It sometimes seems that the trio of hyaenas from Disney’s famous movie the Lion King is a representation of the species as a whole. There can be nothing further from the truth, as hyenas are not cowardly, skulking scavengers that they are made out to be.
Found in most wilderness regions of sub-Saharan Africa, the spotted hyena plays a very important role in many African eco-systems.
Much like other animals that have stripes or spots, the pattern on each animal is unique, allowing for easy identification.
These large animals can be found is a vast variety of habitats and have even been found at altitudes as high as 4,100m!
Although they have their cubs in a den, they do like to lie in shaded hollows, culverts and even pools of water during the heat of the day. If you have ever had the privilege to travel to Tanzania or Kenya, you will see hyenas wallowing midday like a hippo in muddy pools of water.
Most people believe that hyena scavenges the majority of their food, but this is not necessarily the truth. They kill up to 95% of their food, with the remaining percentage being scavenged or stolen. Hyenas have excellent hearing and can hear the sound of predators on a kill from up to 10 km away. They will eat almost anything on offer, including fish, pythons and tortoises if nothing else is available. The amount of scavenging versus the amount of hunting a hyena does is all dependent on the population dynamics of other large predators in the region.
Hyenas exert a far greater bite pressure than any other land predator on the continent, they can crush bones that other carnivores cannot eat.
The main rivalry for hyenas are lions. And in many areas, where lions do exist, hyenas are regarded as the dominant apex predator. In the Ngorongoro Crater in Northern Tanzania, hyenas and lions are in a constant battle with each other, in what can only be described as a gladiator’s arena of life and death where often, due to numbers and cunning, hyenas are the victor.
Living in clans as they do, they can be observed to be extremely social. And considering that these clans can exceed 50 in number, it is no easy task. The clans are matriarchal, as the females are larger than their male counterparts and can outweigh them by as much as 30%.
Hyenas communicate via a range of vocalizations varying from whoops and grunts to almost demented human-like laughter. Hence they are often referred to as ‘Laughing Hyenas’. Each call has a specific use and is therefore easily distinguished and interpreted by the rest of the clan. Sitting and listening to a pack of hyenas as they call to each other in the dead of night, is a cacophony that will not be easily forgotten.
When cubs are born at the den site, they get to interact with each other and thus build up a clan hierarchy. The female offspring of the dominant matriarch is known as a Princess and will be afforded special privileges by the rest of the clan.
Built like they are running uphill; they can attain speeds of up to 60 kph, however, more importantly, they maintain that speed for long period of time, enabling them to tier their prey out before catching it and ripping it to shreds.
Female hyenas have a pseudo-penis, making the animals difficult to sex when young, though as adults’, females are easily noticeable due to their size and weight difference to the males. Clans are territorial and will defend their areas aggressively. They mark their areas with dung and a pungent paste secreted from their anal glands.
Hyenas are one of the most intelligent animals on the African continent and arguably the most intelligent predator bar the African Wild Dog.
So, the next time you are on a Safari and encounter these amazing creators, take the time to watch them and learn more about their complex and interesting behaviours.
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It seems unfair that the Hippo did not make it onto the Big 5 list. Surely, since they are the 3rd largest land mammal after the elephant and the white rhino, and they are considered to be the most dangerous, they deserve some sort of recognition? That being said there are many stories and legends about the huge ‘River Horse’.
Here are some of the facts that you might not know about this fearsome creature:
- Given the right conditions, a hippo can live up to 40 years.
- When hippos bask in the sun, they secrete a red, oily substance. This has given rise to the myth that they ‘sweat blood’. The liquid is a natural sunblock and moisturizer.
- Although it seems that hippos can submerge for inordinately long periods of time, they need to surface every 3-5 minutes to breathe. This is a natural reflex and can be done even when the animal is sleeping.
- Despite their bulk, hippos can attain speeds of up to 30 km per hour over short distances.
- They spend most of their time in the water although they leave the water in the cooler parts of the day and night in order to forage for vegetation. They have been known to walk up to 10km in order to find food. Considering their bulk, the fact that they can consume up to 68kg in a night is a relatively small amount.
- Hippo’s are not only territorial in water, but it is also when they are out of the water that hippo can be extremely aggressive towards humans. They have been called the most dangerous animal in Africa as they have been known to cause many a death, especially in communities that are near or are surrounded by water.
- Much like the Rock Hyrax is the closest living relatives to the elephant, the hippo is closely related to whales and porpoises. Albeit that their evolutionary paths diverged about 55 million years ago.
- Both reproduction and birth take place in water, and it is here that the huge bulls become fiercely territorial. Adult males have been known to injure or kill both females and youngsters when competing for space.
- Hippos can neither swim nor float! They give that impression while they are in the water, when in fact they are walking along the bottom surface.
- Often seen rearing up out of the water, mouth agape, this is not a yawn but a sign of aggression. Accompanied by a loud series of grunts and honks, it is a warning not to be taken lightly.
A famous South African hippo:
One of the most famous South African hippos was Huberta (originally called Hubert, she was correctly named after her death). Her fame lasted for three years as she walked several thousands of kilometre from KwaZulu Natal to King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape back in 1928. No one knows what started her walking, but she certainly captured the attention of the media, both local and international during this time.
An African myth about hippos:
How the hippo came to live in the water is one story that is often repeated around an evening campfire. Many millennia ago, most of the African animals lived together on land and only very few could be found in the rivers and lakes. The baking hot sun caused many of them discomfort, but they were lucky and had feathers, fur or scales to protect them from the energy-sapping rays. However, Hippo’s skin had none of that protection and as he grew in size his skin stretched and became extremely sensitive to the harsh rays of the sun. Finally, Hippo could endure it no more. He asked the Creator if he could live in the water to keep cool and protect his sensitive skin. “You may”, said the Creator. “You must ask the permission of those already living in the water as you are large, and they fear that you will eat all their food”. To allay their fears, Hippo explained that he did not eat fish, but only consumed the vegetation that could be found on the riverbanks. As the river inhabitants were still sceptical, Hippo made them the following solemn promise. “I will open my mouth wide every day, in order for you to see that there are no fish bones or scales in my mouth. And I will use my tail to spread my dung, to prove that there no bones” Finally, the river animals were convinced and from that day forth, the hippo has lived in the water, opening his mouth and spreading his dung. The next time you come across a hippo, take a moment and give it the respect that it deserves.
Do you have any specific questions about hippos you would like answered? Is there another specific non-Big 5 animal you would like us to write about? Drop us a comment below and we will respond to you.
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