Spotted Hyena – Africa’s Ultimate Carnivore?
by Leon van Wyk
The topic of “top carnivores” often comes up for discussion, and for the purpose of comparison in this article, we are looking at Africa’s land mammals, therefore excluding killing machines such as Nile crocodiles and Great White sharks. So, of the high-profile carnivores that roam the wilderness areas of Africa, which would be considered to be the most successful? Lion? Leopard? Cheetah? Painted hunting dog? Or perhaps spotted hyena? My guess is that if a huge global survey was conducted, and people were asked to choose one of these five carnivores, the lion would receive the most votes. The hyena would probably receive the least. A similar survey conducted among a more select sample of the population, for example the guiding fraternity, would probably deliver somewhat different results.
“An old male lion still commands respect”
“A female leopard bares her teeth”
“Built for speed”
“Painted hunting dog relaxing”
I am not going to dwell too long on possible statistical outcomes of comparative surveys, as this would be speculative. It would also make this article undesirably long-winded.
While I have huge respect for all of the carnivores mentioned – lions for their tremendous strength and ability to work together in a hunt, leopards for their stealth and concentrated power, cheetahs for their unmatched speed in an open-plain chase, painted hunting dogs for their teamwork and phenomenal strike rate on attempted hunts – I am going to suggest that the spotted hyena is the most successful of all of these, and most worthy of the title “Africa’s Ultimate Carnivore”. But why? Read on…
Hyenas have for so long received so much “bad press”, that it is quite challenging to defend them, and get people to see them in a more favourable light. I don’t feel I should be churning out facts and figures relating to their body weights, top speeds, gestation periods and all that rather boring stuff. It is already well-known that they are a matriarchal society, that females are larger than males and that hyenas are excellent mothers.
“Hyenas are excellent mothers”
A visit to an active hyena den can be a very rewarding and entertaining experience, and even for the die-hard hyena hater, can start to soften the feelings towards these creatures. Hyena cubs are cute, playful, adventurous, inquisitive, amusing and appealing.
“Young hyenas clamber on a log”
“Curious cubs at a den entrance”
“You go first”
“Stop bugging me”
“Getting a closer look”
What strikes me as remarkable is how seldom I see a hyena that is not well-fed. To see very lean lions, leopards and cheetahs is not unusual – they often go hungry for days. Yet hyenas are seldom lean. Something about their formula works for them and keeps their stomachs full. So, what is their secret? The answer does not lie with a single facet of their make-up, but rather a combination of several. From my observations of hyenas over more than three decades of experiencing them, some of the following characteristics (in no particular order) contribute towards their success:
Ability to detect and locate a food source
Renowned for their exceptional sense of smell, hyenas also have very acute hearing. Along with a high level of intelligence, these enable the hyena to have an almost unrivalled ability to detect, pinpoint and rapidly locate a source of food. This could be as a result of hearing distress calls or urgent alarm calls, where another predator might be busy killing something, smelling a carcass from far away, seeing vultures descending, or sometimes just having that elusive “sixth sense” which leads them to a meal. Once hyenas detect some drama which could be unfolding, they have an incredible knack of getting there just in time to spoil someone else’s party! Their speed sometimes leads them to where a leopard is busy strangling an impala, before the leopard has had a chance to secure its prey.
“Legendary sense of smell and acute hearing”
“Hyenas cover tremendous distances each day”
Speed and stamina
While cheetahs are notoriously fast, and even leopards and lions have a tremendous turn of speed, the hyena is no slouch in this category either. Again, I am not going to quote exact or estimated top speeds, but suffice it to say that a hyena has not only a very considerable burst of speed, but also an ability to keep running at quite a high speed for a good period of time. Speed coupled with stamina make hyenas very formidable predators. Yes, in this case I am using the word “predators”, because hyenas are not purely scavengers. More famous for their scavenging behaviour, hyenas actually kill a very significant proportion of their prey themselves. I have witnessed many hyena kills taking place in front of me, more of them at night than during the day, but I shall never forget seeing a single hyena run down, catch and kill and adult male warthog after a high-speed chase in broad daylight.
Fearlessness and high pain threshold
Perhaps it would be going a little too far to suggest that hyenas are utterly fearless, as they are well-known to have a healthy fear of adult male lions. However, they are extremely gutsy, and appear to have a very high pain threshold. Their tough hides and thick coats undoubtedly offer them a good level of protection, but their brazen behaviour often leads to a mauling from lions. Yet, even after a moderately severe mauling, they come back for more! I have seen this numerous times, particularly in encounters with lionesses on a kill. Call it tenacity, call it audacity, you might even be tempted to call it stupidity – but hyenas are not stupid, and their sheer gutsiness in clashes with lions or other predators earns them high accolades, in my book.
“The thick fur and tough skin of the neck protects against mauling”
“Hyenas take over a kill made by painted hunting dogs”
Ability to secure or stash carcasses
When one looks at a hyena, first impressions often are of a rather cumbersome, ungainly build. The hindquarters appear relatively underdeveloped, compared with the strong forequarters and thick, muscular neck. There must be a reason why they have evolved this way, and my opinion is that it greatly helps them carry sizeable and heavy chunks of carcasses over great distances. It is not unusual for a hyena to carry, rather than just drag, a leg of a large herbivore a few kilometres overland, back to a den. Here, the youngsters also get to benefit from the spoils, which they would not safely do in close proximity to a large carcass, where lions may be lurking nearby. Hyenas also often stash parts of carcasses under water, where they are unlikely to be discovered by vultures, flies, jackals, leopards or lions. The fact that the chunk of carcass may continue to decompose under water is not a problem for the hyena. They really don’t care if a carcass is quite putrid when they eat it. A piece of carcass will last longer under water than on land.
“Hyenas often stash chunks of carcasses under water”
Hats off to hyenas for their sheer determination and will to succeed! Many times, leopards take their kills up trees in order to be safe from hyenas. Hyenas don’t climb trees, right? So how high up a tree is high enough? I recently saw fresh video footage of leopard-hyena interaction over an impala kill. A female leopard had managed to haul an adult male impala carcass up to the first fork of a jackalberry tree. This in itself was an impressive achievement – leopards are incredibly powerful, and their ability to hoist carcasses heavier than themselves is legendary. Almost inevitably, two hyenas appeared on the scene, and they kept jumping up to try to grab the dangling lower legs of the impala carcass. They tried again and again, and more than once, one of the hyenas managed to grab a leg, just above the hoof, and hang on to it. They hyena would swing from the carcass, with its own feet in the air, and tug away, hoping to successfully use its own weight, plus the weight of the carcass, to dispossess the leopard of its hard-earned meal. The leopard in turn showed tremendous strength, holding on to the carcass, with the added weight of the swinging hyena, for a good few minutes, before eventually the carcass fell to the ground. The hyenas had been rewarded for their perseverance!
On another occasion, I watched an unbelievable story unfold in front of me, when a hyena climbed a jackalberry tree, reaching a height of at least 6 metres (close to 20 feet) above the ground, to steal the remains of a leopard’s hoisted kill. Guides, trackers, guests and the leopard himself all looked on in utter disbelief as the hyena succeeded in its highly ambitious and extremely unlikely goal. It has to be said that the jackalberry tree had a sloping trunk, which made it somewhat more “user friendly” for the hyena, but the hyena still defied all logic and beat the odds! I unfortunately did not take any photographs or video footage of this extraordinary event, but it will remain clearly etched in my memory bank for a long time to come!
“If only I could climb this tree”
Often hyenas will be found sleeping – or at least lying down, very inactive – in close proximity of a leopard’s hoisted kill. Sometimes this seems pointless and futile, but on many occasions, the waiting hyenas are rewarded with scraps that fall from the tree when the leopard is feeding. More particularly if a cub feeds on a kill and looks to reposition it, there is a good chance that the hyena will score a substantial meal, as the inexperienced cub is far more likely to drop the entire carcass. This might be to the dismay of the cub’s mother, but it will be to the delight of the hyenas, who waste no time at all in claiming the remains of the carcass for themselves.
“Hyenas exhibit endless patience”
“Inexperienced young leopards often drop carcasses by mistake”
Force of numbers
While hyenas do often wander around alone in search of food, they are to some extent gregarious animals, and when they team up, they become all the more formidable, not only as “thieves” who would gang up on small prides of lions or a pack of hunting dogs to steal their kills, but also as very efficient hunters themselves. When there is a carcass up for grabs, the excited whooping and giggling sounds of the hyenas already there, can attract more and more hyenas from further afield. If four or five lionesses suddenly find themselves surrounded by about fifteen hyenas converging upon them in a threatening manner, more often than not the lionesses will beat a hasty retreat, to avoid the lethal teeth and powerful jaws of their greatest super-carnivore rivals.
When hunting, a large group of adult hyenas can be a highly destructive unit, capable of quickly pulling down and devouring even an adult buffalo!
In conclusion, I should stress the fact that I have tried to justify the ranking of the spotted hyena as Africa’s ultimate carnivore, rather than Africa’s ultimate predator. Hyenas do hunt very well, but they are also notoriously efficient scavengers. They are predators in their own right, in that they do kill a lot of their own prey, and they are scavengers, as they frequently feed on carcasses of animals that have died naturally or been killed by other predators. By being supremely opportunistic and adaptable, and as a result of the factors described above, as well as other characteristics which I might not have described, hyenas are indeed highly successful in their prime habitats, and in many cases will consistently out-compete their more “glamorous” rivals – or providers – and will prevail as the ultimate carnivore. So, which species could be considered our ultimate predator? That is a story for another day!