Afsaal hyenas, Kruger National Park by Romi Boom

Why did this hyena mother refuse to suckle a tiny cub? Wild editor Romi Boom came across a hyena den where she witnessed typical hyena behaviour.

Afsaal, the only picnic spot in the far south of the Kruger National Park, is near the Malelane Gate. Whether this is your final stop before leaving the park, or whether you have just entered, the shady trees offer welcome respite from the mixed thornveld.

We were on our way in (much better than being on your way out!) and I had my eyes peeled for a sighting in the southern mixed thornveld. A slight movement on the left caught my eye. “Stop! Stop! Reverse!” I exclaimed, having realised that there was a hyena lying beside the road, hardly two metres from the verge.

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It turned out to be a spotted hyena den, with mom prostrate and relaxed, suckling a cub that was fairly big. Just then the tiniest of cubs, its fur almost black still, popped its head out of the den and attempted to suckle. She rebuffed the little one and would have none of it. The glutton was fed and groomed with great dedication, while the little runt was chased back into the den repeatedly, to our great exasperation. Each time its head popped out, she snapped at it.

Female hyenas are usually very good moms who take excellent care of their babies. Most hyenas will provide their cubs with milk for over one year, so this behaviour was perplexing indeed. The brownish-black cub was younger than eight weeks, when the fur starts turning greyish-brown.

Then we realised that the mistreated one was not her cub! The age difference between the two was too great. We surmised that it was in a creche, and that its mom was out patrolling with the rest of the clan. Shortly afterwards we saw three more adults foraging at the picnic area, most likely a regular haunt in view of the easy pickings that they hoped to find there.

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Being highly sociable animals, the mothers in a spotted hyena clan keep all the cubs at one den site. The babies are raised there until they are old enough to patrol with the moms. The other members of the clan (aunts and great-aunts) visit the mothers and cubs almost daily to hang out together.

The next morning we set out from Jock Safari Lodge on a game drive and found the entire clan – alongside the road and in the road – still at Afsaal. There were 11 cubs of different ages and ever so cute to watch. They were unfazed by our presence and approached the safari vehicle from all directions, allowing for lovely photos. Their sniffing at the tyres caused ranger Dawid van Zyl to switch on the ignition from time to time in an attempt to keep the adults at bay. It’s easy to lose a tyre to a delinquent hyena; their jaws are so powerful they can crack the leg bones of a giraffe.

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Fast facts

  • Spotted hyena milk has the highest protein content of any terrestrial carnivore, and its fat content is second only to that of the polar bear and sea otter.
  • The hierarchy in the clan is nepotistic, meaning that the offspring of dominant females outrank adult females subordinate to their mother. When the mother is not present, low-ranking adults may act aggressively toward higher-ranking cubs.