Hated hyenas

Spotted hyenas have a reputation as slobbering, filthy, stupid poachers as depicted in Disney’s The Lion King, the movie that for many has defined the species.

But the misunderstood hyenas go back further than that – Ernest Hemingway wrote in ‘The Green Hills of Africa’ in 1935:

The hyena, hermaphroditic self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off of your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp-follower, stinking, foul, with jaws that crack the bones the lion leaves, belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain.


However, behind the snarl lies a elusive opportunist, proficient hunter, and dedicated parent. It’s an undeserved reputation, and here’s a few reasons why…

Highly Intelligent

Spotted hyenas are smarter than chimps!
A study showed that a captive pair of hyenas performed better at problem-solving and social cooperation than chimpanzees. Even more amazing is that during the study, the hyenas solved all the problems in silence, using only non-verbal signals for communication. The frontal cortex (believed to be associated with social intelligence) is on par with that of primates.

The spotted hyenas were challenged to tug two ropes in unison to earn a food reward, successfully cooperating and learning the manoeuvres quickly without prior training. Experienced hyenas even helped inexperienced clan-mates to solve the problem. In contrast, chimps and other primates often require extensive training, and cooperation between individuals is not always as easy for them.


Excellent Hunters

Spotted hyenas don’t just scavenge for lion leftovers, in fact 95% of what a hyena eats comes from hunting! There exists a common misconception that hyenas steal kills from lions, but most often it is the other way around. Lions will readily steal the kills of spotted hyenas.

An adult spotted hyena weighs about 60 kg yet alone can bring down antelope weighing over three times that much. Working together with other hyenas, it can kill animals as large as giraffe and African Cape buffalo.


They chase and wear out their prey and can run up to 55km/h.



Spotted hyena society is female-dominated, with a clear, linear dominance hierarchy amongst first the female and then the male clan members, and even the lowest ranking female is dominant to the highest ranking male!

Female spotted hyenas are more muscular and more aggressive than their male counterparts. This is because the females have three times as much testosterone in their bodies. As a result, spotted hyena societies are matriarchal.

Top-ranking females have priority of access to large carcasses and this provides increased reproductive success in comparison with low-ranking females.



Female hyenas are exceptional mothers. They take excellent care of their babies, and most hyenas provide their cubs with milk for over one year. Females may even give birth away from the communal den in a private birth den. Mothers with low social status probably use birth dens away from the communal den to ensure that they can maintain continuous access to their cubs!

IMG_4225This young pup we saw in Kruger is about one month old, as they start to get their spots at about 6 weeks.


As scavengers – they clean up a huge amount of dead matter.
As hunters – they probably help maintain the genetic health of the great herds.
Conclusion – though you may not ever fall in love with these astute animals, it’s hard not to respect them!


  • Hyenas appear similar to dogs, but they are actually more closely related to cats.
  • Although they resemble both dogs and cats, the three species of hyenas (striped, brown and spotted) and the aardwolf are in their own separate and very unique family called Hyaenidae.
  • After the African lion, the spotted hyena is the largest carnivore in Africa.
  • Female spotted hyenas have very unusual genitalia that outwardly resemble that of a male. The clitoris of the female spotted hyena is a tube-like pseudo penis 6 to 7 inches long that looks almost identical to a male penis. Completing the illusion, the labia are fused together in what appears to be a scrotum. This makes the sexing of a hyena very difficult!
  • Unique to hyenas are their amazing bone-crushing teeth. So much bone material is consumed that the hyenas droppings have a chalky white colour, due the high content of oxidized calcium.



All photos were taken during our stay in the Greater Kruger National Park