Spotted hyena – fact or fiction?
The Spotted hyena has an unfortunate reputation of being the shadowy undertaker of the African bush. Their haunting nigh-time calls and scavenging habits are well known, culminating in a bumbling self portrayal in Disney’s classic The Lion King.
But is this reputation accurate? We would like to sell some hyena PR, and create a different impression of these much maligned, misunderstood and fascinating animals.
For starters, spotted hyena are extremely capable and underestimated predators. Their muscled builds, legendary biting power, cunning teamwork on the hunt, and relentless stamina result in a formidable unit. Their success rates as hunters far exceed lion and leopard and is only matched by wild dogs. In fact, in some African game reserves where their clan numbers are large, possible up to 30 members, the hyenas challenge lion as the principle savannah predator.
Their social systems are also fascinating and interesting. A complicated hierarchy within the clan network ensures a lineage of the fittest and strongest in what amounts to a royal bloodline. This is crucial to maintain bonds and discipline while on the hunt, and is more complex than any other African predator.
Hyena make use of old aardvark holes as dens and appoint a designated baby sitter to remain with the pups while the clan is out on business. They also share their bounty by regurgitating food for the babysitter and pups when returning to the den. Even lion, the noblest and most revered big predator does not achieve this.
So, yes, spotted hyena certainly do scavenge and are often seen skulking in the shadows of lion and other hunters. But don’t let this fool you as they are able to bring down large prey such as wildebeest or zebra, and do so with much aplomb. This dual-nature makes them as successful as they are interesting, and should give them the rightful and well deserved status in the chain of African predators.
After all, The Lion King is not the most accurate wildlife documentary!