No laughing matter

‘Ugly’…’cowardly…. ‘thieving’… It seems nobody has a kind word for the spotted hyena. We look beyond the popular prejudice, and find a complex and versatile predator

HyenaPandemonium in the bush: a pride of lions battle to defend their kill from hyenas. Outnumbered, the cats lash out at their tormentors. But their thunderous snarls serve only to stoke the maniacal giggling to fever pitch, inviting yet more hyenas to the fray. It’s only a matter of time before the lions have to beat an ignominious retreat.

This may seem a familiar scenario: you’ll have seen it on countless wildlife documentaries – or perhaps even in the flesh. The lions, so the story usually goes, made the kill. But the hyenas – those thieving scavengers – ganged up and, by sheer weight of numbers, forced the cats to relinquish their hard-earned prize. The bad guys won, in other words. Nature can be terribly unjust.

Except that nature is not always what it seems. Can we really be sure in this scenario who were the hunters and who the scavengers? Studies in the Serengeti have revealed that lions thieve hyena kills rather more often than vice versa. You may have arrived to find the big cats at the carcass with the hyenas hanging back, but this tells you nothing about who did the spade work.

The spotted hyena, Africa’s most successful large predator, is surely one of its most misunderstood animals. Doomed by central casting to play the role of cowardly villain in our anthropomorphic take on the natural world, it has long inspired little but fear and loathing, from African folklore to Disney’s Lion King.

Yet these intelligent and resourceful animals are among nature’s most fascinating. Yes, they are scavengers. But they are also skilled hunters in their own right – able, when working together, to bring down prey as large as zebra. Indeed, in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, hyenas obtain more than 80 per cent of their food by hunting; in South Africa’s Kruger Park about 50 per cent.

And anyway, what’s so wrong with scavenging? Hyenas are admirably adapted to their vital ecological role as bush clean-up merchants. A loping, energy-efficient gait allows them to track down carcasses over great distance; keen senses seize on such clues as the calls of lions or the sight of descending vultures; formidable jaws tear through the thickest hide and biggest bone, and powerful stomach acids can handle the most putrid flesh. Nothing goes to waste: a single hyena can eat 15kg at a sitting and consume a gazelle fawn in two minutes flat.

But the secret of this animal’s success is as much in its behaviour as its equipment. With a complex social system, and communication and parenting skills that put many of their critics to shame, hyenas have many admirable qualities. They even have a matriarchal clan structure. Contrast this with selfish, infanticidal lions – or the supposedly courageous leopard that will bolt at any trouble from a hyena.

So, if we must adopt a good guys/bad guys approach to the natural world, should we not at least be a little more even-handed and give this impressive animal the credit it deserves? A hyena fan club? You heard it here first.

Clan and communications
Spotted hyena clans vary in size from ten to sixty, depending on the local abundance of prey. Each comprises strict matriarchal hierarchies, presided over by a dominant female. High-ranking hyenas maintain their status through aggression towards lower-ranking clan-members, and the offspring of dominant females outrank adult females subordinate to their mother.

Advanced communication skills help hyenas negotiate these relationships. Indeed, hyenas show primate-like abilities to recognise such subtleties as, for instance, kinship ties between third parties. Tail, ears, mane and posture are all deployed in a complex body language to convey rank and emotion. Voice is also vital: hyenas foraging alone always keep in contact using their far-carrying whooping calls and can thus summon reinforcements quickly. Large gatherings generate a chorus of ghoulish cackling, as individuals renew bonds and jockey for position. Scent is important too: hyenas greet each other and establish bonds with much sniffing and licking of the nether regions, and mark their territory by ‘pasting’ a pungent secretion from the anal gland on strategic vegetation. Their white, bone-filled droppings look like meringues.

Denning down
Hyenas breed year round, with – on average – two cubs born in an underground den. Mortality is high among both cubs and first-time mothers, due to the restrictive nature of the birth canal. The cubs are born with black fur and, unusually for carnivores, eyes open and teeth erupted. Their mother nurses them on very protein-rich milk for up to 18 months – much longer than most carnivores. Cubs reach sexual maturity at three years; females staying within the natal clan while males move out to try their luck elsewhere.

Spotted hyenas rarely dig their own dens, preferring to use the abandoned burrows of other animals, such as warthogs. You can usually tell a hyena den from the bare earth around the entrance. Small passages inside enable the cubs to hide from predators while their mother is away. Several females may occupy a single den, and it is not uncommon to see up to 20 cubs at a single site.

Hyenas and people
Hyenas have long fired our imaginations. Some African societies associate them with witchcraft, others with funeral rites. In return, these canny opportunists have long learned to take advantage of people, stealing livestock, raiding rubbish tips or campsites, and adapting to urban life in cities from Addis Ababa to Lilongwe – subsisting on refuse and urban prey such as feral dogs. Occasional attacks on humans suggest that you underestimate these powerful predators at your peril: in 1962 one pair of outsized hyenas killed 27 people in Mulanje, Malawi. In general, however, hyenas have a great deal more to fear from us – and it is a combination of persecution and habitat destruction that has seen their numbers decline rapidly in recent decades.

Species Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)
Length 120–185cm (plus 25–35cm tail)
Weight 45–85kg (female ±12 per cent bigger than male)
Food Wide variety of prey, from small birds to mammals as large as young elephant (mean prey weight ±100kg); scavenges from refuse and carcasses; digests bone
Reproduction Average two cubs born after ±110 days’ gestation: weaned at 16 months; mature at three years
Habitat Open country, from grassland and semi-desert to open woodland
Distribution Sub-Saharan Africa, except for Namib Desert and Congo Basin, largely in protected areas
Status Least Concern (IUCN), but population in decline.