We heard the hyenas from a long way away; just under four kilometres from a quick Google Earth reference.
Hyena whoops are a regular sound in the night or early morning, but more often than not it’s a simple territorial or contact call being given, and we generally don’t think too much of it. This was different. There were many hyenas all calling together, their distant cries a freakish blend of cackles, screams and howls.
The quickest way to try and pinpoint the source of animal calls is to triangulate the position between different rangers operating at different points on the reserve. Knowing Grant Rodewijk and Jerry Hambana were somewhere in the north, we radioed them to switch off their Land Rover to listen, as we sped in the general direction of the calls. Meanwhile Granite Camp Manager Graeme Gullacksen was enjoying an early morning cup of coffee on Varty Camp Deck, and he too heard the cacophony of hyenas sounds, so got on the radio to give his reference point.
Within three minutes we had narrowed it down to the big block south of Ximpalapala koppie, and as our vehicle arrived on the crest, four hyenas raced across our front, heading down towards the drainage line, on the far side of which we could hear renewed calling belting out. Something was definitely happening, but whether the local wild dog pack had made a kill which brought the clan in, or the hyenas were fighting lions, we couldn’t yet say.
The steep drainage line (creek bed) proved tricky to cross in a Land Rover, and the four running hyenas we had been trying to stick with through the bush had out-distanced us. By the time we found a crossing point and made it to the opposite crest, we were thrilled to suddenly be caught in the middle of what was very clearly a turf war between two different hyena clans.
Ranger Alex Jordan and Tracker Lucky Shabangu had also heard the commotion and come in from the opposite direction, and they found the remains of two impala kills which the two battling groups were contesting ownership of. One clan would move into to try and force the other off the kill, but their advances would be swiftly repulsed, at which point they would flee, with the others in hot pursuit. Then the chasing clan would return to the impala carcasses, only to have the others follow them in another attempt to steal the kills away.
It was constant back-and-forth, back-and-forth, and although there was no physical contact that we saw while there, the noises that the over twenty hyenas were making was the most impressive thing about the sighting:
The theory we formed afterwards is that the two impalas were killed by wild dogs (who are often trailed by hyenas that hope for a share of the spoils). We found tracks of at least two dogs leaving the scene. Once the first clan moved in and clashed with the pack, the second clan heard the commotion and moved in themselves, causing the whole thing to escalate.
The reality is that the various hyena clans that operate across Londolozi (of which there are more than likely four or five), have dynamics every bit as complex – if not more so – than the resident lion prides. Matriarchs rule the clans, with their female offspring being born into privilege, males skulking around the sidelines, centralised and communal denning systems, established territorial marking points, and a whole host of other unique characteristics that make them one of Africa’s most fascinating species.
If they always patrolled as a group (and were a bit easier to tell apart as individuals), it may well be that a bit more emphasis would be placed on understanding the inter-clan dynamics, but the fact that they forage largely alone, and it’s only occasionally that we see interactions like the one described above, makes it almost impossible to draw the lines of where each clan operates without a dedicated researcher following them as they go about their business. We can only identify their different den sites, and maybe start to recognise the individuals that are seen regularly at each one.
I find it wonderfully refreshing (and frustrating) that although we’re out in the bush daily, seeing hyenas all the time, there is something as interesting and dramatic as this inter-clan competition happening right under our noses, yet we know so little about it…