Some people refer to Spotted Hyaenas as one of the “ugly 5” and as cowardly, vicious scavengers, but they are rather amazing carnivores and unique in some very special ways.
Most people will describe them as a dog-like creature adapted to cracking 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!
Spotted Hyaenas occur widely in sub-Saharan Africa in almost all habitats but is absent from tropical forests. They are most easily seen in Kruger National Park in South Africa, Etosha in Namibia, South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, Chobe in Botswana, the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Their distinctive call is one of Africa’s most famous night sounds.
There exists several misguided beliefs when it comes to the “Spotty”, as some safari guides will call them, but they clearly boast several unique features and traits.
They are mainly crepuscular and 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. They are also the only mammals not to have an external vaginal opening.
Their social organisation is based on a matriarchal clan system in which females are dominant over males; even the lowest ranking female is higher than the highest ranking male. This complex system is unlike any other carnivores, and is actually closer to the system employed by certain primates.
Spotted Hyaenas do no only eat carrion as is commonly believed; they hunt quite often and usually kill by disembowelling their prey. They are very adaptable and opportunistic when it comes to hunting. They prey on antelope, Plains Zebra and even African Buffalo, but will also take smaller animals like hares and birds. When hungry, Spotted Hyaenas can consume up to 18 kgs of meat quickly! They hunt alone, in small parties or even in large groups. During a hunt they select an individual, usually a young or injured one, to attack. Once selected, their prey is chased over a long distances at speeds of up to 60 kph.
Hyaenas are misunderstood by most cultures, but unless we start to view them as at least interesting or even cute, they will be soon gone! The IUCN categorises Spotted Hyaenas as Least Concern, with the world population being between 27,000 and 47,000, but the numbers are decreasing rapidly. Populations in protected areas are stable but outside, the main threats include persecution for livestock raiding, accidental snaring, cultural beliefs and at times fear, or shooting for fun and target practice.
Join one of our Zambia Safaris and Tours to experience these wonderful animals with us.