Hyenas, the small carnivorous dog-like species that are so often associated with African myth and folklore, have a rather unfortunate reputation as backstabbing opportunists. Their sloping backs, short hind-legs and shaggy appearance, contribute toward the negative image of a permanently skulking creature. Despite this, however, they are extraordinary predators that hunt and kill most of their own food, and here at Motswari we are fortunate to see them quite frequently, especially when they are denning in old termite mounds.
There is nothing quite like going on a game drive in an open-air vehicle and at Mostwari, we pride ourselves on giving our guests the best possible safari experience imaginable. As night falls on a sunset game drive, the calls of the primarily nocturnal hyenas can be heard as they venture from their lairs to either expertly hunt or scavenge prey from other top predators.
Although often regarded as scavengers only, most guests at Motswari are surprised to learn that hyenas can hunt as much as 73% of their food, preying on the ill, weak or injured. This percentage however, varies, depending on the predator population density in an area. The higher the predator population, the more carcasses will be available and the less they will have to hunt and vice versa.
Their scavenging nature fulfils a vital role in “removing” carcasses which may have otherwise been sources of highly contagious diseases that are immune to them, such as TB (Tuberculosis) and Anthrax. As a carnivore, the hyena’s diet includes pretty much any mammal, bird, fish or reptile species with virtually zero vegetable matter. Hyenas have incredible jaw power, with enough strength to crush the thigh bone of a buffalo.
They consume roughly 30kg of meat per sitting and, due to very high acidity levels in the stomach, start digesting their food soon after they start eating. As a result, hyenas, unlike wild dogs, cannot regurgitate their food for their offspring upon their return to the den-site after a kill. Instead, they produce milk, similar to sea otter and polar bear milk in terms of fats and nutrients, that the hyena cubs will feed on for up to 5 hours at a time. Feeding of pups is an incredible sighting to observe at the den and guests at Motswari have been fortunate to witness this beautiful act of nature on numerable occasions.
The hyena’s excellent digestive system digests bone, skin, hooves, teeth, and even horns, but only within 24 hours. Fragments of bone, hooves and hair are regurgitated in hairballs similar to the ones brought up by domestic cats. Their incredible senses allow them to smell carrion from 4kms away and hear predators killing their prey from as far as 10kms away.
Their distinctively sloped body, with larger and sturdier forelegs, allows them to adequatley support their muscular neck and head. Their enlarged chest cavities accommodate the heart and lungs, required for the effective distribution of oxygen for improved stamina (they can maintain an average speed of 50km’s per hour for 5km’s when chasing prey species). Their larger and sturdier forlegs also allow them to keep their heads high off the ground so as to carry large carcasses more effectively.
When calling other clan members with their distinctive whooping sound, which can be heard penetrating the night sky at the Motswari camp, hyenas will lower their heads towards the ground in order to bounce or amplify the sound. This is usually done at night, when hyenas are more active, but can also be done any time a carcass has been discovered.
Hyenas, with their unpredictable nature, never fail to entertain us and our guests and should always be a highlight on one’s game viewing list. As one of Africa’s top five predators, taking the stage with lions, leopards, cheetah and wild dog, the hyena proves that having a bad rap doesn’t have to define your status in the animal kingdom.
Visit Motswari Private Game Reserve in the Timbavati and Umbabat Private Game Reserve for a chance to see these wonderful creatures.