To Africa’s eco-tourists, hyenas are one of the least understood and under-appreciated predators. No wonder, with the insane-sounding laugh, bone-crunching jaws with the strength of a hydraulic press, and an unforgettable odor. Unusually, both sexes also have external genitalia, giving rise to all sorts of weird stories about “hermaphrodites.”
Though wild dogs are always my favorite African predator, it’s too bad that hyenas get such a bad rap because they are much more interesting and ecologically “useful” than lions. Living in female –led clans of up 15 or more, they are both top-class predators as well as scavengers par excellence. The spotted hyena is much more common than its shaggy-haired cousin, the brown hyena.
I had the immense pleasure of enjoying the first few days of 2011 hanging out at a spotted hyena den in the Okavango Delta of northern Botswana, watching a mixed batch of little dudes from just a week old (dark brown), to 4-5 months (first spots), to juveniles. What a wonderful experience to see the alpha female wander in from the bush and stand over a hole in the ground – -the entrance to the den – and emit a very low moan, calling the young ones. Within seconds they start tumbling out, and it’s a bit like “how many people can you stuff into a telephone booth?”—because they just keep popping out.
Many years ago Ian Player told of one of his game rangers in the 1960s who hand-reared an orphaned hyena. He kept her as a house pet for several years before giving her to a zoo so she could live with others of her kind. This ranger was adamant that this hyena was far smarter, mentally agile, and emotionally responsive than any of the other wildlife and very many dogs he had reared in his life.
Its time for us to create a worldwide movement — “Hyena Appreciation Day!”