At sunrise, on my way out of Kruger last week, a female hyaena walked down the road towards me with the remains of an impala carcase in her mouth. She was obviously still a nursing mother and was possibly returning to the den with some supplementary food for the cubs.
This great sighting triggered a string of memories on the spotted hyaena and how little I have spoken of this amazing animal so far.
In my early days of camping in the bush, in Zimbabwe, the spotted hyaena was one of the creatures most held in fear and revulsion, basically the stuff of nightmares.
Stories, both true and apocryphal, abound of unwary campers who have hands, feet, faces bitten off while in their sleep. Cooler boxes, pots and pans left outside, are chewed to unusable wreckage by those incredibly strong jaws. And, of course, the hyaena is generally seen as a cowardly, despicable and at the same time, vicious creature.
I remember very well my first close up encounter with the “spotty”. Sitting next to the camp fire, one very black night at Mana Pools on the banks of the Zambezi River, two pale, but distinctive shapes suddenly appeared on the edge of the fire light. Without really thinking about it too much I leapt out of my chair and ran at these nightmarish creatures, shouting out loudly, “voetsak! voetsak!”. Thankfully, they retreated back into the darkness, and I felt quite proud of myself, especially after the two English girls who with me expressed their amazement and admiration! Nevertheless, I was definitely relieved when my good friend Louis returned from the ablution block to add a bit more heft to our party and when I retired to bed later that evening I made double sure that my tent was securely zipped up! I vaguely recall that I spent some time deciding whether it was better to sleep with my feet or my head closest to the zip!
|patrolling territory, Kruger NP|
On another trip, this time to a remote, private bush camp in Hwange Game Reserve, we had been listening to hyaena calling most of the evening, and several members of the party had been competing in telling the most horrific hyaena stories. As in Mana Pools, our camp was unfenced and the paths to our little cabins were unlit and meandered in some places through quite thick bush. When I eventually dragged myself away from the illusory safety of the camp fire, I was pretty scared of the darkness and my torch did nothing to bolster my courage. Just before reaching my cabin door an owl went “whoo-whoo, whoo-whoo” in the bushes beside me……… well I flew through that door in a fair imitation of a “rugby try-scoring dive” and it took at least 15 minutes before my heart rate returned to normal and I could laugh at myself! I’m not sure if that owl had ever been mistaken for a hyaena before.
Now, quite a few years later on, and after many more encounters with the “spotty”, mostly from the safety of a game viewing vehicle I must admit, my unreasoning fear of this incredible animal has been replaced by admiration, awe and respect for the amazing predator it truly is.
In the Kruger National Park, we occasionally get excellent sightings of hyaena due to their practice of using man-made infrastructure, road culverts, as den sites. As a result they become very used to motor vehicles and can lie quite calmly on the nice warm roadside despite vehicles getting very close. As they use these dens to raise their cubs we can sometimes get really close to the youngsters, which is a real bonus.
As you can see from the photos, hyaena cubs are really very “cute”. They keep their thick black fur until about 3 months old, before starting to grow into their adult coat.
As they get older, juvenile hyaena’s have the most luxuriant long fur, but this gradually shortens, gets coarser and over their lifespan they can become quite “threadbare” especially on their heads and necks. At this stage one can almost understand why some people think that they are ugly.
The Spotted Hyaena plays a critical role in the ecosystem of the African bush. I have often been asked why there are not more animal carcases / skeletons scattered around, and of course the answer is the hyaena! With their incredibly strong neck and jaw muscles, huge teeth and heavy-duty stomach acids they efficiently clean up the bush of rotting dead animals and recycle them back into the environment. And of course, they are not just scavengers. When they are the predominant large predator in an area they have to hunt and they are supreme hunters. As with lion, they dominate the nightscape.
Which is why, as much as I now consider them to be beautiful and grossly misunderstood animals, I am still wary and take precautions when staying in unfenced wilderness areas at night! This time however it is with respect and understanding of their fitting place in our world, and not just because of all the scare stories!