Written by: Berenice Meintjes
Underdog of the African bush, the hyena remains one of our favourite of all beasties to spot when on safari. With a lope that just looks like trouble, these bad girls of the bush have garnered a reputation of ill repute, at times deserved and sometimes not. Here are some things you may wish you never knew about this unlikely creature:
1. Hyena are cannibals and will attack and eat other hyena, including their young.
2. The female hyena is actually dominant, larger in size and more aggressive than the male. Females have a ‘penis’, which is an elongated clitoris, though they are not hermaphrodite.
3. The ‘penis’ of the female hyena is used for copulation, urination and birth. Many cubs die of suffocation during birth. The mother giving birth may also die as the ‘penis’ is ruptured.
4. Female hyena have only two nipples. Cubs fight for food from the mother, often to the death.
5. Hyena are creatures of the night. They can live in a wide range of habitats, including savannah, forest, riverine bush, desert and mountain terrain.
6. Hyena are believed to be even more intelligent than chimpanzees, and studies by Duke University show a large frontal cortex of the brain, with a wily problem-solving ability. The study found that hyena achieved uncanny cooperation, all in eerie silence, without any apparent outward communication.
7. One of the most dangerous sounds you might hear in the bush is laughter – the hyena laughs to signal excitement that it has found food. The pitch of their laugh can indicate their status in the pack.
8. Males have the lowest status in the pack and are forced to leave their family when they reach sexual maturity. Their fight to enter a new pack is often deadly and the dominant female will determine their fate.
9. The reputation of the hyena as a coward is unfounded and hyena are aggressive competitors in the bush, not only scavenging on the kills of other animals as it is often believed. They kill and eat baby lion, leopard and other predators. About 95% of their diet comes from their own kills, which take place in packs of up to 80 hyena.
10. Hyena have ‘creepy greeting ceremonies’ where both females and males have erections.
11. While looking dog-like, hyena bear no formal relation to the dog species. In fact they are more closely genetically related to cats.
12. The mythical evil reputation of the hyena includes that they influence people’s spirits, were once ridden by witches, rob graves, kill children and livestock.
Ernest Hemingway did little to contribute towards the reputation of the hyena and in Green Hills of Africa, he wrote:
“Fisi, the hyena, hermaphroditic self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off of your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp-follower, stinking, foul, with jaws that crack the bones the lion leaves, belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain …”
Closer to home, two hyena once accidentally locked themselves into the staff toilet at Rhino Post Safari Lodge in the Kruger National Park. The damage they did in one night to such a small space was remarkable, though possibly worth the story to tell. In my recent stay at Rhino Post Safari Lodge, we had a buzz of excitement as a hyena was chased out of from the dining room vicinity where it was eyeing the chef’s delicious dishes being brought down by the waitresses.
Despite their bad press, at Rhino Post Safari Lodge we simply love these intelligent creatures of the dark. Their contribution to the ecosystem of the African bushveld is significant and they are a key and adaptive predator in the complex web of life that is Kruger National Park at its most natural.
Perhaps because of their dubious reputation, to us no safari in Africa is complete without the shuddering thrill of seeing these tough masters of their environment loping in the veld and hearing their shrill cackle in the middle of the night.