Spotted hyena, the much maligned predator
The density of spotted hyena in the Timbavati is notable, there are several dens around and regular sightings of these maligned beasts always seem to have a story attached to them.
These animals have a key role to play in the ecosystem, not least in tidying up the stray bones, carcasses and decaying matter they find on their travels – the binmen and women of the bush in many ways. Referring to spotties as scavengers is a misplaced stereotype as scientists have proven that spotted hyena hunt at least 50% of their kills, whereas the brown and striped hyena are scavengers mostly, foraging for carrion.
Adults are incredibly clever in their strategies and their approach to survive in a wild world. For example, they follow wild dogs on the hunt, they even watch for raptors and vultures soaring overhead, knowing they can give a sense of direction for an opportunity of some sort. When hunting, you can see them thinking, watching and calculating moves. One morning, a group witnessed a lone hyena approaching a massive herd of impala. The hyena didn’t look on full hunt mode, skulking would be a better expression, yet it was strategic in its approach. It walked in such a way that it split the herd, it watched both sides mobilising looking out for any weakness in the lambs, ewes or rams. The hyena took its time, saw nothing of interest and carried on without looking back, clearly nothing worth the effort of a proper chase.
Few people know that spotties have particularly enlarged forebrains, the region involved with complex decision making, perhaps we should refer to them as the chess players of the bush and give them some well needed respect? Fascinating in itself is their highly complex social structure, the most complex of all carnivores. Females rule (for a change) and there is a very strict hierarchy within the clan. The highest-ranking female gets first dibs on any kill, helping her to be stronger, fitter and more able to reproduce and support her young. Males really are at the bottom of the food chain within a clan, unusual in carnivorous mammals and quite refreshing in the animal kingdom.
These predators have a bite force of 1000 pounds per square inch. If you compare this to a hippo, that has a bite force of 2000 pounds per square inch, then you can appreciate the size and power difference. Also, the build of the hyena lends well to its purpose – strength at the front with massive neck muscles and strong chest ensuring that bite force is deadly,
as well as destructive. Their shape, build and demeanor also contributes to their reputation, they even look menacing just walking.
Whilst out on drives, it’s common to hear the disdain held for these animals with the blame often landing at Disney’s Lion King for the portrayal of hyenas. However, there’s definitely more to it than that. Hyena are notorious for being smart and ugly, hence their inclusion in the cruelly named “Ugly Five”. One thing is for sure, they’re not the prettiest, yet as cubs they are ridiculously cute. Big eyes, fluffy mohicans and playful attitudes, we challenge you not to melt and coo in their presence. We’ve witnessed many an “ooohhhh” and “aahhhh” at the hyena den, whilst our guiding team try to change the attitudes of many who feel these animals are “just horrible”.
When you understand the bigger picture of the spotted hyena, appreciate their intelligence, social structure and skills, then there is little that you can really find to dislike, if only the looks. Yet, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, in my eyes these animals are beautiful for their brilliance, for their cunning and clever nature but above all I love them for bucking the trend and having girls rule, but then I’m biased.