Excerpted from
Animals of Africa


HYENAS have two niches in Africa. As real animals, filling the night wit their maniacal whoops and laughs, they hunt aggressively and are confident enough to terrorize lions. As creatures of myth, over the centuries they have generated fantastic tales of depravity and horror. Until modern times, reality and myth so commingled that the hyena ranked as the most misunderstood and most maligned animal in Africa.

The truth about the hyena began to emerge in the 1970s out of the observations of such pioneers in animal behavior studies as Jane Goodall, Hugo Van Lawick, George B. Schaller, and Hans Kruuk. What they saw dispelled the basic myth that hyenas were only scavengers. The researchers saw hyenas and lions compete as hunters, and often steal each other's kills, with hyenas often driving lions away from their own kills. Hyenas, however, are not greedy; they take away only what they need.

In Botswana's Chobe National Park, hyena clans, sometimes numbering as many as 40, have confronted lion prides, not to compete over food but to fight. Lions, in what appeared to be an attempt to rid their territory of hyenas, attacked the rivals. The lions killed--but did not eat--the hyenas. Lionesses sought the dominant female hyena.

The family Hyaenidae encompasses four species: the spotted, the brown, the striped, and larvae. The most intensively studied is the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), which ranges in length from 35 to 64 inches and weighs about 88 pounds, with females usually longer and heavier than males. Spotted hyenas roam savannas, desert, and mountainsides either as hunters, running down their prey like wolves, or as scavengers, feasting on carrion. Hyenas can go for several days without water. Their incredibly strong jaws and digestive tracts can dispose of entire corpses, including bones, hide, and hair. A hyena can consume up to one third of its body weight in one feeding frenzy.

Spotted hyenas hunt in packs, typically chasing a herd of migrating wildebeests until a weak or young one falters, then pouncing on it and consuming it on the spot. A chase may go on for a mile or more, with hyenas achieving speeds of 25 to 30 miles per hour. Around a kill, hyenas vocalize, their giggling and grolwing inspiring the tag "laughing hyenas."

As many as 80 hyenas live together in large clans, which divide into packs. At the core of the clan is a group of related females born into the clan and forming a hierarchy. The top-ranking female mates only with the ranking member of the male hierarchy. Many males, at sexual maturity, wander off to join another clan.

Cubs--there are usually one or two in a litter--are ferocious. Born with eyes open and a mouthful of teeth, they fight savagely, sometimes from the moment of birth. It is not unheard of for the first two cubs in a litter to fight while their mother is licking a third one dry. Such fighting kills as many as one out of every four cubs before adulthood. The fiercest fighting often is between two sisters. The stronger sister will kill the weaker, beginning a struggle that will take her into the competition for ruling the female hierarchy.

Clans stake out large territories, which members mark off by depositing a pasty, extremely smelly secretion on grass and bushes. They greet and identify each other in ceremonies that resemble the greetings of dogs (although hyenas are not related to dogs). A hyena usually will not eat a dead member of its own clan, but it will eat rotting crocodiles or dead cheetahs during lean periods.

Myths about hyenas originated from confusion about their sexual activity. Male and female mate just as other mammals do, but male and female genitalia are quite similar in appearance. One theory holds that the female has a large amount of male hormones to increase her aggressiveness. Whatever the biological reason, the confusion inspired claims that hyenas could change sex at will. This notion led to accusations of witchcraft and the belief that witches can turn themselves into hyenas. And there was also the chilling fact that hyenas could make a corpse--including a human one--disappear.

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