Spotted hyenas have always been an integral part of the bush experience for me. Growing up camping in various places throughout Southern Africa I would not think my bush experience was complete (or had even started) until I had seen a hyena.
The moment I saw the first hyena on each trip was the moment in which I felt that I was really in the bush. The animal is so African, so unique…
Many people have preconceived ideas about these fascinating scavengers from watching sensationalised wildlife documentaries or listening to biased opinions of others. Many of these ideas and opinions are negative. We as guides hear these opinions from many people as they get into the Land Rover for their very first safari ride. But will you really know what a hyena is like if you haven’t observed them in the wild? Or if you have’t done your research?
The presence of Hyenas is ultimately one of the great sign of a healthy ecosystem…
What I usually ask guests to do is give the hyena a chance; to try restart with a blank slate, and to rather observe the animal for a while and see what happens. Almost every time, once they’ve seen the real animal in it’s natural environment, behaving in a way that can’t be misrepresented by a specific shot selection in a documentary, the shift begins…
Hyenas are the ultimate opportunists. Yes, they feed on carrion where possible and are incredible at finding it. But they are also proficient hunters of prey ranging from insects to blue wildebeests. Their digestion has adapted to process bones and skin and their jaws are among the strongest of the large carnivores. Your human jaw has about 150-200 PSI (pounds per square inch) of biting power… the hyena has 1100 PSI enabling them to crush a buffalo’s thigh bone! Their digestion is so strong that they have the ability to digest diseases they ingest, carried by the animals they feed on. This prevents that disease from being spread through the bush!
Yes, they steal food from other predators. Yes, it is not ideal seeing a leopard lose its hard earned kill to a hyena. But, think of how well the hyena placed itself in that moment. Think of how the hyena arrived there with perfect timing to take the leopard’s prize for itself. Why is the Tracker Academy’s symbol a hyena? Because hyenas are the best trackers in the bushveld. If humans had a hyena’s tracking skillset we would find leopards on every drive!
I have noticed that hyenas have a special ability to pick out sick, weak or old herbivores; in my opinion they can do this better than the other predator. Hyenas will sometimes see a vulnerable individual and chase it immediately, without any attempt at remaining hidden, because they know they can outrun their target. They know just from watching the animal that it is weak enough to pursue. Hyenas will sometimes run towards a herd of antelope to scatter them; this will immediately reveal the weak individual(s), and the chase will start. Hyenas can reach a speed of 60km/h (37mph) but will usually maintain a pace of between 30-40km/h (18-25mph) for as long as 5km (3 miles)!
All this and I haven’t yet mentioned their cubs. A hyena den may be one of the most memorable sightings you have on a safari. Aside from the fact that the cubs are adorable, they are exciting to watch playing around the den. Hyena cubs are usually more confident and inquisitive than lion or leopard cubs. If you are lucky, the cubs may investigate the vehicle and come right up close to peer up at you.
Spotted hyenas will always be an animal I want to see in the bush, just as much as I do an elephant or lion. They have unfortunately received a stigma that can only be undone by watching these incredible animals in their natural environment…
Filed under Wildlife
Bruce, this blog post truly captures my experience with hyenas, as I definitely had preconceived notions about them which were initially confirmed on our first game drive. Hyenas surrounded our vehicle as we observed a leopard protecting its catch in a tree–very scary. Our ranger, Trevor, began the education process. Two days later, we came upon a den. The cubs were very playful and approached our vehicle. One began licking the tires. It was a calm family scene in direct contrast to our initial encounter,
The recent Lion King movie also did them a disservice.
I love Hyhenas……… Always did! They are quite interesting to watch, because they are so different in build and manners than the cats. Also the little ones are really beautiful and it is interesting to see how they grow up and change into adults. They are often quite easy to follow as they are not very interested in vehicles and just do their thing. Really lovely animals, with also a good job in the whole setting, cleaning up and reasuring only the strong survive and reproduce
I appreciate this perspective, and I observed it this last Safari. Thanks
Bruce, wonderful blog today. We saw den of Hyenas when we were there 2017, the pups came right to the Land Rover, just like you said. We also noticed that female had a penis! Unbelievable! We returned in 2018 (we have been there 4x’s now and will return in 2020 to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary – hope to see some hyenas on that trip)
Hi Bruce, I know you told us all about the hey as and how necessary they are to th ecology of the bush. You are correct, I have to admit I don’t like them a lot although the babies are cute. I will try to make more of an effort to respect them. Hope you are well. Victoria
What a great story and pictures of the hyena. All I have ever seen is what they show on the nature shows thanks so much on giving the hyena a different view.
Bruce, such an informative article about the much maligned hyena. I find them fascinating to watch individually or as a family unit. My favorite moments spent with one occurred when this female tried to ingratiate herself with a small pack of wild dogs in the hopes of an easy meal. Needless to say, they took off leaving her in their dust and she followed at a distance only to see them fail to catch an impala. She watched them disperse into the trees and finally slunk off, perhaps considering other
options. Ultimately I felt a bit sorry for her……
I agree totally, Bruce! I love to watch the cubs and listen to the calls of the adults. I certainly have never seen a cub make that sound! Wow, that must have been something. Amazing animals and they are beautiful if you aren’t watching them tear apart a carcass. I say that knowing I feel the same about all animals! I doubt that I look too good when I am tearing into a nice cut of meat myself! 😂
I was one of those first time safari goers who put hyena in the “mean and evil” category thanks to The Lion King….until I sat at a hyena den. Now they are among my favorite. ❤️❤️❤️
The MOST misunderstood animal in Africa and my favorite African animal! Thanks for this post!
Interesting information Bruce. We were fortunate to see brown hyena almost every day in Botswana and luckily on spotted. They are amazing animals.