So Hard To Like Hyena-Kind, But…

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…they are interesting animals, though you certainly would not want to meet one at close quarters. That they are purely scavengers is a myth. They are powerful killers too, and don’t mind the odd human. The spotted hyenas in the photo (taken early one Mara morning) are the largest of the three hyena species, and come with the strongest bone-grinding jaws of any land predator. They live in clans of 5 – 30 individuals and recognise one another by scent.

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Further interesting features include the facts that females are larger than males. They remain in their natal clan for life, are dominant over the males while the largest, most aggressive of them rules over all hunting and territorial defence tactics. The dominant female’s sons outrank all other clan members, and remain in the clan longer than their male age-mates. In the end, though, all the males born from clan females eventually leave to live in nomadic male groups until they can join a new unrelated clan, though this only happens after a trial period wherein they must demonstrate appropriate submissiveness to the new female boss.

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They look ungainly creatures, so low-slung-short-legged in the rear, but this shambling appearance is deceptive too. They can break into a gallop, and sustain speeds of up to 30 miles per hour (48 kph) over distances of  a mile and more. They will chase down adult wildebeest and zebra until the prey is exhausted, and then duly disembowel them. Many pounds and kilos of meat will be gobbled at one go, and every bone crushed and consumed to extract the marrow. I remember once in Zambia, on a pre-dawn drive seeing a hyena so well fed, it could barely drag its stomach home to its den. I’ve read too, that these contents will be turned around within 24 hours, giant meat-grinder style, and the end product droppings quite white from all the processed bone.

Hm. I’m not winning over friends for hyenas, am I?  Still, they do clear up the place when in scavenging mode, as they are in these photos, though the lions were not keen to share their leftovers. But then hyenas, along with other predators, doubtless also help to keep herd animals healthy by recycling the weakest members, and the pursuit itself, predators on the hooves of herbivores, may have a key role to play in the maintaining  the Serengeti-Mara eco-systems.

These grasslands of 10,000 square miles support a million and a half wildebeest, which every year, along with large herds of zebra, migrate between wet- and dry-season pastures. Zimbabwean ecologist, Alan Savory, contends that a key role of predators is to keep herbivores bunched and moving, and that this in turn ensures the continuous sustenance and recovery of the grasslands that in turn support the herds. A virtuous circle then.

So: hyenas do have their place in the natural order of things. All the same, I think I’ll end this post with a photo of the lions who were most determined not to share even though they had  clearly had a very good breakfast:

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KindaSquare #21

37 thoughts on “So Hard To Like Hyena-Kind, But…

  1. No, you did not make me a fan but that doesn’t mean hyenas aren’t interesting creatures. Every animal in the jungle has its story.

  2. They are extraordinary creatures, and so essential that I am kinda a fan. Not in any rush though to meet them, and specially not the females by the sounds of it!!

      1. From memory a lion has a pretty low kill rate. Something like 30 percent. With a pack of hyenas however it is pretty close to 100 percent. They are by far the most scary creatures in The Lion King too.

  3. Hyenas aren’t that bad. Even the ugliest can find a mate. In kafue, they hunt rather than scavenge, but in South Luangwa they have around leopards, waiting to steal their kill. Sometimes the leopards make a kill for the hyenas so they can get some peace and make a kill for themselves. A hyena near my house used to make a weird hoarse cry at night. We joked that he had covid.

  4. We have a younger daughter who really likes hyenas for some reason. 🙂 She made a T-shirt for my husband with hyenas printed around the bottom. We do need predators, though, and there are problems when they’re run out of areas because of humans. For instance, the deer population in our suburban Ohio city was quite large, which isn’t good for anyone, including the deer. In a nearby city, the city leaders planned to cull the deer using sharpshooters, but people protested. They tend to see deer as Bambis rather than animals whose natural enemies are no longer tolerated or tolerate being around so many people. Sigh. Can’t exactly reintroduce wolves to get rid of the deer. If the deer were animals that weren’t cute, like hyenas, people would be happy to get rid of them.


    1. It is a thorny problem with deer, I agree. Without predators they definitely become too plentiful and often diseased. And they carry diseases. I’m pondering on the reintroduction of wolves though…

      1. Wolves were reintroduced in places in the west, including Wyoming. There are mixed feelings. Ranchers don’t like the loss of animals while other like trying to re-balance the natural order.

      2. Yes, I can well see all the reservations re ranching, but I think the re-introduction in the wildlife parks of northern Europe, Estonia-Latvia has wrought some very positive changes. I suppose the big difficulty is ensuring enough natural territory to keep them from wanting to come and live with us.

  5. I love your African photographs. I always wanted to go there, but Garry didn’t. He was hung on Europe and especially on the south of France (wine country). He also liked being places where there were nice hotels with bathrooms with hot water. The man is NOT a camper. But I wanted to go. Your pictures are as close as I get.

    1. Am happy to provide some glimpses. Actually we never roughed it, not in Kenya, Zimbabwe or Zambia. The tented camps and park lodges have all mod cons, some far more luxurious than your average 4* hotel. The road travel can be a bit rough though.

    1. And that is very lovely of you, Dries. But you are right. How can one think of the African bush without the night sounds of hyenas. And of course they make great characters in so many indigenous stories.

  6. So interesting Tish, although no you didn’t win me over. They’re not easy to love, but as you point out they have their place in the order of things. This reminded me of writing about the wild pigs on Borneo – not remotely attractive, but very important in the ecology of the forest.

  7. I think Margaret is right about hyenas lack of cuteness being a problem for we image-obsessed humans. I’m fascinated by the idea of the herds fleeing being essential to grassland maintenance. It gels with what I’ve been reading about regenerative agriculture and makes so much sense.

    1. I agree we are image-obsessed, Su, and make often poor judgements accordingly. As to the regenerative agriculture movement, I’m pretty sure that Alan Savory was its originator. He was involved with elephant culling in the 60s-70s because conservation opinion at the time held there were too many elephants in the African parks. He came to believe that this was so entirely wrong in all senses, that he started experiments in land regeneration. He seems to have severe critics in the development/conservation world, (I’m not sure why) but farmers who are using his system or similar seem to have some astonishingly good results. Even in the UK, where I think farmers call it the paddock system.

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