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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.