hyeanas thrived in large clans. With the large lion population and presence of so male male coalitions I would imagine it would be very dangerous for hyeanas to patrol alone. I’m also shocked that the leopards, particularly the big males don’t challenge the hyeanas more. Very interesting blog and something that I never expected based on the storiesd and history of these two predators there.

James Tyrrell

Hi Mike,
Thanks for your comments. It comes as a surprise to most people to find out that they generally scavenge alone, although on occasion a clan will unite to take on lions. Incidents like this are uncommon though and more often than not take place in the dead of night when no one is around. Perhaps they take place more than we think…

Mike ryan
Guest

Thanks James fascinating as always

Jill Larone
Guest

Thanks James, for a very interesting blog!

Lea
Guest

Very interesting blog James. Thanks for sorting out the dynamics of hyena, lions and leopards. Really enjoyed reading about it. Thank you.

Guy
Guest

Here’s the study that suggested that hyaenas generally must outnumber lionesses by a factor of 4 to take over a kill (from Savuti):

Cooper, S. M. (1991). Optimal hunting group size: the need for lions to defend their kills against loss to spotted hyaenas. African Journal of Ecology 29, 130–136

Ps who’d win a fight, a lion or a tiger?

James Tyrrell

Thanks Guy.
PS Haha!

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