“If there is character, ugliness becomes beauty; if there is none, beauty becomes ugliness” – Nigerian proverb
In my opinion the above proverb epitomizes a predator we often overlook – the Spotted Hyena. For decades spotted hyenas have been seen as the dirty, the dark, smelly and cunning scavengers of the African bush and have been the subjects of many superstitions and myths. In African folklore it is believed that hyenas represent witches in disguise; in books and films they are often perceived as the villains of the story. As much as I enjoyed my childhood days of watching The Lion King over and over again – it didn’t do them any justice at portraying their true character.
There is no better built up atmosphere than sitting around a camp fire with a hyena whooping in the background. Their eerie whoop travelling multiple kilometers as they communicate with others from their own or rival clan. It’s the quintessential scene of the African bush. There are around 14 different calls we can take note of with which hyenas communicate, proving they have one of the most diverse and complex vocal systems. They are even believed to communicate at frequencies lower than we can hear, much like elephants.
In nature, every animal has its own niche it fits into. Whilst they do join vultures and form part of nature’s clean-up crew, cowardly scavengers they are not. Hyenas have one of the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom and an adult’s bite pressure can reach up to 1000 lbs. per square inch; perfect for crushing bones and removal of a carcass. They have the perfect love-hate relationship with other predators. If they have the advantage in numbers they can drive other predators such as lions away from their kill, although these roles can be reversed and lions will happily drive hyenas away from one of their successful kills.
Hyenas are also incredible hunters relying on speed, endurance and teamwork to catch their prey which includes anything from wildebeest down to smaller antelope. It has been estimated that they kill between 50-75% of their own food; not bad for an animal that is perceived to live off rotting carcasses and scraps. Their patience is astounding as they can quietly sit below a tree for two days while a leopard feeds above, waiting for the smallest piece of meat to fall. This seconds the old proverb of “good things come to those who wait”.
Spotted hyenas are fascinating carnivores with complex social structures similar to that of primates such as baboons. Which gives clear evidence of their immense intelligence and ability to keep learning.
Females are more dominant than males and can be anywhere from ten to thirty percent larger than males. Their large clans form complex social structures so even the lowest ranking female is higher than the highest-ranking male. Females dominate and have more testosterone than males which results in females growing a pseudo-penis, which they use for everything from urinating to giving birth. It can thus be very difficult to tell the difference between males and females, which has resulted in years of confusion.
Hyenas are in perfect harmony within the ecosystem we have all come to love on safari. They have an important symbiotic relationship with many animals. After oxidizing and drying out, their white calcium rich droppings may be consumed by tortoises which is believed to assist in hardening shells. Diseases would be prevalent if hyenas didn’t exist as they will consume and digest dead carcasses, cleaning up the environment.
They may not showcase the beautiful gold and black rosettes of a leopard or the tawny coat of a lion but their grey/brown coat covered in spots with large bear-like ears and inquisitive nature holds beauty in its own. If one is fortunate enough to spend time at a den site it will put all negative connotations at ease. Hyena cubs are some of the cutest and playful mammals in the entire animal kingdom, possessing an array of character. Large brown eyes and inquisitive yet mischievous behaviour will put everyone in awe.
So next time you see them, take a moment to marvel at these vitally important, beautiful, characterful mammals of the African bush. They will truly change a negative into a positive mind-set.