How Much Do You Know About Spotted Hyaena?

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It must be said that the main attraction of any safari into Africa is the prospect of seeing predators. Having said that, the main predator people want to see are generally the cats – lion, leopard and cheetah, with the more interested people also seeking sightings of the endangered wild dog. When you ask them why, they generally respond with the normal ‘big and beautiful’ speech. This is partially true, as very few animals in the bush come close to being as magnificent as a leopard, or as awe-inspiringly intimidating as the lion. But what about the other predator whose presence in an ecosystem is as, if not more, important as the big cats? That’s correct; I’m talking about the spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta).

Hyaena break down all expectations: They are ungainly looking – but in some areas they can be classed as a super predator, along with the big cats. They are mostly seen as scavengers – but they are very adept hunters. Once one looks into it, the facts are quite astonishing, and can change the views of many people who will now be willing to accept that ‘The Lion King’ had its facts wrong.

To begin with, the spotted hyaena has one of the strongest jaw structures of all mammals on the planet, an adaptation that they have evolved in order to utilise almost every part of a carcass. The success of their hunts are equally impressive, as in certain areas where the other larger predators are not as prolific, they are forced to hunt – something they do very well! Unlike cats, which are ambush predators, hyaena are cursorial hunters, meaning they use their incredible stamina to wear their prey down – before eating it while the prey is in shock.

But if you’re still unsure, let’s look at some numbers:
Depending on the area and available prey species, hyaena hunt between 68% and 93% of their food, a lot more than their typical scavenger status would have you believe. On average when hunting in a pack, their success rate is up to 74%, whereas a single hyaena can be up to 15% successful in its hunts. Their average speed during hunts is roughly between 50 and 60 km/h – and, equally impressively, they can maintain these speeds for up to 10 km at a time (the longest distance recorded was 24 km on one hunt).

Working at Seba Camp, Botswana, I have had the privilege of studying the movements and behaviour of a small clan of hyaena quite near the camp, and I have learned firsthand how amazing their parental skills are. The small clan consists of several adults, obviously led by the largest female (known as the alpha female), and there are six juvenile cubs roughly seven months of age. Earlier in the month we were all surprised by the birth of two more little ones who are being carefully looked after. The females generally suckle their own young; however in times of difficulty they have been known to suckle communally (allo suckle). They are only weaned at roughly 14 months old, due to their milk being the richest in protein of any terrestrial carnivore. On one occasion I witnessed the alpha female suckling the juveniles at night, and when she became overwhelmed with the four cubs fighting viciously to get at a teat she started to run away frantically from the cubs, who chased her down and forced her to submission to continue suckling!

The den is constantly monitored by guides, from a respectful distance, and currently we can see that the clan is getting stronger and healthier. This means that the hyaena are officially the dominant predator (apex predator) in this section of the Delta. They have very little competition from lion, so they are hunting fairly often, and the cubs have a much better chance of survival. We’ll be keeping you updated on a regular basis on the latest news of these amazing creatures.

So keep an open mind next time you see one of these ‘weird’ predators in the wild – they may just surprise you.

Till next time
James Moodie

Photographs by James Moodie and Golaotsemang ‘Speedy” Senase.


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By James Moodie

Working in the Okavango Delta has always been James' biggest dream. James provides info from camps in Botswana.

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