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.

shenzi_banzai_and_ed_hyena_army_by_kittenteentitans-d7i2otj

Shenzi, Banzai and Ed – The trio of hyenas from Disney’s, The Lion King

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.

march-38

Whilst very different in appearance to the big cats, the hyena has a unique beauty about it that not everyone sees. Photograph by James Souchon

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!

IMG_9664

A hyena returning to its den early one morning. Photograph by James Souchon

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.

march-21

Waterholes are often a favourite resting spot for hyenas during the heat of the day and sometimes they will even flop down in the water itself to cool off. Photograph by James Souchon

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.

_MG_0962

Three new additions to one of the den sites we are privileged to observe on Londolozi. Photograph by James Souchon

_MG_0981

As newborn cubs, hyenas are completely black and their spots only begin to show a few weeks later. Photograph by James Souchon

_MG_0954

A slightly older cub of about three months with its adult coat starting to show. Photograph by James Souchon

_MG_0973

It was incredible to be able to witness a side of hyena behaviour that often goes unnoticed as we watched this female nurse and play with her new cubs one morning. Photograph by James Souchon

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.

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

James Souchon

Field Guide

James started his guiding career at the world-renowned Phinda Game Reserve, spending four years learning about and showing guests the wonder of the incredibly rich biodiversity that the Mapuataland area of South Africa has to offer. Having always wanted to guide in the ...

More stories by James

20 Comments

on Mythbusters: Hyena Edition
    Sheila Marie Wallace says:

    Love it!!! Your very well read and eloquent. I also have a new found respect for The Hyena. Glad you told me to read this today!! Cheers and I already miss being there heaps and heaps!!! Sheila Marie Wallace aka “Shangela” 😉

    James Souchon says:

    Thanks a lot Sheila. I Look forward to learning some more from your nature documentary and I hope you are having a great time in Botswana! Say hi to the rest of the family for me.

    Jill Larone says:

    Very interesting write-up James! I was fortunate enough to spend some time one afternoon while at Londolozi, following some Hyenas and found their interactions with each other and their cubs fascinating. They are quite beautiful, and I was surprised to see how much larger they are than I’d thought. I don’t think most people know very much about Hyenas, so it’s great to hear your positive point of view. You’ve captured some really wonderful images of them; thank you for sharing!

    James Souchon says:

    Hi Jill, It’s my pleasure and thanks for reading. Sitting around a hyena den in the morning is one of my favourite things to do in the bush.

    Jeff Morris says:

    During the drought in 1992 in the KrugerPark, we were told how 1 Hyena would get comfortable in a drinking trough and others would stsy close by mingling with the other animals at the troughs. Once the animals were relaxed and were comfortable with the Hyenas being around they would go to drink. At this point the Hyena in the trough would make or attempt to make a kill. We were fortunate to see it for ourselves as well.

    James Souchon says:

    Hi Jeff, what an amazing sighting to witness. It’s just another example of how intelligent and opportunistic these animals are.

    Brenda Quatember says:

    One of my favorite animals, spending time in the bush over many years have had the

    Over the years at a reserve north of you I have shared special times with these amazing animals, they are so misunderstood one of my favorites, you are not in true bush veld

    Having spent a period of time over the years a bit north from you, have had the of spending time with these amazing animals, with them passing by day and night and getting to identify each one, there is nothing more special than hearing that “whoop” to know you are in the bush. Thank you for an interesting article.

    James Souchon says:

    Hi Brenda, the bush would not feel the same without the Hyena’s whooping call at night! Glad you enjoyed the article

    Ann Seagle says:

    Very interesting. I learned a lot.

    James Souchon says:

    Thanks for reading Ann!

    MJ Bradley says:

    I have to say that hyena rank up in the top 10 of animals that I love to learn about and see. Some of us have been fortunate to watch and follow a hyena clan and to identify them as individuals. They are extremely smart and always interesting or fun to observe.. Maybe one day they can become one of the Big Five II

    James Souchon says:

    You are so right MJ, their intelligence is very underestimated. Thanks for reading.

    Madeleine Poulin says:

    Thanks James for your interesting article and beautiful images. Since I learned more about Hyenas I look forward watching them when on safari at Londolozi.

    Would You share your opinion with us concerning those horrific stories about children having been killed by Hyenas in Tanzania, Botswana and Kenya (one of them being on safari with his mother)?

    James Souchon says:

    Hi Madeleine, I haven’t heard of the exact cases that you are talking about but Hyena’s, just like lion and leopard, are all opportunists. Human’s are not their natural prey species and more often than not they are more afraid of us than we are of them. Having said that, attacks on humans do happen throughout Africa from time to time and it’s usually because one of these predators is injured, old or sick and unable to catch their usual prey or if people are unaware at night time, especially small children, they could be in danger because that’s when these predators are most confident as they are mostly nocturnal. This may have been the case with these stories you are referring to. Thanks for reading.

    Brenda Quatember says:

    Apologies for reply in bits and pieces, last paragraph was what I wanted to say, sorry!

    ocelot152 says:

    Cool animals

    Loretta says:

    I’ll admit Hyenas were never my favorite, but once I saw them in real life, my opinion completely changed and now I will say that after lions, Hyennas are what I want to see most while on safari. Nice blog!

    Wendy Hawkins says:

    James this is an extremely interesting write up on these totally misunderstood predators, but I need you to sort out one more “myth” for me & that they only have 2 teats, yet I have seen on some of your daily posts & more on the KNP page, there are 3 pups??? Thank you also for bringing that wonderful movie into this story <3 Look forward to more interesting Hyena information. Enjoy the rest of the week in your Paradise 🙂

    James Souchon says:

    Hi Wendy, it is unusual for a female to have 3 pups because, as you pointed out they do only have 2 teats. It’s just another example of how animals are constantly surprising us and doing things that they “aren’t supposed to do” according to the textbooks and field guides. In this case it will be interesting to watch the pups and see how they cope, unfortunately what sometimes happens is the weakest of the 3 might not be able to compete with the other 2 siblings for food.

    Madeleine Poulin says:

    Thank You for your attention James. All the attacks I am referring of occurred to children at night. According to witnesses they were made by silent and well organized Hyenas packs.

    Despite this, Hyenas retain my admiration because of the sophistication of their social organization.

Join the conversationLeave a reply below

Your email will be kept private.

Connect with Londolozi

Follow Us

facebook
twitter
google
youtube
pinterest

Sign up for our newsletter

Send this to friend