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Africa Geographic Travel

My neighbours call me the hyena lady and I choose to take this as a compliment. I earned this name because of my insatiable fascination with spotted hyenas. Written by: Sharon Haussmann


In the special part of wilderness where I live, Balule Private Nature Reserve, we have a territorial clan of hyenas totalling about 24 adults. This clan regularly dens near my house and this has enabled me to spend many hours observing them. I have seen them hunt, scavenge, sleep, play, mate and very near giving birth. I have heard them whoop, growl, whimper, cackle, yelp, and so much more. I know every individual; I have taken thousands of photos and videos and done some extensive sound recordings. These misunderstood animals have become a part of my daily life.

hyena-baby
A six-week-old cub looking at the world differently! Snuggling in the safety of mom’s company this curious cub stared at me intently – I was left wondering if he would have an upside-down imprint of humans in his mind forever!

It is every time that I look into the dark, soulful little eyes of a hyena cub that I wish to tell the world, and especially children, that there is so much more to hyenas than the villain characters so strongly portrayed in Disney movies.

hyena-cubs
Little black cubs, estimated to be two weeks old, exploring outside their burrow.

While they certainly are fierce predators, they are also very nurturing, social and caring creatures. I have had the privilege to observe this active hyena den for almost three years now and my fascination with these beautiful, complex animals grows stronger every day.

hyena-cub
A mom moving her cub from one burrow to another.

Early mornings at the den are my favourite time. This is when the adventurous cubs come out to play, and their curiosity and mischievous antics can soften the steeliest of hearts and captivate one’s attention for hours.

hyenas-with-cub
Clan members take a close look at a small cub while mom, in the middle, keeps an eye.

The cubs’ play closely resembles that of domestic dogs. They love an energetic game of chase, leaving dust billowing over the den. The chase always ends with a tumble and some biting and playful bullying. Another amusing and favourite game of theirs is tug-of-war – one cub will find a stick, and another tries to steal it away, resulting in two cubs growling and pulling fiercely at opposite ends!

Hyena cubs
Sibling rivalry! Hyena cubs compete for dominance from birth.

The cubs often run right over resting or sleeping adults, tumbling and scrambling over them and away. The adults do not flinch, tolerating the cub’s play almost with amusement, and sometimes they even join in. While this play is important for their muscle development, it is evident that some superior hunting skills are packaged in those cute little black bodies.

hyenas-playing
The two little cubs were enjoying a good game of chase when the sub-adult joined in but was playing too rough and hurt the babies. Mom was lying down to the side but in a flash jumped up and disciplined the sub-adult.

Hyena cubs are born completely black, with open eyes and a full set of teeth. They cautiously emerge from the burrow at around two to three weeks old and soon gain enough confidence to venture and explore nearby the den. They gradually develop spots from the neck down and are completely spotty around six months of age.

Hyena clan
Some clan members socialising. Adults, sub-adults and cubs all interact and communicate with each other.

It is when I see the tenderness with which a mother nurses her cubs, the affection between family members and the playful nature of these fascinating creatures that I wish to tell the world there is so much more to hyenas than the sly scavenging characters of Shenzi, Banzai, Ed and Janja!

hyenas
Mom sleeping soundly while her eight-week-old cub looks around.

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Africa Geographic Travel
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