Of all the wild animals in Africa, spotted hyenas are surely among the most maligned. Whether it’s African folklore, Disney movies or wildlife documentaries, they are often depicted as ruthless bullies and scavengers. Their calls can send a chill up many a person’s spine, thanks to them being used to portray danger in the night and their cackling interaction as laughing, while they steal hard won meals from their grandiose competitors.
Let’s dispel these myths and talk about why we should cherish the creatures, that our natural eco-system is absolutely dependent on for a healthy environment.
- Hyenas are scavengers – Given the opportunity to scavenge or steal prey from a rival carnivore, they will take it – but so would any other carnivore including lions and leopards, which everyone still loves. It’s a behaviour termed kleptoparasitism and it’s all about survival – they reduce the risk of being injured during a hunt and save the energy required for a successful hunt. Spotted hyena are actually excellent hunters and no less than 50% of the prey they consume comes from their own hunting efforts. They can run up to 40-50km per hour over several kilometres, making them formidable hunters and one of the top predators in the African savannas.
- Hyenas are team players – Hyenas are one of the most social of all carnivores. Cubs are reared communally, although females only suckle their own offspring. This sense of community within each clan enables improved vigilance of adults and thus an effective defence of territory and food.
- Hyena cackle and laugh and make sinister sounding whooping calls – Hyenas are excellent communicators with a wide repertoire of vocalisations. The high pitched cackling heard at kills or when competing for carcasses, is often referred to as a “laugh,” but it is actually a submissive call, showing that the individual making the sound is not a threat. The other call spotted hyenas are well known for is the “whoop.” This is a long-distance call used to communicate to other clan members to establish and maintain contact with each other. This is one of the most iconic sounds of the night in the African bush.
- Females rule the roost – Hyena clans are dominated by females and there is a strict hierarchy. The highest ranking female gets first preference on any kills, helping her to reproduce more quickly and successfully than females further down the pecking order. Male and females are difficult to tell apart as the female has an elongated clitoris which forms a fully erectile pseudopenis, through which they urinate, copulate and give birth. It’s the only female mammal that has no external vaginal opening.
Life in the wild can be tough and the Spotted hyenas have evolved to become exceptional predators and survivors. Not only do they survive, but they also play a vital role, along with vultures and jackals. Death comes to all and it is no different in the wild. It does not take long for the bodies of deceased animals to start to decompose, but thanks to this effective cleaning crew, the carcasses disappear within no time, eliminating the risk of disease outbreak.
Mashatu has a healthy population of hyenas, playing a vital role in maintaining our eco-system. Just as we cherish our leopards, lions and cheetahs, so too, we love our spotted hyenas.