One of the major attractions at Mombo at present is an active Hyaena den situated close to the site of Old Mombo Camp. This den is home to several generations of pups and their mothers, and provides a fantastic opportunity for an insight into their fascinating social behaviour.
This particular den has gone through several evolutionary phases of occupation and abandonment, and is once again being used after a fairly long period of inactivity while another site was being utilised several kilometres away off Roller Road to the south.
This den was in a fantastic location for photography and allowed us some great opportunities to capture moments in the lives of the 14 or so individuals who lived there, but it was mysteriously abandoned in February this year. The reason for this became apparent a few weeks later when we visited the old termite mound into which the hyaenas had burrowed their home- we found a five metre long Southern African python basking close by. The enormous snake quickly moved back into the shelter of the den when we approached, which made us assume that it had been in there for the last month or so, quietly digesting whichever hapless hyaena pup it had caught and devoured.
The ‘new’ old den took a while to be recolonized, and is now home to around ten individuals – the others may have found shelter elsewhere. It is once again in an old termite mound densely covered in wild date palm, red spike-thorn and wooly caper-bush scrub, whose ferocious thorns offer the young inhabitants some kind of protection against marauders.
The behaviour we have witnessed here is indicative of the highly evolved and unusual social structure of these animals. Theirs is a female- dominated society with rigid parameters bounding the lives of every individual within the clan. Even the lowest-ranking female has a higher status than the highest-ranking male, and the females stay within their natal groups while the males migrate to other clans between the ages of two and six years old. Thus a den-site would typically contain several different matrilines, which is evident here.
The ritualised greeting ceremony of hyaena is highly unusual – two animals will stand parallel and face in opposite directions. Both individuals usually lift the hind leg nearest to the other and sniff or lick the anogenital region of the other. The unique aspect of greetings between individuals is the prominent role of the erect ”penis” in animals of both sexes. This is used to signal submission. Greetings occur between all ages and both sexes, although greetings between adult females and males are uncommon and are typically restricted to males above median rank, principally the alpha male. Cubs can erect their penis or clitoris (known as a clitiform penis) and engage in greeting ceremonies as early as four weeks after birth.
The pictured behaviour here shows a young female of high social rank returning to the den site where her mother has two very young pups. This youngster, in a display of typical teenage jealousy, attacked her siblings with much twittering and whooping, while the mother stood by and only intervened when things became too boisterous. Had the teenager been any other rank than superior or belong to another mother, it would have been mercilessly attacked – infanticide among hyaena of different ranks is well documented.
After the youngster had learnt that the their mother was not going to tolerate this jealousy, all clan members calmed down and returned to suckling or basking in the late glow of the setting sun.
Along with lions, which are considered more charismatic and attractive by visitors unfamiliar with their fascinating lives, hyaena are the dominant “super predators” of the African landscape, and the same is true here at Mombo, where we have an incredible opportunity and privilege to witness them at close range as quiet spectators of their natural behavior.