It will come as a surprise to many people that spotted hyenas are generally representative of a highly developed and pristine ecosystem. Misunderstood by many and vilified by some, these highly adapted predators are in fact a keystone species in many of their native habitats, meaning the effect they have on their ecosystem is disproportionate to their abundance; without certain keystone species, degradation or even collapse of an ecosystem is possible. After a dramatic upheaval or die-out in a wilderness area, hyenas are usually the last large mammals to repopulate, so their presence is often indicative of a habitat that has been left to its own devices for years, and has returned to a system in homeostasis.
On Londolozi, the spotted hyena population is certainly healthy, and looks like it has grown over the last couple of years since the Majingilane began moving westward. Most hoisted leopard kills have a hyena or two circling under them these days, and the three den-sites close to camp are active on most afternoons and mornings, with ranger Sean Zeederberg reporting over twenty individuals at one of them recently.
The reproductive success rate of hyenas is remarkable in itself, especially among large carnivores in the wild. Whilst lions struggle to get even 20% of their offspring through to independence, hyenas boast the reverse, with up to an 80% success rate in some areas. In one study conducted in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro crater, the hyena population grew by a consistent 8.5% over 15 years. Two of the main reasons for their success is their long-term use of a highly protective den site (cubs are not exposed to unsafe scavenging forays at night), and the extremely high protein content of the mother’s milk – hence the cubs can remain at the den for up to 18 months without having to go and look for food. Hyena milk in fact has the highest protein content of any terrestrial mammal.
Knowing the hyenas are reproducing successfully is one thing, but to see an actual copulation in the wild is incredibly rare. A short while ago, while driving through some open marula woodland to the south of camp, some movement in the distance caught our attention, and upon closer inspection we found a hyena couple occupied in – well, attempting – an amorous engagement.
I have been fortunate enough to have witnessed it once before, but it wasn’t until I read an article by Dr Kay Holecamp, a researcher at Michigan State University, who at the time of the article had been studying hyenas in the wild for over twenty years, that I realised how lucky I was to have seen such an event. Dr Holenkamp, in all her time with these predators, reckoned she only witnessed about two copulations a year. One of her research assistants had only seen them mating once in a year of observing them for several hours a day. The unique structure of hyena genitalia makes mating awkward, and the act usually only takes place after a number of unsuccessful attempts. Interestingly enough, Dr Holenkamp observes that,
“the mating couple is therefore completely vulnerable to lions and other dangers during this ‘lock’ period. This vulnerability suggests why the hyenas appear to seek out the most private and safe places possible in which to copulate.“
This was certainly not what we saw on the morning in question, as the pair was on an open crest with extensive visibility all round. Maybe this is exactly why they were there; they would be able to see potential danger coming from a long way off.
The male made numerous attempts to mount the female, which makes sense according to Dr Holenkamp’s research, as she has found that the males literally need practice to be able to get it right, which can take a number of months!
We’ll save a description of the intricacies of the actual mating for another day, suffice it to say that we were incredibly lucky to witness one of nature’s rare events out in the open like this. The first time I saw it we were in a dense thicket, and there happened to be the rotting carcass of an impala nearby, the smell of which was the most disgusting I’d ever smelt, before or since.
This second instance was a vast improvement, both visually and aromatically, and we were even more fortunate to be able to capture it on film.