African Safari blog

Some of Africa’s most interesting wildlife and where best to find them – Hyenas

African Wildlife

Much maligned and misunderstood, the hyena is an effective and efficient predator although they avail of every opportunity to dine – thus giving the misguided impression that all hyenas are scavengers. It is for this reason that there is no love lost between the hyena and the big cats as hyenas will steal a kill from them given half a chance! We were witness to such an event recently when Torchwood, a three and a half year old Sabi Sands resident leopard, while trying to secure his kill in a tree, managed to drop it to the delight of the pack of hyenas strategically positioned around the tree trunk. Appreciating that discretion is the better part of valour, all Torchwood could safely do was to express his displeasure by snarling furiously from the safety of the tree! Tree-climbing is not among a hyena’s abilities.

The poor old hyena is not a member of the Big 5 but is, understandably, included in the list of the Ugly 5, perhaps partly because their back legs are shorter than their front legs – which I think, makes them look very sneaky!

Hyenas will also kill the cubs of other predators to reduce competition, thus further reducing their ratings in the popularity stakes!


There are three basic sub-species, the spotted, striped and brown with the spotted being by far the most numerous. Interestingly the aardwolf is also a member of the hyena family. The different sub-species have quite different characteristics but all are territorial. The striped hyena prefers to dine on the spoils of other predators rather than hunt and so deserves the label “scavenger”. They are also much less gregarious than their spotted cousin. Spotted hyenas often hunt in packs and give a very ominous impression as the pack is capable of bringing down animals much bigger than themselves.

The fact that the female spotted hyenas has external genitalia, which closely resembles that of the male, has led to the false conclusion that the spotted hyena is an hermaphrodite. Spotted hyenas tend to live in matriarchal family groups. The matriarch is polygamous and her offspring have a higher ranking in their society than other offspring.

Hyenas are the garbage disposal unit of the bush with the ability to digest every single part of a carcass other than hair, horns and hooves! Thus the droppings (poo) of hyenas tend to be whiter than those of other carnivores because of the presence of bone material.

Hyenas are intelligent, cunning, curious and bold creatures and even if they are not likely to be one’s favourite animal, they certainly deserve a great deal of respect. The bush would be a much poorer place without them. The best known vocalizations of the hyena are their chattering laugh and very eerie howls that rent the night!

Brown hyenas are somewhat less ugly than their spotted cousins because of their long shaggy dark brown coat and pointed ears. In contrast to the matriarchal order of the spotted hyena, the brown hyena clan is led by a monogamous pair of alpha male and female (like wolves.) The striped hyena which is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as near-threatened also forms monogamous relationships.

Like their striped cousins, brown hyenas are largely scavengers.

Best Place to Find Them

Spotted hyenas can be found whenever you go on African Wildlife Safari Tours and are located across all the major reserves in Africa. But brown hyenas are only found in desert and semi-desert areas such as the Kalahari in South Africa and Botswana and the Etosha in Namibia. The striped hyena is native to North and East Africa.


Some of Africa’s most interesting animals and where best to find them – Warthogs


Some of Africa's most interesting wildlife and where best to find them - Wild Dogs