ETHIOPIA / Part III: Hyena Slobber

Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

(Etosha National Park, Namibia)

The Spotted Hyena.

Misunderstood and maligned. Criticized and reviled.

An apex predator that many see only as a filthy scavenger.

My chosen spirit animal.

Yup. I always go for the underdog.

It was raining heavily in Lalibela when I left for Harar, so I crossed my fingers for better weather, but angry clouds were already gathering as I landed at the airport in Dire Dawa and it was pouring by the time my driver got an hour down the road. “It’s been raining every night,” he said, shaking his head, “and I hear that the hyenas haven’t come in three nights.” My eyes watered and I felt my heart breaking. I only had three nights in Harar (including this one), so that was very bad news.

"Well, there's two hyena feeding sites, right?" I asked, thinking that perhaps if one was a bust, then there'd be a chance at the other.

"Not anymore," he answered. "The other one is gone. You can only go to the one closest to the dump." It was half past six and already dark. The rain and heavy truck traffic was making my journey to Harar feel like a creeping crawl.

When planning exotic vacations, most people lean towards places like Hawaii, Mexico, or Bali. So when I told friends that I was heading to Ethiopia, I was met with scowls and puzzled looks. Unfortunately, a lot of folks still equate Ethiopia with the two-year famine (1983-1985) that claimed over 400,000 lives, but what they don’t know is that this amazing country now boasts one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. It’s also one of the most beautiful, with a crazy range of ecosystems that include soaring mountains, verdant valleys, and blistering deserts. Add to that a plethora of birds, wildlife and human cultures seemingly trapped in time and you’ve got yourself an exotic smorgasbord. But I have to say, it wasn’t feeling very exotic, staring out of that SUV window at a line of semi-trucks that went on for miles. We didn't arrive at the hotel until quarter to eight. One evening lost, two to go.

Spotted Hyena yawning (Etosha National Park, Namibia)

So why the fascination with Hyenas, you might ask? Well first, let me share with you some very interesting and little-known facts...

The spotted hyena is the largest known member of the Hyaenidae, and is further physically distinguished from other species by its vaguely bear-like build, its rounded ears, its less prominent mane, its spotted pelt, its more dual purposed dentition, its fewer nipples and the presence of a pseudo-penis in the female. It is the only mammalian species to lack an external vaginal opening.

The spotted hyena is the most social of the Carnivora in that it has the largest group sizes and most complex social behaviors. Its social organisation is unlike that of any other carnivore, bearing closer resemblance to that of ceropithecine primates (baboons and macaques) with respect to group-size, hierarchical structure, and frequency of social interaction among both kin and unrelated group-mates. However, the social system of the spotted hyena is openly competitive rather than cooperative, with access to kills, mating opportunities and the time of dispersal for males depending on the ability to dominate other clan-members. Females provide only for their own cubs rather than assist each other, and males display no paternal care. Spotted hyena society is matriarchal; females are larger than males, and dominate them. In one clan study in the Masai Mara, it was concluded that there has been only two female clan leaders in the past 20 years, as their hierarchical structure is hereditary and passed down, like royalty, from mother to daughter. Hail to the QUEEN!

The spotted hyena is a highly successful animal, being the most common large carnivore in Africa. Its success is due in part to its adaptability and opportunism; it is primarily a hunter but may also scavenge, with the capacity to eat and digest skin, bone and other animal waste. In functional terms, the spotted hyena makes the most efficient use of animal matter of all African carnivores. The spotted hyena displays greater plasticity in its hunting and foraging behavior than other African carnivores; it hunts alone, in small parties of 2–5 individuals or in large groups. During a hunt, spotted hyenas often run through ungulate herds in order to select an individual to attack. Once selected, their prey is chased over a long distance, often several kilometers, at speeds of up to 60 km/h.

So to neatly sum it up...

HYENAS ARE COOL AND GIRLS RULE!!! I mean, come on? How can you NOT admire a species that is dominated by the ladies, for a change?

And now, one last and amazing fact to share... Hyenas are NOT of the canine family. They belong to the feliform category and are phylogenetically closer to felines and viverrids (Mongoose family), though they evolved resembling canines, in that they are non-arboreal and cursorial hunters that catch prey with their teeth rather than with their claws.