It has been a while since I have seen serious interaction between lions and hyenas. Over 2 years in fact. Come to think about it, it was while I was still training as a ranger when the Tsalala and Sparta prides both made kills on the airstrip within 300m of each other, and about 25 hyenas came running in out of the darkness to dive into the chaos, which was about 3 years ago, that I last witnessed one of these iconic African clashes. Considering the number of lions and hyenas on Londolozi, that is a long time to go without seeing a serious encounter between these two predators. That is not to say that they are not taking place, I just haven’t been there to witness them.
Having said that, hyena vs lion battles are certainly few and far between here. One thing we certainly have in our favour, not just on Londolozi but in the Sabi Sands in general, is the number of leopards that occur. Perfect habitat for these magnificent cats and an abundant supply of food in the form of impalas, duikers, warthogs and probably 50 other prey species means that the size of the leopard territories recorded here are some of the smallest in the world. With small territories, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that more leopards can therefore fit in a given area, hence the high number.
Now imagine you were a hyena. Would you fancy your chances of robbing a pride of lions of their kill? An adult female hyena can weigh in the region of 80kgs whereas a big lioness can be nearly double that, and a male lion even more! An oft-quoted figure is that there would need to be 3 or 4 hyenas per lioness to even out the odds, with 4 or 5 per male lion. This is just throwing out figure without statistical backing, but it serves to highlight the fact that it’s really down to a numbers game.
If you were that same hyena, your chances of success against a leopard would be much, much higher. Yes, leopards hoist their kills, but if you can come across the carcass before it has been hoisted, it can be a simple matter of driving the leopard away. The leopard is much smaller than a lion, and being a solitary animal, is extremely reluctant to enter into a physical conflict in which it could get injured and lose it’s hunting ability. A female leopard is much smaller than an adult male, and a large hyena should have no trouble in driving her off her kill. Added to this is the fact that a smaller leopard lacks the strength to hoist larger kills like adult impalas straight away, and prolonged time on the ground while the leopard eats some of the carcass, lightening it before hoisting, exposes her to a greater chance of hyena kleptoparasitism (stealing food that has been caught by another animal).
Considering the inherent risks involved in stealing from lions as opposed to leopards, it is not surprising that we see far more hyena vs leopard interaction on Londolozi. It seems that the lions only have to worry about other lions, and the hyenas focus their efforts on the smaller cats. Adopting an approach that focuses primarily on the spotted cats also means that hyenas can forage individually instead of as a clan, and this explains why hyenas encountered here are more often than not by themselves. We as rangers often get asked why the hyenas are not ‘hunting in packs’ like wildlife documentaries generally portray them as doing, and i hope this will go a little way to explain it.
However, hyena numbers are still down. A year ago we ran a post entitled ‘Where Have the Hyenas Gone?” that looked at this very issue. The Majingilane and the lion population in general have killed and pressurised the hyenas out of the central Londolozi areas. They are still here, and their tracks are everywhere, but with the Majingilane still maintaining a stranglehold on the central Sabi Sands, the hyena population has not recovered. Yet.
Reports from the western sector are that the hyena population there is rife. Not so here. Leopards are still getting away with un-hoisted kills remaining on the ground overnight.
The further south you go on Londolozi, the further out of core Majingilane territory, the greater the chances of bumping into a hyena. Way down, beyond Tugwaan drive, the leopards still hoist as soon as possible. Recently, tracker Judas Ngomane, moving through the area with ranger Don Heyneke, caught a glimpse of a spotted golden coat at the base of a Weepin Boer Bean tree. Approaching, the two men saw a carcass hanging from the lower branches. The leopard was the Makhotini male, and in true opportunistic form, he had managed to snatch a buffalo calf from the fringes of the large herd that had passed through the day before. At the base of the tree were tracks and deep scuff marks where the enraged buffalo had tried to get at the leopard, but he had successfully hoisted his kill to safety and the buffalo had moved off.
Little was left of the carcass, but there was enough to attract the attention of two passing hyenas. Ranger lucien Beaumont managed to capture these images of the hyenas’ attempts to jump up to the meat:
This incident was remarkably similar to an attempt to rob a leopard seen a while ago in “The Comical Hyena”. So the hyenas are still here. We don’t see them quite as often, but when we do, it can be quite a spectacle!
Written by James Tyrrell
Photographed by Lucien Beaumont