Unfortunately, due to some documentaries and movies, spotted hyenas are not really on the list of top things to see while in Kruger Park. These predators are portrayed as a scavenging nuisance, but in fact, they are one of the most successful hunters amongst predators in Africa (after the African wild dog).
They are very social animals and can be found in large clans. Spotted hyena clans have a matriarchy and males will either form their own clans or join a matriarch clan, where they will be at the lowest rank.
Spotted hyenas have an ability that no other mammals have - they are equipped with a very specialised immune system. Research has shown that they are immune to the majority of natural diseases, like rabies, anthrax and canine distemper diseases. The same diseases would kill lions , wild dogs and vultures in an instant, but hyenas are able to survive this and to get rid of the carcasses of the animals who have succumbed to these diseases, which helps in perhaps stopping the spread of the disease. That’s definitely something to remember when you see a hyena on your next Kruger safari.
Consider every hyena you see to be a very special sighting. Unlike lions or wild dogs, where you can distinguish between the sexes, hyenas are a bit more complicated.
Females have a psuedopenis - an enlarged clitoris in a shape that resembles male genitalia and even have testical shaped labias that are folded up and covered. For this reason, it is not very easy to differentiate between them at first glance.
Considering the reproductive organs of a female, mating is a very complicated situation. And it takes skill to manoeuvre the action - some males have to practise a couple of months before they actually get it right.
A female hyena usually gives birth to litters of between one to three (sometimes four) cubs, and this can be a very delicate process. Due to the birth canal being longer than any other mammal species, the mortality rate for newborn cubs, and also first time moms, is quite high.
For the cubs - they pass through this elongated birth canal, and sometimes they suffocate and are still born.
For the moms - there is a tearing of this canal causing excruciating pain, which some don’t survive.
The birth process does become easier after the first offspring is born. As if conception and birthing the cubs isn’t complicated already, the next phase of fighting for survival starts soon after - cubs are born with a fully developed set of teeth and open eyes.
It is in a female cub’s nature to fight for dominance right from the start, to follow the matriarchy of spotted hyenas. Due to this, females will kill each other and will dominate males in the litter at the feeding sessions. There is also evidence of hyena cubs already fighting each other in the womb! This was established through a study of hyenas in captivity.
Spotted hyenas have extremely powerful jaws - the large muscles that take several years to grow around the skull and jaw, help these predators to be able to crush bones and hooves.
They are exceptional hunters - unlike the big cats who need to “walk and stalk” their prey - hyenas have a lot of endurance and stamina, which helps to run down their prey over long distances - being able to chase prey at a speed of 60km/h for distances between 2 - 5km, is very common. They will hunt big ungulates like wildebeest, kudu and zebra, but also take down smaller animals like impala, birds, reptiles and rodents.
As mentioned before, they are also scavengers. But contrary to the belief that they steal only other predator’s meals, they are known as the “vacuum cleaners” of the bush and will get rid of leftover carcasses from animals that either die naturally or have been hunted down by other predators.
The great thing about hyenas is that they can be found throughout the Kruger National Park, from the south of the park right up to the northern reaches.
A female’s weight can range between 55 and 80kg and females are almost 10% larger than males. A male hyena can weigh between 45 and 60kg and a hyenas shoulder height is between 75 and 95cm.
It has also been recorded, that they can live up to almost 20 years.
Hyenas thrive in the savannah. They can adapt to almost anywhere, with the exceptions being forests and deserts.
One of the most renowned sounds of the bush would be the ‘whooping’ sound that hyenas produce - it can be heard over vast distances at night and is for communicating between clan members, and also to other clans in the area, when patrolling the territory.
They are also notorious for the ‘giggle’ sound they make (hence why they’re sometimes called the laughing hyenas). These sounds are usually a sign of being in a frantic situation where they are on a feeding frenzy, encountering other clans or facing other predators. It has been recorded that they have up to 14 different vocal sounds.
Spotted hyena clans are very territorial and they make use of various ways to mark their territory. Scent marking, using their anal glands, and also defecating on the borders of their territories, are two of the main ways they mark.
Hyenas have adapted to utilise man-made structures for their own use - like storm drains underneath the roads! This may be one of the most convenient and easiest den sites that they’re able to find.
The chances of you finding a den site while on a Kruger Park safari is very high and can be very entertaining, especially during early mornings and late afternoons when the youngsters are most active.
The cubs are very playful, but be careful - like domesticated puppies, they love to chew on things. Keep an eye on those little ones when they start walking towards your vehicle. Don’t be fooled by the ‘cute, puppy eyes’, some of them have a habit of biting number plates and bumpers!
Even though documentaries portray these super predators in a very bad light, they are one of the most unique creatures you will encounter and are incredible survivors!
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