Some people refer to Hyaenas as one of the “ugly 5” and vicious, but they are rather amazing carnivores and unique in a special way.
Most people will describe them as a dog-like creature adapted to cranking bones! Evolution does not support this statement because ancient forms of Hyaenas were more like modern mongooses with no specialised teeth. Taxonomically, Hyaenas belong to the sub-Order Feliformis (Cat-like) and family Hyaeninidae. This implies they are more closely related to cats than dogs! Four species are recognised: Spotted, Brown, Striped and the Aardwolf. Spotted Hyaenas are the most abundant carnivores in Africa and exhibit a wide habitat tolerance.
They are known to have very large home ranges and being superpredators, a breeding clan will have adverse effects on the prey base and consequently on other predators like Leopards and Cheetahs. Inter-specific (different species) competition is more likely to be tense in the presence of a breeding clan in a closed ecosystem.
They are mainly nocturnal animals as they spend most of the warm days sleeping in thick bushes. They are distinguished from other mammalian carnivores by having a suite of cranio-dental features (heavy skull weighing up to 3 kgs), bone elements in the middle ear and specific characteristics of the deciduous teeth that are slender and not specialised. When hungry, Spotted Hyaenas can consume up to 18 kgs of meat quickly and females do not regurgitate meat for the young ones, like the Brown Hyaena. Spotted Hyaenas’ social organisation is based on a matriarchal system in which females are dominant over males; even the lowest ranking female is higher than the highest ranking male.
Hyaenas are misunderstood by most cultures, but unless we start to view them as cute, they will be soon gone! Some of the myths and contentions about Hyaenas include being hermaphrodites. Various true hermaphrodites like the Giant African Land Snail, and various invertebrates, are well known but the Hyaena is not one of them. Female vaginal labia look like scrotum and they have a pseudopenis.
Some believe they only eat carrion. Yes, Brown Hyaenas eat more carrion whereas Spotted Hyaenas hunt quite often and usually kill by disembowelling. Hyaenas are believed to commonly prey on livestock. Spotted Hyaenas will from time to time, but Brown and Striped Hyaenas usually feed on carrion, fruits, insects, eggs etc. They are usually accused of stock-raiding and hence persecuted. In northern parts of Africa, some people believe Hyaenas can make good pets whereas being seen with a Hyaena in the south means witchcraft. Either way these beliefs do not save them. Where they are potential pets, they are muzzled to avoid bites, implying an unhappy animal. Where they are associated with witchcraft, they are often persecuted.
The IUCN categorises Spotted Hyaenas as Least Concern, world populations being between 27 000- 47 000 (2008), but decreasing rapidly. Populations in protected areas are stable but outside, the main threats include persecution for livestock raiding, beliefs and at times fear or shooting for fun and target practice. Numbers shot for sport hunting are very low because they are not considered to be an attractive species.
It is time we do something to save these fascinating creatures. Get involved in local projects to conserve them and their habitat, or join us on one of our safaris in Southern Africa to learn more about these animals and see them in their natural habitat.