Some of the best fun to be had in the bush is a visit to an active hyaena den, the communal centre of these often-feared animals’ lives.
The spotted hyaena is not everyone’s favourite bush critter and this much-maligned predator is often overlooked as an opportunity for entertainment and information. But when at home, the hyaena is a different creature to the powerful, effective hunter it is when out in the wild.
The communal den is the centre of hyaena life. It’s where the clan members that have split up at night to find food reconvene to rest, and where the youngsters find refuge in their first year of life. Usually a multi-entranced, disused aardvark burrow in a termite mound, it provides shelter for the cubs while their parents are away. When inside, the youngsters use the smaller passages and interior chambers as bolt holes when dangerous carnivores come to call.
There is one golden rule at the den: no food is allowed! Hyaena mothers consume their night-time kills or leftovers while they’re out to eliminate the possibility of losing them to other hungry scavengers on the way home. The ability of the species to digest bone and not merely pass it out means it has access to nutrients that are not available to other predators. For the nursing mother, all these nutrients help to create exceptionally rich milk for her hungry cubs, who need no other nourishment. In any case, food leftovers would give telltale signs of occupation, risking the cubs’ safety should their parents be out hunting.
All photos © Megan Emmett
The cubs are fed this high-protein diet for up to a year, and are not exposed to danger until they are large enough to defend themselves. However, long hours spent alone at home will tempt any child to do mischief and the hyaena is no exception, to the delight of any onlookers. Young hyaenas are very curious and are always ready to explore the perimeters of their home. Any new object is inspected, including the tyres of a parked Land Rover (which make useful tools for teething devices!). A stick protruding from the ground or, better still, a fallen branch to carry around is a prize worth fighting for and the competition keeps the youngsters entertained for ages. Then a bit of hide-and-seek or a lap or two of ‘catch me if you can’ uses up the last of their energy. All the while, their mums and aunts snooze in the shade, barely lifting an eyebrow to check on the high jinks.
It’s not all fun and games, though. Status is inherited and since females rule the roost in hyaena society, there is automatically competition from birth if two females are born as siblings, especially to the matriarch. Cubs are born with their eyes open and their canines fully erupted and a fight to the death can be the heiress’s first life experience. As males occupy a lower status, a little brother is likely to be ignored (that’s why few males stay too near the den when they’re fully grown, tending instead to hover on the outskirts).
Birth for hyaena mothers is an ordeal. Their pseudo-penis, unique to the female of the species, may have its function in terms of status and as a physical indication of exposure to high levels on androgens (in the womb) and testosterone (generally), but it doesn’t exactly make for a streamlined birth canal. Many first-time mothers deliver stillborns. In those females, the umbilical chord is shorter than the protracted birth canal, detaching before the cub can access oxygen from the outside world. The previously unstretched canal forms a suffocating stocking around the cub, which has inevitably perished before the progression of labour causes the tunnel to tear. Scarring on the pseudo-penis is an indication that females have given birth previously. Second attempts are fortunately more successful.
Baby hyaenas are black as the night and too sweet for words. Their coats gradually lighten as they grow and the shaggy, longish fur they sport gives them a teddy-bearish appearance, making their comical antics around the den even more endearing. The spots that give the species its name develop when the cub is about a year old.
All photos © Megan Emmett
Watching clan members greet each other is also fascinating, with the pseudo-penis playing a pivotal role. When two hyaenas from a clan meet up, they stand head to toe, lifting their hind legs to reveal their genitals for inspection. Essentially, this exercise is an act of trust, exposing the most vulnerable part of the body to your contemporary’s most powerful part – its jaw. Male hyaenas tend to do this less frequently when meeting females, understandably.
The intrigues of the hyaena household are many and varied. It is in taking the time to watch and experience the lives of this often-disliked species that fear and hate for them can be replaced with respect for its ability as a finely honed predator and parent.