Image 1 - hyena at Mombo

Many tourists to Botswana’s beautiful Okavango will have the privilege of seeing a Spotted Hyena on safari, yet so often like in most places in Africa, these misunderstood predators barely get a second glance. People will queue up for hours to watch the ears and a paw of some lions somewhere in the long grass; they will follow a leopard for ages snapping away or even follow a pack of wild dogs on the hunt hoping they will make a kill!

BUT the hyena and particularly the Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta), battles to get the same amount of viewing time as its other large carnivore counterparts. Hyenas are beautiful…they won’t win any competitions among predator lovers for their looks but they have their own beauty and their cubs are just adorable!

Image 2 - hyena pup

Good looks however, have not played much of a role in what makes these top predators so successful and this is where it becomes interesting…

While Hyenas have been traditionally thought of as being predominantly scavengers many studies show that this is not correct at all. In fact some scientists have mentioned that in certain areas, lions probably scavenge more from hyenas than the other way round! In Gus Mills’ findings on Spotted Hyena activity in South Africa’s Kgalagadi National Park, he found that packs of hyenas would actively hunt Gemsbok (Oryx) calves as well as other species.  Their tactics would result in chases going on for kilometres before they eventually bring down the exhausted antelope calf. He also noted from his findings that Spotted Hyenas in this same area hunted more than they scavenged. This type of finding was no doubt ground breaking in the way people started to view hyenas. However the old belief of them being exclusively scavengers is still stuck in many people’s minds.

The Okavango Wilderness Safaris’ Environmental department does a lot of the Wildlife Monitoring in the concession areas of Wilderness. They work hand in hand with the guides a lot, as well as with many scientists and we even sometimes gain valuable information from our guests! This ongoing wildlife monitoring has resulted in some great finds and we are learning more and more about predation habits of the Spotted Hyena; specifically in the Linyanti concession and the Mombo area of Chief’s Island.

While a formal study beckons in northern Botswana and will possibly be underway in the near future, many records of their hunting habits have already been documented. And many interesting findings have been accrued.

Image 3 - hyenas on the run

These two hyenas were definitely up to something!! There were quite a few more around and from the audio there had been a kill in the area! This image was taken at Mombo, where hyenas have been rumoured to gather in huge numbers. Reliable records have shown there to be in excess of 50 hyenas at a buffalo carcass while other less reliable records put the number at 80 at a single sighting. Irrespective of the record, there are certainly many big gatherings at carcasses and I have witnessed 20+ hyenas at a kill in Mombo on several occasions.

Some studies have shown that hyena populations tend to increase with an increase in lion populations. This is an interesting theory, which I have noticed to a certain extent as well in the Mombo area of the Okavango. In 2012 with the high flood there were at least 70 lions that all used part of the core almost 10 000ha game drive area. In 2013 I counted 66 different hyenas in this area. While lion numbers have visibly decreased hyena numbers still seem very high. Will the hyena population decrease again too? We will be keeping tabs on this and hopefully can come up with some formalized findings.

If the Mombo population of hyenas is interesting, then the Linyanti hyena population takes the cake! The nature of the thick bush of the Linyanti makes some of our monitoring very tricky, but one thing we are seeing more and more signs of is the active role that hyenas play in hunting young elephants. In my time in the Linyanti I have witnessed this event a number of times and have often just got to the kill minutes after it has been made. People would argue that hyenas are scavenging but fortunately more and more evidence is pointing to the fact that hyenas are actively killing large numbers of young elephants in the Linyanti. Guides have witnessed take-downs first hand and there are many young elephants that have missing tails and trunks in an area that has very little snare poaching. If you still don’t believe that hyenas can hunt young elephants then perhaps the image below will change your mind and give credit to the incredible calculation with which hyenas have evolved to make such kills!

Image 4 - Elephant vs Hyena

In this instance, a female elephant successfully defends her calf from a pack of hyenas – Image courtesy of James Weiss from Eyes on Africa