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Beauty or the Beast? – You decide

Friend or foe?

Cute or ugly?

Hunter or scavenger?

So many safari visitors view the Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) with a negative mind set. Wildlife documentaries and Disney movies

The Blue Canyon has continued to enjoy the strong growth and territorial expansion of it’s hyaena population over these past few years. When I first started working across the reserve the frequency of viewing and indeed the sound of their iconic calls, was few and far between. Given the overall low density of our lion population it was the perfect time to give the hyena that were already ensconsed in the reserve, the opportunity to prosper. Lions and hyena are eternal enemies. Each species will seek out the young of the other and in near

So what do we know about these incredible mammals …

The spotted hyena is one the most highly gregarious of all carnivores; it can live in groups containing up to 90 individuals, and exhibits the most complex social behaviour. The society is characterised by a strict dominance hierarchy. The entire social life of a clan is centered around the communal den. Some clans use particular den sites for years whereas others may use several different dens within a year or even several den sites simultaneously. We have already seen one clan return to their den site of last year to rear their cubs this year.

The picture below shows a typical stand off between two hyenas. The one on the left is “winning,” as indicated by its forward-cocked ears. 

The highly social nature of the spotted hyena has led to the evolution of a wide variety of vocalisations. The best known spotted hyena vocalisation is the whoop, which can be heard over several kilometres. Spotted hyenas can recognise each other individually by their whoops, at least within their clan. Whoops can function as a rallying call to gather scattered clan members together to defend territory boundaries, food resources, and the communal den. Mothers whoop to locate their wandering cubs and some animals whoop to recruit hunting partners. Whoops are also used as a form of individual display, particularly by animals of high rank. Adult males whoop more frequently than females, and top-ranking males put more effort into vocal displays than lower ranking males. Another well-known vocalisation is the laugh or giggle, which is a signal of submission. A submissive individual giggles to signal to its partner that it accepts a lower status.

As we travel around the estate, more especially when we are on foot enjoying our walking trails, we see evidence of the fact that spotted hyenas scent mark their territories by pasting a secretion from the anal gland onto grass stalks, as well as defecating in communal latrines. Keep an eye open also during your safaris for the tell-tale “white stools”, evidence of the high concentration of calcium in the hyena diet from the consumption of large quantities of bone material.

What surprises most observers is the extent of co-operative intelligence and problem solving ability demonstrated by hyenas. In fact, recent tests involving lions and hyena undertaken by one of the resident film makers in the BCC, Virginia Quinn, showed that hyena far out perform their feline counterparts in both intelligence and inter species co-operation. Indeed further studies have showed them to be able to outperform chimpanzees also. Also, spotted hyenas have been recorded as using  deceptive behaviour, including giving alarm calls during feeding when no enemies are present, thus frightening off other hyenas and allowing them to temporarily eat in peace. Cunning indeed!!

The spotted hyena is the most carnivorous member of the family Hyaenidae from which it comes. Unlike its brown and striped cousins, the spotted hyena is a predator not a scavenger. Spotted hyenas hunt as much as lions despite continually being mislabeled as scavengers, often even by ecologists and wildlife documentary channels. The spotted hyena is very efficient at eating its prey; not only is it able to splinter and eat the largest bones, it is also able to digest them completely. Spotted hyena can digest all organic components in bones, not just the marrow.

Hopefully now, you will understand and appreciate more the intelligence and complexity of this adorable African carnivore. Ignore the media representations and form your own opinion when on safari. Like me, you will soon be capitivated by the antics and the solidarity demonstrated by these most family orientated animals. I just adore them!!

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