Hyaena Activity at Mombo

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I have noticed that over the last three years that the spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) numbers around Mombo have increased rapidly. The abundant prey and ever present water in the area contribute significantly to their population, but this increase has been a constant for a long time, so what has been the number one contributing factor to their noticeable rise in population?

A theory put forward is that the two dominant male lions in this northernmost tip of Chief’s Island, known as the Jao Boys, are past their prime and losing body weight, and with that stature. Their patrols are decreasing and it’s starting to seem like they are only following the females to get a meal, as their hunting prowess has also all but disappeared – and amazingly there are no known challengers to their territory. This means that with the right tactics and slight supremacy in numbers the hyaena clan can chase the lionesses off their kills and feast because the old males can’t respond to the cackles and growls fast enough. Plenty of healthy female hyaena and no real threat to the clan means that they are breeding at a faster rate.

Den potential also comes into the equation. The hyaena have rotated through three different den sites, two are dormant termite mounds and the third a link of tunnels underground that are thought to be previously inhabited by a family of aardwolf. Each den is no more than 500 m apart, in a triangular shape. The hyaena rotate between dens; perhaps when one becomes too dirty or infested with ants, simply moving home to a new site, repeating this again and again. The dens are all perfectly suited to raise cubs as they have good shade nearby, and more than one entry and exit – in case of a predator nearby the cubs can dart into the den without having to queue! As many as 12 cubs can be seen early morning or late afternoon playing outside the den whilst there is always a ‘babysitter’ watching closely. An interesting fact which undoubtedly helps keep infant mortality rate down in hyaena clans is that mothers will often den together, bringing their cubs to the same place so that when they are out hunting or scavenging, there will always be one adult to take her turn watching over the youngsters.

The den is still active today as there are a few very dark cubs that poke their inquisitive faces out of the ground when you drive by, however, with the arrival of different male lions into the area there could be a change in the number of hyaena inhabiting the northernmost tip of Chief’s Island. The natural cycle of predator population rolls on and the next few months will be very interesting to see if the lions remain or move off. Added to this the maturing of the Jao Boys’ offspring into healthy four- year-old males with beautiful manes could mean that a few confrontations with hungry hyaena might lead to a reduction in numbers; the night sounds are about to get very exciting!

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By Graham Simmonds

As the former General Manager of Mombo Camp, and now based in Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls, Graham is perfectly placed to share all the extraordinary experiences and sightings from his travels to our camps in the pristine southern African wilderness...

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