Some people refer to them as one of the ugly 5 and vicious, but they are rather amazing carnivores and unique in a special way. Most people will describe them as a dog-like creature adapted to cracking bones! Evolution does not support this statement because ancient forms of hyeanas were more like modern mongooses with no specialised teeth. Taxonomically, hyeanas belong to the sub-order Feliformis (cat-like) and family Hyaeninidae. This implies they are more closely related to cats than dogs! Four species are recognised: Spotted, Brown, Striped and the Aardwolf. Spotted hyeanas are the most abundant carnivores in Africa and exhibit a wide habitat tolerance.
In the Okonjima Nature Reserve we have 3 spotted hyeanas called Pooh, Paddington and Rupert. The latter is shy and cannot be tracked as he lost his collar. Unfortunately we are not able to have a breeding clan of hyeanas because of limited space (island bound ecosystem). They are known to have very large home ranges and being super predators, a breeding clan will have adverse effects on the prey base and consequently on other predators like leopards and cheetahs. Inter-specific (different species) competition is more likely to be tense in the presence of a breeding clan in a closed ecosystem.
On the brighter side our hyeanas are rehabilitated and allows one to view them on foot within close proximity. They are mainly nocturnal animals as they spend most of the afternoons sleeping in thick bushes. They are distinguished from other mammalian carnivores by having a suite of cranio-dental features (heavy skull weighing up to 3 kgs), bone elements in the middle ear and specific characteristics of the deciduous teeth that are slender and not specialised. When hungry, Spotted hyaenas can consume up to 18 kgs of meat quickly and females do not regurgitate meat for the young ones, like the brown hyeana. The Spotted hyaenas social organisation is based on a matriarchal system where females are dominant over males, even the lowest ranking female is higher than the highest ranking male.
Hyeanas are misunderstood by most cultures, unless we view them as cute, they will be soon gone! Some of the myths and contentions about hyeanas include being hermaphrodites. Various true hermaphrodites e.g. the African land snail, and various invertebrates, are well known but hyeana is not one of them. Female vaginal labia looks like a scrotum and they have a pseudopenis. Some believe they only eat carrion. Yes brown hyaenas eat more carrion whereas Spotted hyeanas hunt quite often and usually kill by disembowelling. Hyeanas are believed to commonly prey on livestock. Spotties, yes from time to time they will, but brown and striped hyeanas usually feed on carrion, fruits, insects, eggs etc. They are usually accused of stock-raiding and hence persecuted. In northern parts of Africa, some people believe hyaenas can make good pets whereas being seen with a hyeana in the south means witchcraft. Either way these beliefs do not save them. Where they are potential pets, they are muzzled to avoid bites, implying an unhappy animal. Where they are associated with witchcraft, they are often persecuted.
The IUCN categorises spotted hyaenas as Least Concern, world populations being between 27 000- 47 000 (2008), but decreasing rapidly. Populations in protected areas are stable but outside, the main threats include persecution for livestock raiding, beliefs and at times fear or shooting for fun and target practice. Numbers shot for sport hunting are very low because they are not considered to be an attractive species.
Okonjima Guide, Previous Tsvigu