Are hyenas cuddle-bunnies or cowardly vermin? After several sightings in Kruger National Park, I came to ponder the softer side of spotted hyenas. Here’s why you should look out for hyena dens, one of Kruger’s roadside attractions. By Romi Boom

Hardly anybody sets out on a game drive to find hyenas, it’s usually the big cats that top everybody’s wish list. Yet a sighting of the lion’s arch-enemy will often produce good photos, especially when large aggregations of hyena are seen lounging near a den.

Hyenas don’t deserve their terrible reputation as dirty, cowardly vermin. Spotted hyenas look like furry bears and their black cubs are the cutest cuddle-bunnies. I came to ponder the softer side of spotted hyenas after several recent sightings in Kruger National Park, and while once again paging through Moods of Nature by Heinrich van den Berg. This inspirational photo book by one of South Africa’s top wildlife photographers opens with a poignant photo of a spotted hyena peering at the reader from eye level across the water’s surface.

The soulful eyes of a spotted hyena. Pictures by Romi Boom

The communal den: a home for youngsters

Spotted hyenas are regularly sighted early morning when they return to their den. This is when you’ll find them on the road. During the daytime the females often laze together in the sun with the younger members of the clan. I’ve repeatedly seen them lying right alongside the verge, where they use culverts as readily as an excavated burrow. Busy main roads don’t bother them at all. We found them indifferent to traffic just outside Letaba, on the H9 to Phalaborwa Gate, and on the H1-1 between Skukuza and Pretoriuskop.

Spotted hyenas make hollow burrows for temporary shelter and for breeding. Cubs are transferred to a communal den as early as a week after birth. The spotties have no specific breeding season and cubs remain at the den for at least a year. You’ll often notice cubs of different sizes and ages in attendance; the young learn from social interaction with older cubs. They are all black for about three months, whereafter they attain a spotted coat.

When the young hyena starts exploring and playing, they are usually minded by adult babysitters, while other clan females are out hunting and scavenging. Although the females have close bonds, the competition to rear cubs is acute. There is no communal suckling or provisioning of young. The cubs develop quickly and will chew anything they can get their teeth into; this develops their jaws.

A cuddlesome bundle of spotted hyenas.

Adorable hyena youngsters, one of the reasons to spend time at a hyena den.


How hyenas greet

If you’re lucky enough to witness the ritualised greeting ceremony which is practised when individuals meet up after some time, you’ll notice elaborate interaction. It involves cocking a hindleg so that the genital area can be sniffed, something even the cubs learn at a young age.

The investigation, usually practised between members of the same sex, determines social status via the scents produced in the anal glands. The chemical composition of each individual’s secretions is slightly different and contains sufficient personal information for identification. When scent-marking their territory, hyenas deposit a small amount of this glandular secretion on grass stalks or shrubs.

Not just scavengers but sociable hunters

Hyenas are highly sociable and superior teamwork makes them a formidable enemy, second only in weight to lions (although large male leopards can be heavier). In numbers they can intimidate and even drive lions off a kill and they won’t hesitate to kill old, sickly lions.

On a visit to Kruger National Park, Wild Card member Judith den Brave from Almere in the Netherlands witnessed two hyenas fighting over the head of an impala. One was running away with the head in its mouth while the other hyena followed.

Two hyenas with the head of an impala. Pictures by Judith den Brave

As hunters, hyenas concentrate on old or infirm animals that are easier to bring down and in so doing improve the efficiency of the herd. This is of course in addition to their other vital ecological functions, namely to eradicate decomposing carcasses and recycle valuable nutrients.

Did you know?

• The sloping back of the spotted hyena facilitates a loping gait, making it possible to cover long distances more efficiently.
• A big heart and lungs in a large thoracic cavity enable excellent oxygen distribution, giving them stamina to run prey down.
• Spotted hyenas can recognise individual vocalisations over many kilometres.
• Being primarily nocturnal, their eyesight is as good as that of the cats.

Source Beat about the bush – Mammals by Trevor Carnaby, Jacana.
Inspiration Moods of nature by Heinrich van den Berg, HPH Publishing.