Why do we love the spotted hyaena?
Spotted hyaenas, or laughing hyaenas, are seen as scavengers and are pretty much at the bottom of most people’s lists of favourite creatures, along with cockroaches and flies. Ask anyone and they’ll usually tell you that hyaenas are cowardly, ugly, opportunistic and sinister – being linked to witchcraft (voodoo) hasn’t helped their case. This Valentine’s Day the Ruaha Carnivore Project wants to change your mind and turn your views around. Did you know that spotted hyaenas are fantastic mothers, fiercely loyal, wonderfully social and are skilled hunters? In fact they hunt more and scavenge less than lions! Another common myth to bust is that hyenas are NOT dogs!! Hyenas are more closely related to mongooses and cats. They’re feisty and have been known to confront lions, and can successfully drive lions off kills and defend their own meals from the big cats.
They are highly social and intelligent animals – amazingly, studies have shown that they are better at problem-solving and social cooperation than chimpanzees, and even more impressively, managed to solve the problems they were faced with in silence, using non-verbal communication. They can and do communicate over long distances, though – the hyaena’s whooping call is an iconic sound of the African wilderness, although few people realise that the pitch and tone of the ‘laugh’ actually indicate social status to other hyaenas.
In spotted hyaena society, the women hold the power (another reason to love them!) – and the core of the clan (which can reach 80 animals) is comprised of related females who form the top hierarchy. Fascinatingly, female hyaenas become very masculinised before birth and have three times the level of testosterone as males. This means that female spotted hyaenas are larger and more muscular than males – impressively, they even have a ‘pseudo-penis’ (actually an elongated clitoris) which can reach seven inches long, leading people as far back as Aristotle to falsely believe that they were hermaphrodites.
The often vitriolic and unwarranted treatment that hyaenas receive makes it all the more important to stand up for them – who doesn’t want to champion the underdog! Hyaenas have long been associated with witchcraft and even in our study area in rural Tanzania some people still believe that naked, invisible witches ride on hyaenas’ backs. Many myths surround hyaenas, such as them digging up the dead and morphing into werewolf-type beasts to attack people at night. Sadly, this leads to extensive persecution of these amazing animals, and they are frequently killed in rural areas.
Even without the human impacts, life as a spotted hyaena isn’t easy. They’re born into a den, with no communal care – not even from their fathers. Although litter sizes are small (1 – 4), they fight with their siblings from an early age and 1 in 4 cubs die within the first month due to the ferocity of their attacks on each other. Although not cuddly at birth – being born with their eyes wide open and a full set of teeth – we have to hand it to them as survivors in a hostile world…. And with this, we ask you to cast your vote in their favour.
What are the threats to the Spotted hyaena?
Being of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List means that there is no special treatment reserved for them in the conservation hierarchy. They’re often associated with attacks on villagers’ livestock and are persecuted along with other carnivores who attack livestock. As human populations expand and growth of agriculture, settlements and roads continues, wildlife is losing space in which it was previously able to roam freely.
What are we doing to save the species, to reduce persecution and to raise awareness?
As one of the Ruaha Carnivore Project’s main concerns is human-wildlife conflict we are engaged in programmes which actively change the way people think about the species, by taking school children and villagers on educational Park visits to become acquainted with wildlife, and especially top predators, in a safe environment, where they can ask questions and learn about the vital role these species play in the ecosystem.
Retaliation is the primary reason for hyaena killings. We work with communities to help them fortify bomas —( livestock enclosures)—that protect stock from predators. Protecting bomas with wire has proved very effective – they reduce losses by as much as 95%. Importantly, we also develop community benefit programmes so that people see real rewards from living alongside dangerous species such as hyaenas – we have developed education, healthcare and veterinary health benefit programmes which have proved extremely valuable in terms of increasing local tolerance for hyaenas and other wildlife.
In our extensive camera-trapping programme we work with colleagues both within and outside Ruaha National Park, to collect information from as many carnivore sightings as possible. We equip Ruaha National Park lodge drivers with data collection devices and cameras, and they record and report large carnivore sightings to us each month. This initiative has been incredibly valuable, and by the end of 2015, 22 drivers from eight lodges had reported over 8,000 sightings to us and had also generously shared their invaluable insights into the behaviour and ecology of Ruaha’s carnivore populations. However, as we also need to get information on carnivore presence and movement outside tourist areas, we will be deploying satellite collars on lions and spotted hyaenas around Ruaha, so we can collect that information and use it to inform future conservation plans.
Tourists in Ruaha can help with our work by submitting photographs of these amazing animals to us. More widely, an innovative safari company has dedicated one of its tours to the species, and, as a member of the public you can get up close and personal by booking into a ‘spotted hyaena safari’. So, move aside the big five…. as the spotted hyaena takes on a new and much-deserved significance.