In Love with Hyenas

Even if you have never been to Africa, you probably have an opinion about hyenas. They are ugly, vicious, greedy, dull scavengers. Or you are more like me and love hyenas for their fascinating social structure and impressive features. To me, they are the most interesting mammals on the African plains.

Are you as excited about International World Hyena Day as I am? No, not yet? Well, there is no better occasion to make you fall in love with these amazing predators. So, we are answering your most pressing questions about hyenas you didn’t know you had.

Hyena, South Africa – Photograph © Ruth Heyduck

Did you know…

… there are four different types of hyenas

  1. The striped hyena is mostly found in Northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
  2. The brown hyena lives in Southern Africa, mainly in the dry areas of Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. In Namibia, they are called strand loopers because they are hunting on the beach.
  3. The spotted hyena is famous for its whooping calls and laughs.
  4. Maned hyena, better known as the aardwolf. Feeds mostly on insects, especially termites. They are the smallest of the four but can double in size when scared. By raising their hair.

… hyenas are excellent hunters

Most people think of them as cowardly scavengers. Lurking in the shadows, stealing food from lions and leopards. That is only half the story. Of course, like any predator, a hyena will never pass by a free meal. But hyenas, especially the spotted, are very skilled hunters. Studies have shown that 70-90 percent of their food comes from hunting. They can easily take down a wildebeest or a zebra by themselves. If they band together, even buffalo or giraffe can be on the dinner menu. Their powerful jaws are as strong as those of brown bears.

Hyenas, Pridelands – Photograph © Tere Abumohor

Photograph © Ruth Heyduck

… the world of hyenas is ruled by females

Brown and spotted hyenas live in groups or clans that are led by an alpha female. The matriarch has a strong bond with her daughter who will usually inherit the throne of her mother. Female hyenas dominate and outrank all males. They also tend to be bigger and stronger than males and even have more testosterone.

… they are loving mothers

Hyenas give birth to one to three cubs. They invest more energy in their babies than any other carnivore. Especially brown hyena females have been observed to care for each other’s offspring in a communal den.

… hyenas are very sociable

Clans of spotted hyenas can grow 150 individuals strong. They will mostly venture out on their own or in small groups. Especially spotted hyenas have an elaborate greeting ritual if they have not seen each other for a while. They form social networks of friendships and sometimes even political alliances. While brown hyenas mostly forage the plains on their own, they also live in clans.

… hyenas communicate through markings

The iconic whooping calls of the spotted hyenas are one of my favorite sounds to fall asleep to after a long day on safari. Hyenas also communicate through markings they leave on grass. They secrete a paste from an anal gland pouch that their sensitive noses can pick up over hundreds of meters. Filled with chemicals and hormones it transmits a variety of information about social standing, identification, and reproductive condition. Brown hyenas even include a second mark that is supposed to be a timing device that will tell other clan members when the area was last checked.

Hyena, Tanzania – Photograph © Ruth Heyduck

Hyena, Namibia – Photograph © Ruth Heyduck

… they are impressive companions to humans

Hyenas are neither dogs nor cats. They are hyenas and not pets. Yet in Nigeria and Ethiopia, some villages have formed a close bond with the spotted hyenas that goes back centuries. South African photographer Pieter Hugo visited them. Take a look at what he found:

I could go on and on. There is still so much to learn about these misunderstood creatures. If you want to learn more about the behavior of spotted and brown hyenas: the book “Cry of the Kalahari” by Mark and Delia Owens puts the secret life of hyenas into the spotlight. For more than seven years, they researched brown and spotted hyenas’ social system and complex communication in the Kalahari Desert.

If you are not already a hyena lover, spend some quality time with them next time you are out in the bush. And try to see them for the fascinating creatures they are. Sometimes true beauty reveals itself only when we take the time to understand. Happy International World Hyena Day!

Do want to learn more about hyenas, maybe observe them up, close and personal?

Why not take part in one of our courses? We will meet a spotty for sure.

EcoTraining Highlights | The Pridelands Hyena Clan

We made a stop at Pridelands and visit the Hyena Den. What did we find? A couple of new Hyena cubs. The Hyena Clan at Pridelands is growing in numbers, to our surprise and delight we also spotted triplets, already a few months old. For hyenas to give birth to triplets are quite rare, what a lovely surprise!!

About the Author: 

Stefanie Ruth Heyduck is a freelance writer and consultant. Half of the year she lives in Tanzania and spends every free minute in the bush. She is passionate about wildlife, conservation and photography and shares her sightings on Instagram (