Hyenas are one the most misunderstood animal in Africa, known to be the bad guy of the African bush. They do what they need to do to stay alive in the harsh African bush. There are four species of hyenas, spotted hyena, also known as the laughing hyena, brown hyena, aardwolf and striped hyena.
When guests staying at one of the four luxury Kapama lodges happen to see hyenas out on the Big Five Reserve stretching over 15,000 hectares, the hyena they would see is the spotted hyena, the largest species of hyenas.
The spotted hyena is a highly social animal. Hyenas live in territorial social groups called clans. Clans are matriarchal which means they are dominated by females with one female leader called the queen. Hyenas live in abandoned termite mounds where they will give birth to hide their cubs. The hyena is more closely related to the mongoose and cat than the dog. The gestation period is three months and up to 4 cubs can be born at a time. When they are born they are brownish black and only get their spots at 2 to 3 months. The protein and fat content of the spotted hyena is the highest of any terrestrial carnivore. Cubs will nurse from their mother for up to 16 months but can process solid food as early as three months.
What is unique among the spotted hyena is they are born with their eyes open and with 6-7 mm long canine teeth and 4 mm incisors. In same-sex litters, cubs have been known to attack each other shortly after birth with the weaker cubs not surviving.
The spotted hyena is the most common and is the most successful carnivore in Africa if not the world. They are opportunistic animals, meaning that they will scavenge on carcasses and are not afraid to steal the kill from leopards and lions when the opportunity arises. What is not widely known is that hyenas are one of the best and most successful hunters, acquiring most of the food they eat from hunting with a success rate of more than 70%.
Hyenas have one of the strongest bite forces in the animal kingdom, with an 80km biting force of over 1cm. This means they can crush any bone they want to get to the bone marrow. Because they have such a high calcium diet they play a big role in the ecosystem, not only cleaning the bush from all the carcasses but also giving smaller animal access to calcium. Their scat is made mostly out of calcium and chipped bone where the smaller animals can nibble on their scat and get calcium in their bodies.
These seemingly scary, primarily nocturnal animals, with their whooping and laughing throughout the night, will make any person’s heart skip a beat or send chills down your spine with their eerie call. At the end of the day, once you understand the role played in the circle of life, you will see that Hyenas are not as bad as they appear.
Story and photos by: Kapama Buffalo Camp guide Ben scheepers