What about hyenas?
Love them, or . . .
I like hyenas. I make an extra effort to see them, and I try to follow up on sightings whenever I go to the Addo Elephant Park (AEP). More often than not, I am not successful. Does this make me a sucker for punishment, or does it make that joy of eventually spotting one all the sweeter? Perhaps a bit of both.
Of course, not everyone loves hyenas and many people describe them as ugly, ungainly, cowardly and the list goes on. It is true they don’t have that same aesthetic beauty of a lioness slinking through the grass or the sublime sleekness of a leopard effortlessly dashing up a tree.
Hyenas are ugly. They are known as scavengers that make a horrendous cackling racket every time a ‘real’ hunter makes a kill. They emit an insane giggle when they steal dinner from another predator.
Hyenas front legs are longer than their hind legs giving their backs a buckled looking slope. They walk with lowered heads taking in the smells from the ground all the time and their strange posture makes them look ungainly as they skulk through the bushes. There are many reasons to describe hyenas as really ugly
I beg to differ, however. Ok, I admit, I’ll never convince anyone that a hyena could win a beauty pageant, but on the other hand they say that, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.
The image of hyenas was seriously tarnished by Disney animations and particularly the ‘Lion King’ film with three hyena evil henchmen, Shenzi, Banzai and Ed. The Disney fandom page says the hyenas are “perceived by most animals as being crazy, malicious, and dim-witted servants of Scar”.
Sadly more people attribute their understanding of the animal kingdom to Walt Disney than to David Attenborough. Perhaps the international associations of hyenas species should explore the possibility of changing their publicity agents.
There is also no doubt that hyenas are among the most intelligent animals. They employ creative strategies to hunt and to steal from other predators and many researchers believe that they are more intelligent than their arch-enemies – lions.
Their reputation as being primarily scavengers needs to be questions. If the hyenas in the AEP had to rely on what they could scavenge from lions they would be seriously hungry. There is more than enough proof of their relentless ability to hunt for themselves.
An earlier edition of the Real Safari Newsletter carried a dramatic photo of two hyenas killing a kudu bull in the Gwarrie waterhole.
Hyenas were introduced into the AEP in 2003 at about the same time as they introduced six lions. The reason for the introduction of the predators was to restore some sort of natural balance to the ecosystems of the park by keeping down the herbivore population.
While the current lion population in the main section stands at only three females and two males, I have not been able to work out how many hyenas remain in the park. Both the lion and hyena populations have been kept low by transferring animals to other reserves, but the Addo administration is secretive about its management strategies.
The question of hyena population figures has been discussed on social media linked to the AEP and the estimates vary considerably from as few as 16 to as many at 52. Personally, and for no logical reason that I can substantiate, I believe that there are about thirty spotted hyenas and a dozen or so brown hyenas in the in AEP.
The African Wildlife Foundation writes that there are three species of hyena: spotted (Crocuta Crocuta), brown (Parahyaena Brunnea) and striped (Hyaena Hyaena).
My wife, Ilza and I don’t get to see them very often. In fact, we haven’t seen a hyena at the AEP for about two years of regular visits. The first time we saw hyenas at Addo was near one of their dens several years ago. Two adolescent-looking animals were walking in the bush near some burrows in the ground right next to the road a few metres from Rooidam. Now every time we drive past that point we pause, we can’t help checking – it’s a reflex action.
I have never seen more than five spotted hyenas at one time in the AEP, but I have seen videos of up to sixteen together harassing a pair of lions. We have seen small groups fast asleep near spread-out bones of recent kill; a couple of times dozing near a waterhole; and twice we have observed a lone hyena loping at a good pace about fifty metres parallel to the road.
It is hard to say why a lone hyena would be running for some distance in a fixed direction. It wasn’t chasing any prey and it wasn’t being chased by any predator. We concluded, again without any evidence, that since the animal was large in both cases, it was a mother returning to her den to check up on her babies.
We liked that explanation.
On one occasion we were observing a clan of five hyenas sleeping next to the Peasland waterhole, hoping they would get up and do something interesting. You have to be patient.
Eventually, two massive buffalo bulls slowly approached the waterhole – serenely grazing on the grass as they ambled along. We believed that we were in for a treat. Would the buffalo get angry and chase the hyenas away from their waterhole, or would the hyenas recognise the opportunity of lunch coming to them?
The buffalo gave no indication that they were aware of the sleeping predators.
Would five hyenas be able to take down one of the two old males? Or would the buffalo protect each other and present a unified force?
On the other hand, the hyenas looked stuffed. Although we couldn’t see any kill in the vicinity, their distended bellies indicated that they had eaten quite recently.
As so often happens while watching animals in their environment – neither of the above happened. The hyenas looked up and the buffalo calmly proceeded to the water and drank their fill. They ignored each other and one could scarcely believe that the two mortal enemies did not even pay any attention to each other even though they were barely a few metres apart.
I have never been privileged to see a brown hyena at Addo, although I have seen several videos made by other people visiting the Park.
The only time I have personally seen a brown hyena was in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (then it was called the Kalahari Gemsbok Park) more than a quarter of a century ago – and then it was only possible with powerful binoculars.
Hyenas live in clans and are known to have a strict hierarchy and a caring structure for their young ones. They are good to each other, share food and work cooperatively, but they can also be extremely savage with each other in social conflict. I have seen several videos of hyenas brutally attacking each other, ripping ears off or injuring an animal so that it cannot walk properly.
So to sum it up: hyenas are not pretty but they are intelligent, they support clan life, but can also be very cruel.
I will write more about hyenas after I have read a book by two of the most knowledgeable experts - Gus and Margie Mills, who wrote Hyena Nights and Kalahari Days.
Thank you for reading the last Real Safari newsletter of 2021 – now please subscribe so you can discover more about game driving through South Africa’s reserves and parks in 2022.