Hyenas are the most unfairly maligned of Africa’s large mammals. In ancient times, they were stigmatized as hermaphrodites that could change sex at will (a myth that stemmed from the false penis that covers the female’s vagina), while contemporary legend tends to portray them as giggling cowards whose livelihood depends on scrounging scraps from more noble hunters. Viewed in a less anthropomorphic light, hyenas are among the most intriguing of all large carnivores, thanks to their highly complex social structure, and together with vultures they play an important ecological role in ridding the savanna of rotting corpses. Although hyenas are rather dog-like in appearance, albeit with a distinctive sloping back and uniquely powerful bone-crushing jaw, they are actually more closely related to cats and mongooses.
Species: All four of the world’s hyena species occur in Africa and all but one are endemic to the continent. Most common and conspicuous is the spotted hyena, which ranks as Africa’s second-largest predator, with a shoulder height of almost 3ft, an average weight of around 35lb, and a spotted gray or brown coat. The smaller striped hyena is pale brown with a vertically streaked torso and off-black mane, while the brown hyena has a shaggy dark brown coat. Smaller still, the aberrant aardwolf is strictly insectivorous and closer in size to a jackal than to other hyenas.
Where to see Hyena in Africa
Spotted hyenas are common in most major African safari destinations, where their visibility depends on their level of diurnal activity. The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is particularly rewarding when it comes to observing hyena interaction, and Ngorongoro Crater credibly claims to host the world’s densest hyena population. The other three hyena species are more strictly nocturnal and sightings are uncommon, but they might be seen on night drives in any reserve within their range.
Did you know?
Hyenas are not as threatened as many large carnivores, partly due to their secretive nocturnal nature. The spotted hyena is probably the most common large carnivore in Africa, and together with the aardwolf it is assessed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. The striped and brown hyena are Near-Threatened
Spotted, striped and brown hyenas are primarily scavengers. Their diet mainly consists of animals that were killed by other predators or died of natural causes. Spotted hyenas in particular are also adept hunters – recent studies in the Serengeti-Ngorongoro suggest that they are regularly scavenged from by lions – and all three species feed opportunistically on fruit and small wildlife, including antelope calves.