Words by Bryan Havemann
The Spotted Hyena is one of those African animals that brings a level of revulsion to any conversation when it’s discussed by well-meaning know-it-alls. The whooping call echoing across the dark veld might send shivers down your spine, but it’s a sound synonymous with wild Africa. The cackling laugh grows to a crescendo when hyenas excitedly feed on a carcass, and often this cacophony is enough to intimidate lions and other pinnacle predators off their kill.
Known as opportunistic scavengers, hyenas often get a bad rap, much like vultures do in the birding world. Their cowardly reputation is, however, unjustified, as hyenas are actually very efficient hunters when they need to be. While the lion is the king of Africa’s predators, the Spotted Hyena lies a close second. We know they can forage for food, but they are also very successful when hunting in a pack. Not much can stand up to a large pack of hungry and committed hyenas.
In the Kruger National Park (KNP) in the late eighties, I had the privilege of working with Dr Gus Mills on his study of the predator / prey relationship. Part of the study was to follow hyenas that had been radio-collared, and it was astonishing to see how far they could walk in an evening (sometimes covering in excess of 30 km) while foraging for food and patrolling their territory.
One evening, we were following an alpha female through the bush with the Land Rover V8 idling along in second gear low, when the vehicle suddenly crashed to an abrupt halt. I switched it off and got out to see what the problem was. Even in the torchlight, I could see that the Land Rover was beached on its chassis and that we were going nowhere. Three wheels had broken through the surface of the soil into the labyrinth of tunnels and chambers of an old termite mound. Ironically, it had previously been occupied by a clan of spotted hyena, but was luckily now empty.
The vehicle was well and truly stuck, and the wheels were hanging free with nothing to grip on. A high-lift jack wasn’t an option, as it kept breaking through the soft crust of soil, so I realised we would have to pack logs to get the vehicle out. Leaving my assistant with the Landy, to pack wood under the wheels, I left the safety of the vehicle and started walking in the pitch-black night, collecting any dead wood I could find. I had to walk in everincreasing circles to find enough wood, and I was getting further and further away from the vehicle. Out in the bush at night, all your senses are heightened, and I suddenly had the distinct feeling that I was being followed. I spun around quickly and saw, in the light of my torch, the tell-tale reflection of eyes. I had been unknowingly following a female hyena, who had turned the tables and was now following me!