As I return to my Africa theme for the next couple of weeks I wanted to move away from the more charismatic species and discuss one of the less understood animals of Africa. There are a lot of myths and misinformation surrounding Africa’s hyenas which we discussed during my time there this summer. Much of the information I am about to provide comes from one of our guides at a reserve within the Greater Kruger area. Jaco, has had many years of experience in the field and the university selected him as our guide due to his vast knowledge of African fauna, particularly predators. For the most part I will be addressing the spotted hyena, Crocuta crocuta, otherwise known as the laughing hyena which is the largest of the three species. The other two species are the brown hyena, Hyaena brunnea, and the striped hyena, Hyaena hyaena.

Hyenas are often despised and considered filthy vermin. Perhaps this is because of their reputation as scavengers who steal from other predators. Maybe it is their predation habits; hyenas often begin to feed on their prey while it is still alive. They have even been known to attack humans. Whatever the reason for our poor disposition it is probably unjustified like our hatred of most other predators.

 

Actually spotted hyenas are quite interesting creatures and we are just now starting to understand them. For instance, until 1991 it was believed that hyenas are hermaphroditic. Even my zoology professor at OSU told us this as recent as 2009. However this is not true. The base of this myth is the false penis and high testosterone levels found in females. Actually female hyenas have higher testosterone levels than males and tend to be larger.

Hyenas have an interesting social structure. They live in clans which are led by the females. These clans will occasionally go to war with each other over control of territories, during which they will kill and eat the young of rival clans. Though they appear to be canid, hyenas are closer related to cats.

Although they do play an important role in the environment as  scavengers, hyenas are very efficient predators. In Ngorongoro hyenas have been known to kill up to 90% of their own meals rather than scavenge. Their main tactic for hunting is to run the prey until shock and exhaustion overtake it at which point the begin to feed on while it is still living. Though they have carnassial teeth like other major predators they tend to rely more on their powerful jaws to rip and meat rather than cut it. These jaws are so strong they can crack open bones that are to tough even for lions.

Humans and hyenas have always had a tense relationship which has only been further aggravated by an expanding human population. Hyenas occasionally attack chickens, livestock and even humans, humans who then retaliate by killing hyenas. I once read an account of an old time African hunter who discussed the hatred of his maasai trackers for hyenas. They would take great pleasure in seeing one mauled by lions or shot by the hunter for they knew that one day fisi, as the hyena is called in swahili, would have the last laugh as it was the tendency of the maasai to leave their dead or dying out in the bush where the hyenas would come for them.

There is still much to learn about these interesting creatures. Sadly they are heavily persecuted and treated as pests. Hopefully as we gain further understanding of these animals we will also gain more tolerance for them.

More information about hyenas can be found at:

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/hyena/

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