I will never forget the first time I saw a Hyena in the wild (OK – really large National Park, but you get the gist of it) – I was on my way to pay the visitors’ fee for visiting the Etosha National Park at Okaukuejo and decided to make a quick pit stop at the Ombika waterhole en route.
There were a large number of cars (see here now info on all the types of vehicle there were), making a suitably large amount of noise, so I just sat and waited a while for them all to continue on and see what crept out of the brush afterwards – but I NEVER expected to see my first spotted hyena – knowing that this animal just a few hundred meters away from me has jaws that could crush my skull without so much as a pause for breath gave me an incredible sense of – OMG, as a human, I am utterly useless.
Hyenas have been misunderstood for a very long time, everyone from Aristotle to Hemingway have added to these creatures’ bad reputation and with the females having a pseudo-penis, it was long thought that they were hermaphrodites who chewed on their own hind legs.
Native to both Asia and Africa there are four different species of Hyena, Spotted Hyena, Brown Hyena, Striped Hyena and Aardwolf and it has long been believed that they are almost purely scavengers, which is not true – it is now known that hyenas are hunters, and it is far more often that a lion will steal a hyena kill; but lions are majestic and beautiful – who would think that they would stoop to those levels.
Hyena are not what you would call an attractive animal, with odd proportions, patchy fur, a shrill, nearly hysterical sounding laughing call that sends shivers up your spine and a rich mythological history painting them as loathsome, evil creatures.
Hyenas live in a matriarchal society, similar to that of elephants, with clans being as large as 80 animals, and strangely enough even though they would appear to be dog-like, they are actually more closely related to cats!
In terms of intelligence, they are right up there with primates and pups are born with their eyes open in litters or two – four pups. These pups start eating meat from about 5 months, but unlike other carnivore species the mother does not bring prey back to the den so the pups also suckle for longer than other carnivores, up to 18 months.
I think one of the most fascinating human/wildlife scenarios involving Hyena is from Harar in Ethiopia – here the Hyena have been living within the city walls for more than 500 years, and cleaning up the city’s organic waste – did you know that because of their omnivorous diet they are considered halal.
According to folklore this feeding started in the 1900’s but is in decline now with only two practicing ‘hyena men’ left