The mythical brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea is a shy and elusive predator endemic to the western arid zones of southern Africa and into south-west Angola. It is an unmistakable species when seen – long-legged with a shaggy coat of long hair and pointed ears.
In the Central Kalahari Game Reserve the brown hyaena, even though considered very lucky to see, is one of the dominant predators in the area.
This hyaena species typically covers vast areas when foraging and has a rather cosmopolitan diet which includes fruit, insects, birds and medium to small mammals. They are also very opportunistic and mostly scavenge for carrion and in the Kalahari have a particular fondness for ostrich eggs. The diet of the brown hyaena in the southern Kalahari has been found to be mostly of bones from old and fresh kills, small mammals and birds either hunted or scavenged, insects, reptiles and other various scavenged material such as eggs, hides, horns, and fruits. Smell is the major sense used in foraging. They are mostly nocturnal in activity but can also be seen early morning and late evening in cool conditions.
Brown hyaenas are typically seen singly but do form elaborate social groupings. They live in related groups called clans and occupy large home ranges. In their movements over the range, brown hyaenas make extensive use of common pathways used by all members of the group and maintained through scent marking (pasting). Pasting or scent marking appears to be the most important means of communication between brown hyaena, at least over distances greater than 300-400 m. Pasting from anal glands can be sometimes seen in the field on grass stems.
When they have been seen hunting it has typically been forays undertaken by lone animals. When they do catch smallish prey (like a springhare), they will always give it a violent shake before starting to consume the animal. The Kalahari has a very arid climate and each year there is no available water for up to eight months here. Brown hyaenas can almost certainly exist for extended periods without water to drink. During this time moisture is also obtained from fruits from the Tsama melon and Cucumis melons.
Perhaps amongst the more well-known researchers to do studies on the elusive brown hyaena is that of Mark and Delia Owens. For seven years, Delia and Mark lived in tents in Deception Valley of Central Kalahari Game Reserve and did landmark research on both brown hyaena and black-maned lion. They narrated their discoveries in their book Cry of the Kalahari, certainly worth a read by any visitor to this incredible pristine wilderness.
Seeing this shaggy, maned creature loping in its characteristic hunched fashion across the arid Kalahari is an undoubted highlight (albeit unguaranteed) of any visit here.
© Martin Benadie