Edit: Part II here
Outside this area of circling scavengers dozens more had gathered and were fighting each other, growling and chattering and moving with their strange lame-looking leg motion. Hyenas that had gotten something to eat were chewing, and their chewing was loudly audible, for hyenas eat everything, including the bones, masticating them with the snap and crunch of a wood chipper.
– Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari
A few years ago I spent some time in Kenya camping on the edge of the Maasai Mara, a game reserve in the south-western corner of the country, known for The Great Migration, the annual movement of millions of wildebeest from the Serengeti in Tanzania north through the Maasai Mara. The camp I stayed in was nice, in comparison to some of the other places I’ve camped. The tents were raised on concrete platforms to prevent snakes and spiders and various creepy-crawlies from becoming too intimate with you in the night, the bathrooms were home to only a small family of scorpions, and there was beer for sale for a not-unreasonable price.
But you couldn’t go out at night.
Outside each tent was a lantern and a wooden pole embedded in the ground. If nature called after the sun went down, you had to light the lantern and hang it from the pole. Then a Maasai guard would come to your tent and escort you to the bathroom. One night (after too much of the aforementioned beer), I needed to try the system out. I lit the lantern, hung it from the pole, and waited.
Soon another lantern bobbed towards me in the dark, and a quiet voice said “Jambo”. The owner of the voice raised his lantern, revealing the high cheekbones and thin face of a young Maasai man – in his early 20s, I guessed. His hair was long and intricately braided, and the flood of lantern light revealed his scarlet and crimson robe. Together these marked him out as a warrior.
The spear in his right hand was also a clue.
“How come we can’t walk to the bathroom by ourselves?” I asked as we walked.
“It is dangerous.”
“There’s an electric fence around the camp though, right?”
“Yes. But the hyenas do not care.”
That gave me something to think about while I dodged scorpions in the bathroom. He walked me back to my tent, and then disappeared again into the night to wait for the next hapless Canadian needing a pee break.
Hyena’s have a terrible reputation. Some of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of Walt Disney for the character assassination in The Lion King (a film which annoyed hyena researchers to the point that one of them tried to sue Disney for defamation of character), but the dislike of hyena’s goes further back than that. Jane Goodall called them as ‘horrifying’. She described a group of hyenas harassing a wildebeest and ‘running of with pieces of gut, giggling’. Richard Burton wrote that the animals “prowl about the camps all night, dogs travellers and devours anything he can find, at times pulling down children and camels.” Aristotle called them scavengers and cowards. The author of Physiologus, a manuscript which combined Christian morality and pagan story-telling, got a little more mystical: “they are neither man nor woman, that is, neither faithful nor unfaithful.” Ignoring the misogyny in that sentence, the author was clearly not a fan of hyenas.
Traditional African folklore does little better. Hyena’s are cast as cowardly, ugly idiots. In Tanzania they are believed to be associated with witchcraft, and all reputable witches keep a stable of hyenas which they use for mounts. In Ethiopian folk religion, some people have the power of bouda, the evil-eye, which among other things allow them turn into hyenas (were-hyenas would have made Twilight far more interesting). But as in Western culture, the most oft-cited myth about hyenas is a critique of their dietary habits – they are scavengers.
Except, well, they’re not really. Hyena’s hunt 95% of their kills. They do scavenge, it’s true, but before we condemn that as a moral failing we should consider at least two things. First, animals can’t have moral failings. Second, most animals scavenge to some extent. Early humans were almost certainly scavengers before they were hunters, and other members of the scavenging family include wolves, tigers, raccoons, owls, and even lions. Yes, the mighty and proud Lord of the Jungle is a scavenger too.
Hyena’s are built to hunt, and built to scavenge. They are opportunistic, efficient predators, capable of taking down a staggering diversity of prey: Cape buffalo; sablebuck; young hippos, rhinos, and giraffes; hares; zebras; jackals; snakes; dogs; cats; livestock; foxes; and other hyenas. Rounding out their diet are leather, ostrich eggs, placentas, and warthogs (which have never looked very appetizing to me). Given an advantage in numbers, they’ll take down a lion.
That sounds like an unfair fight, but lions aren’t very nice either – they often chase hyenas off of a kill. And because they hired a better PR firm than hyenas did, they safe and sound in the court of public opinion.
Hyena’s are strange animals. They’re in the cat family (suborder Feliformia), but physically they’re more similar to canids. But they’re as equally closely related to civets as they are to felines. They hunt like wolves, raise their babies like cats, live in groups like baboons, and howl like the devil. They are short and squat; built like a bouncer. A big hyena weighs up to 175 lbs and stands about three feet tall. Three of the species (there are four) are shaped like wolves – if the wolves power-lifted and took steroids. The fourth and most well-known, the spotted hyena, is built like a miniature bear with massive shoulders and powerful forelimbs but relatively undeveloped hind-legs.
Like dogs, they have non-retractable claws which allow them to dig into dirt and maintain traction while turning sharply. Their hunting strategy is an intermediary of other African predators – they are not extreme endurance hunters like African Wild Dogs, sprinters like the cheetah, or ambush specialists like leopards. Instead, hyenas adopt a mixture of whatever is needed. They hunt wildebeest and gazelles with sprints, and zebra by wearing them down. They’re also got no problem ‘borrowing’ kills from leopards, cheetahs, and hunting dogs – at least until everyone gets ousted by lions. Hyenas track their prey with an acute sense of smell, vision, and hearing: they can detect the sound of animals feeding on a kill from up to 6 km away. They’re pretty smart too – hyenas are known to follow groups of vultures to a carcass.
Hyenas kill small prey by clamping it in immensely powerful jaws and shaking it (and large prey by eating it alive – this is what horrified Jane Goodall). The jaws of the hyena are a marvel of evolution. The hyena’s entire skull is built to support the immense musculature which radiates from the jaw, and gives the hyena the most powerful bite of any mammal – capable of crushing bone with ease. Each of its teeth are specialized for a different purpose. Its premolars are conical, shaped like pistons for crushing bone. Behind these molars, hyenas have the largest carnassial teeth of any mammal. Carnassial teeth are the sharp teeth native to carnivores that allow them to shear and tear flesh. Decayed or broken carnassial teeth often led to death in a carnivore – a fate which the hyena avoids: the carnassial teeth are shielded from the crushing action of the premolars, preventing them from being blunted.
The hyena’s biting power, and a digestive system capable of breaking down rancid meat, bone fragments, and probably license plates, makes them both a deadly hunter and an efficient scavenger. Hyena’s never go hungry for long, which on the unforgiving African Savannah, is an impressive feat.
On Sunday – the social life of hyenas, why do they giggle, and do female hyena’s have penises? (Hint, the answer is…sort-of).