Spot­ted hyenas are buck­ing the trend for large car­ni­vores be­ing in de­cline. Niki Rust ex­plores why.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Welcome - Pho­tos by Will Bur­rard-Lu­cas

Niki is a car­ni­vore con­ser­va­tion­ist. In this is­sue she writes about one of her favourite an­i­mals, the spot­ted hyena. “They get a bad rap but for no good rea­son,” she says.

You don’t of­ten get to eat din­ner next to one of Africa’s most fe­ro­cious preda­tors. The tan­ta­lis­ing smell of roast­ing meat from nu­mer­ous bar­be­cues had lured sev­eral of the im­pres­sive mam­mals to our South African tourist camp, and they prowled out­side look­ing for an easy meal. So what is a naive wildlife con­ser­va­tion­ist to do when faced with the prospect of eat­ing her but­ter­nut squash in the pres­ence of a spot­ted hyena? In­vite it to tea, of course. I just had to fig­ure out how to com­mu­ni­cate in the lan­guage of Cro­cuta cro­cuta.

A light bulb went on in my head: I re­mem­bered learn­ing that re­peated short whoops are a hyena rally call when an in­di­vid­ual needs back-up from the rest of its clan. As I whooped into the black­ness of the Kruger night, a soli­tary hyena came trotting over, right on cue. Even though I knew there was a im­pass­able, chain-linked fence be­tween us, a deep sense of be­wil­der­ment came over me as this formidable 60kg car­ni­vore stared at me from just 2m away.

It’s never a good idea to feed any wild an­i­mal, par­tic­u­larly ones that can crunch through bones the way squir­rels eat nuts, so I did not share my veg­gie meal with my wild com­pan­ion. In­stead, we sat there for a few mo­ments try­ing to fig­ure each other out. As I gazed into the hyena’s dark brown eyes, I couldn’t help but think that this mag­nif­i­cent crea­ture de­served a lot more re­spect than we cur­rently give its kind.

Hyenas have a bad rep­u­ta­tion – but do they de­serve it? As in­tel­li­gent, highly so­cial crea­tures, spot­ted hyenas have found a way to adapt to life in the African sa­van­nah like no other an­i­mal. While many large car­ni­vore pop­u­la­tions are de­clin­ing glob­ally, spot­ted hyenas do not seem to have suf­fered quite so sig­nif­i­cantly. I wanted to find out why.


Spot­ted hyenas have been given a ‘Least Con­cern’ clas­si­fi­ca­tion by the IUCN, with a to­tal pop­u­la­tion any­where be­tween 27,000 and 47,000 strong, mak­ing them the most abun­dant large car­ni­vores in Africa. There are a num­ber of pos­si­ble rea­sons why they’re far­ing rel­a­tively well. It could be be­cause of their highly so­cial clan life, though that wouldn’t ex­plain why they are do­ing bet­ter than equally so­cial li­ons or African wild dogs. Al­ter­na­tively, it could be down to a su­pe­rior way of hunt­ing, or be­cause they’re more adapt­able than other so­cial large car­ni­vores. I needed to speak to some preda­tor ex­perts to learn more.

Amy Dick­man, a lion con­ser­va­tion­ist in Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity’s Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Re­search Unit (WildCRU), ex­plains that li­ons hunt by stalk­ing fol­lowed by a quick chase. “You will see li­ons give up a hunt fairly eas­ily if the ini­tial charge is un­suc­cess­ful, while hyenas con­tinue chas­ing prey at speed for long dis­tances – of­ten sev­eral kilo­me­tres – and wear­ing it down,” she says. This might be sig­nif­i­cant.

Spot­ted hyenas are built for en­durance. Their huge


hearts, ac­count­ing for up to one per cent of their body weight, are com­pa­ra­bly far heav­ier than those of li­ons, which make up only 0.5 per cent. This is what en­ables hyenas to run long dis­tances with­out get­ting tired. So the first clue as to why spot­ted hyenas are far­ing bet­ter than li­ons could be that they have a dif­fer­ent hunt­ing tac­tic, in part due to their phys­i­ol­ogy.

Fans of African wild dogs may at this point be think­ing that an en­durance chase is ex­actly the style of hunt­ing that these canids use. Packs of wild dogs can run for miles with­out get­ting tired. Like a re­lay race, lead sprint­ers will run in front for a while, then will be re­placed by other pack mem­bers when they be­come tired, as seen to dra­matic ef­fect a while ago in BBC One’s The Hunt.


Wild dogs also de­pend heav­ily on the rest of their pack when it comes to hunt­ing. Although spot­ted hyenas live in big groups, they hunt alone or in clus­ters of two or three, whereas wild dogs in­vari­ably work as a pack to take down large prey. Team­work is the key to why wild dogs are so suc­cess­ful at hunt­ing.

“Wild dogs are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered the most suc­cess­ful hun­ters,” says Dani Rabaiotti of the Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of Lon­don, an ex­pert on the species. “They have suc­cess rates of 40 per cent when tak­ing down adult wilde­beest. This is higher than spot­ted hyenas that have a hunt­ing suc­cess rate of around 30–35 per cent. Even when li­ons hunt in groups, their hit rate is usu­ally thought to be only around 30 per cent.”

So it can’t just be the spot­ted hyenas’ hunt­ing tac­tics that leave them bet­ter off than the con­ti­nent’s other large car­ni­vores, as African wild dogs are ar­guably bet­ter at hunt­ing. There must be more to it than that.

Adapt­abil­ity may come into it. The like­li­hood of hunt­ing suc­cess in­creases when spot­ted hyenas work to­gether as a team, but be­cause they can also hunt alone and don’t nec­es­sar­ily de­pend on each other, this makes them more flex­i­ble. They can take down larger prey such as wilde­beest and ze­bras when hunt­ing as a group, and when hunt­ing alone switch to tar­get­ing smaller prey – im­pala and spring­bok, for ex­am­ple.

The highly so­cial na­ture of spot­ted hyenas could be help­ing to sus­tain their pop­u­la­tions in other ways too, since they seem to be im­mune to many dis­eases. Hav­ing built up some re­sis­tance to ra­bies, ca­nine dis­tem­per, an­thrax and strep­to­coc­cus, they do not suf­fer from dis­ease out­breaks as much as African wild dogs and li­ons. “Spot­ted hyenas that live at a high den­sity nsity and con­stantly in­ter­act through ex­chang­ing saliva, va, keep each other’s im­mune sys­tems boosted and full of an­ti­bod­ies,” says Ar­jun Dheer, a hyena ex­pert at t the Leib­niz In­sti­tute for Zoo and Wildlife Re­search. ch. “This can of­fer a pro­tec­tive ef­fect against pathogens.” ns.”

Hyenas have yet an­other trick up their sleeve. Zazu the horn­bill may y have de­scribed them as “slob­ber­ing, mangy, stupid poach­ers” oach­ers” in The Lion King, but new re­search is show­ing wing just how clever they are. Pro­fes­sor Kay Holekamp of Michi­gan State Uni­ver­sity has been study­ing spot­ted d hyenas for over two decades and has dis­cov­ered that hat the species is in cer­tain re­spects as in­tel­li­gent as pri­mates. Spot­ted hyenas ac­tu­ally out­com­pete chim­panzees mpanzees in some cog­ni­tive chal­lenges. When en given a team task where two


in­di­vid­u­als must work to­gether to tug two ropes to ob­tain a food re­ward, the hyenas co­op­er­ated and prob­lem-solved far bet­ter than non-hu­man pri­mates.

And spot­ted hyenas can even count. If you play them un­fa­mil­iar whoop­ing calls, they re­spond dif­fer­ently to the sound of one, two or three in­di­vid­u­als. Some re­searchers think they can even count up to six or seven. This skill may help hyenas to judge the size of non-fa­mil­iar groups to tell whether it’s worth try­ing to steal a kill.


What about diet? Here too, spot­ted hyenas prove more adapt­able than li­ons or African wild dogs, hav­ing been seen eat­ing a vast ar­ray of an­i­mals rang­ing from tor­toises to young ele­phants. Such a flex­i­ble diet helps them to thrive in many dif­fer­ent habi­tats. They’ve even colonised the Ethiopian city of Harar, scav­eng scav­eng­ing live­stock car­casses.

As spot­ted hyenas are among only a few species in Africa able to break open bones, they play an im­por­tant role in ecosys­tems. Their pow­er­ful jaws jaw can bite through a ze­bra’s fe­mur with ease. But they don’t just suck out the nu­tri­tious mar­row – they also con­sume so some of the bone it­self, which is ex­creted as a white pow­der. T This bone-crunch­ing helps to dis­pose of car­casses and ena en­ables other scav­engers and de­com­posers to reach oth­er­wis oth­er­wise in­ac­ces­si­ble parts of the anatomy so that en­tire car­casse car­casses are utilised and re­cy­cled.

Spot­ted hyenas also scav­enge scav­enge, al­beit not quite as much as leg­ends sug­gest. It was once thought that the species re­lied on scav­eng­ing lion kills, but this was dis­proven in the 1970s when nat­u­ral­ist Hans Kr Kruuk showed that it’s ac­tu­ally the li­ons do­ing most of the steal­ing. Play record­ings of

hyenas eat­ing to lion li­ons and the big cats will stop

what they’re do­ing to fol­low the sound to see if they can pil­fer food. In Tan­za­nia’s Ngoron­goro Crater, hyena kills are the main source of food for some lion prides.

Though their rep­u­ta­tion as idle scav­engers is un­de­served, hyenas nev­er­the­less won’t turn down a free meal. Dur­ing the day they will scan the hori­zon, look­ing for cir­cling vul­tures. Their hear­ing is so well at­tuned to the sound of death that they can hear preda­tors killing prey or feed­ing off car­casses up to 10km away.

Hav­ing lo­cated a car­cass, the hyenas will as­sess if there’s a chance of oust­ing the cur­rent din­ers. They base their cal­cu­la­tions on the type and num­ber of ri­val preda­tors ver­sus the size of their group. Lion kills are only pil­laged when they out­num­ber the cats 4:1, but they won’t risk it if male li­ons are present. They can ex­pel any chee­tah from a kill, but are more care­ful around African wild dog packs.

The abil­ity of spot­ted hyenas to gauge whether they can steal some­one else’s din­ner proved to be an im­por­tant les­son while I was on sa­fari in South Africa. As we fin­ished off our ‘sun­down­ers’ in beau­ti­ful Sabi Sands Game Re­serve, we were pack­ing up to head back to camp. Be­fore leav­ing, a guest de­cided to use the ‘bush toi­let’.

Sud­denly I no­ticed a spot­ted hyena ap­pear from be­hind a rock. The nosy crea­ture started to make a bee­line for the poor lady, by now mid-pee. Gath­er­ing some troops to­gether, we be­gan to walk to­wards her, shout­ing and wav­ing our hands. Thank­fully, the hyena saw that it was too risky to take down this woman now that she had back-up from an­other 10 mem­bers of her pack. Les­son learned: when you’re in the land of hyenas and are caught with your pants down, make sure a big group of friends has got your back.

So a win­ning blend of brains and brawn seems to be the se­cret of spot­ted hyenas’ suc­cess. They out­com­pete more adept hun­ters like African wild dogs by sheer brute strength, while far­ing bet­ter than li­ons be­cause they’re more adapt­able and bet­ter able to live along­side hu­mans. Far from be­ing “mangy poach­ers”, spot­ted hyenas suf­fer less from dis­ease than many large preda­tors, have com­plex prob­lem-solv­ing abil­i­ties and are more pro­fi­cient hun­ters than li­ons. And for that I think they de­serve our re­spect.


Even when alone, a spot­ted hyena keeps in touch with other mem­bers of its clan with whoops, yells and a manic cackle, which gave rise to its other name, laugh­ing hyena.

Above: the spot­ted hyena is named af­ter its dark spots, which fade with age. Be­low: African wild dogs rely heav­ily on the rest of their pack when hunt­ing, whereas hyenas can hunt alone or col­lec­tively to take down prey.

Above: vul­tures help hyenas and other species to find a meal. The tell-tale cir­cling of the birds shows the car­ni­vores where to lo­cate dead an­i­mals.

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