Most people have a rather skewed impression of the spotted hyaena. Our foremost perception of them being as skulking loners on the other side of the game fence at night, or as the giggling, scavenging idiots portrayed in the cinema.
These preconceived ideas could not be further from the truth. Hyaenas are highly intelligent, sociable creatures and, when put to the test under research conditions, have been known to outperform chimpanzees in tasks requiring cooperation.
Teamwork is a vital part of survival for these gregarious animals. They live in large groups, called clans, which can sometimes contain as many as eighty individuals, and lead complex social lives involving networking, cooperation, coalition, and competition among the ranks.
Supremely adapted to survive, hyaenas are skilled hunters, and can take down large antelope or wildebeest when hunting as a clan.
Birds, lizards, snakes, and insects are easy prey, and they do not turn their noses up at the leftovers of other predators either. In fact, their strong jaws make it possible for them to perform a sterling task of cleaning up after everyone else. Bones, hide, teeth and sinew are easily ingested, and later regurgitated in the form of biodegradable pellets, leaving no trace of their feasting activities.
Unfortunately, spotted hyaenas sometimes cannot wait for their hosts to leave their kill and will hover around expectantly – a habit which brings them into conflict with lions and other apex predators. This can lead to dramatic scenes between these wild animals, which makes for a thrilling spectacle on an afternoon game drive.
It can be assumed that one would have to be irrational to approach a feeding lion, but spotted hyaenas are notoriously brave, venturing close to human settlements, raiding bins, breaking into food stores, and even making off with tin pots and pans from campsites.
The largest of the three hyena species, spotted hyenas can reach heights of about 90 centimetres and weigh up to 86 kilograms. The females dominate, outweighing and outranking the males, and a matriarch always leads hyaena clans. Although the male and female external genitals may seem similar, they are not hermaphrodites and despite appearances, they are not related to dogs. In fact, they have their very own family Hyaenidae, and their closest relative is the mongoose.
There are a few more myths in circulation about these fascinating creatures, ask your ranger to fill you in on the details the next time you are relaxing around the campfire and hear their whooping laughter-like calls.