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Kruger’s Spotted Hyenas, formidable hunters and devoted caregivers

Often represented as cowardly, scavenging villains in storybooks and films, the Spotted Hyena is one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated predators of the African bush.

Many guests at the Kruger Gate Hotel are lucky to have fantastic sightings of these fascinating, distinctive animals that invariably change their perceptions.

Spotted Hyenas are the most common predators in the Kruger National Park, found in all biomes across the reserve. After the Lion, they are second largest predator in South Africa with dominant females weighing up to 75 kilograms. While they do scavenge opportunistically, it is estimated that in the Kruger, Spotted Hyenas catch 50 to 70% of their own prey. When hyena packs work together, they are capable of taking down big prey such as Wildebeest, Zebra and Kudu, and sometime even, Buffalo. They are powerful, high-stamina hunters, charging at speeds of up to 50kmp/h and maintaining a steady, fast pace over several kilometres which invariably exhausts their prey. The Spotted Hyena also has one of the most powerful jaws in the animal kingdom capable of biting through a Buffalo bone in one crunch.

Although they are often described as ‘dog-like’, hyenas are unrelated to canids and their closest living kin are civets and mongooses. An interesting aspect of their biology is that females have very high testosterone levels resulting in the male-like appearance of their anatomy and making it hard to tell males and females apart.

A rich social life

Spotted Hyenas live in complex matriarchal clans that can number from 10 to 40 individuals. Unlike other African predators, the females are bigger than males and even the lowest ranking female holds a higher social status than the most dominant male. The social structure of the clan is relatively loose, and individuals may leave, join a rival clan and then perhaps return. Communal life revolves around a warren of dens.

Spotted Hyenas are non-seasonal breeders, although there’s an uptick in births during the rainy season when prey is more abundant. Researchers have noted that females tend to prefer the more submissive males as their mates. Several females in the clan may have litters of two or three cubs at the same time, and each mother fiercely protects her own young. Males play no role in protecting or rearing cubs, and adult hyenas do not regurgitate meat for their young. Hyena cubs first feed exclusively on their mother’s milk but they are fully weaned at three months of age, a more precocious development than other predators.

An intelligent and significant animal

The Spotted Hyena is the master of the path of least resistance. Smart, alert, determined and opportunistic, a hyena is always the reading the signs in their environment. They are known to watch vultures circling in the sky and can pinpoint where there is a kill. While known for their whooping and giggling, scientists have identified 14 different vocalisations that Spotted Hyenas make.

A major part of life is their interaction with other predators. Lions and Hyenas are sworn enemies, and they will kill each other’s old, sick and young if they get a chance. Both species will steal each other’s kill if they can. Numbers are the critical success factor in any encounter, and a group of Hyenas can easily drive off a lone Lion, and vice versa. Leopards don’t often lose their kills to Hyena, if they can get it up a tree in time, while Cheetah and Wild Dogs more vulnerable to being driven off by a bunch of Hyena.

When a Hyena does win someone’s else fresh kill, it plays an important butchering and bone-crunching role that enables other species such as vultures and jackals to access the carcass. Working together, the scavenging done by Spotted Hyenas and crew plays an essential role in preventing disease and maintaining ecosystem health. In the intricate web of life, there are other interesting Hyena ecosystem services. For instance, highly calcified Hyena dung is prized food for tortoises, and it is thought that this may be an important source of calcium for building strong shells.

From hearing its whooping calls in the night to delighting in playful cubs around a den or sighting an enigmatic sloped-back individual along the roadside, the Spotted Hyena is a quintessential animal to encounter on your Kruger safari.

A guest described a recent Spotted Hyena encounter: “When you think about the animals you want to see on an African safari, I don’t think many people have a Spotted Hyena on their wish list. So, it was an eye-opener for me that one of my favourite encounters was coming across two young hyenas. We had gone through the Paul Kruger Gate on a morning game drive, and were about 4 kilometres down the Kruger Road, when our driver told us there was a Spotted Hyena den ahead and we should look out for them. Sure enough, there were two young hyenas sitting right on the roadside and we were able to get quite close without disturbing them. They were just peacefully facing east and enjoying the rays of sunlight falling on them. We got fantastic photographs, and they were actually beautiful; clean, healthy, intelligent eyes and these lovely, rounded ears. It was such a special sighting and I will never think of hyenas in the same way again.”