Spotted Hyaena: Africa’s Misunderstood Top Predator

Many tourists to Botswana’s beautiful Okavango will have the privilege of seeing spotted hyaena on safari, yet so often in Africa, these misunderstood predators barely get a second glance. People will queue for hours to watch the ears or a paw of some lions somewhere in the long grass; they will follow a leopard for ages snapping away or even follow a pack of wild dog on the hunt hoping they will make a kill!

BUT the hyaena and particularly the spotted hyena Crocuta crocuta, battles to get the same amount of viewing time as its other large carnivore counterparts. Hyaena are beautiful… they won’t win any competitions among predator-lovers for their looks but they have their own beauty and their cubs are just adorable!

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Good looks however, have not played much of a role in what makes these top predators so successful and this is where it becomes interesting…

While hyaena have been traditionally thought of as predominantly scavengers many studies show that this is not correct at all. In fact some scientists have mentioned that in certain areas, lions probably scavenge more from hyaenas than the other way around! In Gus Mills’ findings on spotted hyaena activity in South Africa’s Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, he found that packs of hyaena would actively hunt gemsbok (oryx) calves as well as other species. Their tactics would result in chases going on for kilometres before eventually bringing down the exhausted antelope calf. He also noted from his findings that spotted hyaena in this same area hunted more than they scavenged. This type of finding was no doubt groundbreaking in the way people started to view hyaena. However the old belief of their being exclusively scavengers is still stuck in many people’s minds.

Our Botswana Environmental department does a lot of the wildlife monitoring in Wilderness Safaris’ concession areas. They work hand in hand with the guides as well as with many scientists, and we even sometimes gain valuable information from our guests! This ongoing wildlife monitoring has resulted in some great finds and we are learning more and more about predation habits of the spotted hyaena; specifically in the Linyanti concession and the Mombo area of Chief’s Island.

While a formal study beckons in northern Botswana and may possibly be undertaken in the near future, many records of their hunting habits have already been documented. And many interesting findings have been accrued.

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These two hyaenas were definitely up to something! There were quite a few more around and from the audio there had been a kill in the area. This image was taken at Mombo, where hyena have been rumoured to gather in huge numbers. Reliable records have shown there to be in excess of 50 hyaena at a buffalo carcass while other less reliable records put the number at 80 at a single sighting. Irrespective of the record, there are certainly many big gatherings at carcasses and I have witnessed 20+ hyaena at a kill in Mombo on several occasions.

Some studies have shown that hyaena populations tend to increase with an increase in lion populations. This is an interesting theory, which I have noticed to a certain extent as well in the Mombo area of the Okavango. In 2012 with the high inundation there were at least 70 lions that all used part of the core almost 10 000 ha game drive area. In 2013 I counted 66 different hyaena in this area. While lion numbers have noticeably decreased hyaena numbers still seem very high. Will the hyaena population decrease again too? We will be keeping tabs on this with a view to producing formalized findings.

If the Mombo population of hyaenas is interesting, then the Linyanti hyaena population takes the cake! The nature of the thick bush of the Linyanti makes some of our monitoring very tricky, but one thing we are seeing more and more signs of is the active role that hyaenas play in hunting young elephant. In my time in the Linyanti I have witnessed this event a number of times and have often arrived at the kill minutes after it has been made. People would argue that hyaena are scavenging but fortunately more and more evidence is pointing to the fact that they are actively killing large numbers of young elephant in the Linyanti. Guides have witnessed take-downs first hand and there are many young elephant that have missing tails and trunks in an area that has very little snare poaching. If you still don’t believe that hyaena can hunt young elephant then perhaps the image below will change your mind and give credit to the incredible calculation which hyaenas have developed to make such kills!

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In this instance, a female elephant successfully defends her calf from a pack of hyaena – Image courtesy of James Weiss.

Written and Photographed by Nic Proust. This blog has been reposted in partnership with Wilderness Safaris. 

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2016-11-16T22:19:30+00:00