Jan 27

#LoveSpecies nominee: spotted hyaena

Nominated by: Ruaha Carnivore Project

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.




Jan 27

#LoveSpecies nominee: dingo

Nominated by: Wildlife Land Trust

Why do you love it?

There’s no shortage of reasons to love dingoes, starting simply with their physical beauty that has evolved in the Australian landscape over several thousand years. It can be a daunting place to survive and many predators (such as the Tasmanian tiger) have been unable to take the additional pressures of European arrival in Australia. But in the face of adversity, the dingo has survived and is, in some locations, thriving. This resilience is excellent news for hundreds of native Australian species including many threatened mammals, birds and reptiles, which benefit significantly from dingo presence due to the suppressing role the apex predators play on feral cats and foxes, which together are arguably the biggest threat to Australian wildlife. It’s this crucial ecosystem role that makes the dingo so important to protect, and at the very least respect far better than we currently do.

What are the threats to the dingo?

For decades the little dingo ‘conservation’ investment provided by Governments has focused on poisoning in an attempt to protect cattle and sheep from predation, with claims that ‘pure’ dingoes are also being protected from hybridisation with dogs in the process. This attitude has been perpetuated by a misguided focus on purity which ignores the vital ecological functions performed by dingoes and dingo hybrids, a growing body of evidence suggesting that hybrids share important aspects of dingo social behaviour such as pack formation, home ranges, reproductive cycles and feeding habits. Both dingoes and hybrids suppress feral cat and fox populations to the great benefit of Australian biodiversity.

Against overwhelming evidence, Governments around Australia still seem intent on eradicating the dingo and dingo-dog hybrids, primarily through large-scale and inhumane 1080 poison baiting programs. Such baiting, often done aerially, is indiscriminate and affects many Australian predators such as tiger quolls and wedge-tailed eagles. In some States and Territories there are also ‘bounties’ for ‘wild dog’ scalps, however with studies showing that it is next to impossible to determine what is and isn’t a dingo in the field, there is no doubt that dingoes are being killed in large numbers through the schemes – a ludicrous use of taxpayer money to incentivise the killing of native species.

As for protecting stock, fracturing dingo packs through controls such as baiting and shooting is, in fact, more likely to exacerbate the problem by encouraging opportunistic feeding patterns and disturbing natural behaviours. With more effective stock protection alternatives such as using Maremma dogs and other guardian animals available, there is no scientifically sound justification for killing dingoes in an attempt to prevent stock losses.

What are you doing to save it?

For several years we have sought the listing of ‘the loss of dingoes from the landscape’ as a Key Threatening Process under Australian and various state environmental laws, as well as preparing scientific nominations for the protection of threatened dingo populations. We are also heavily involved in efforts to improve the species’ only current ‘threatened’ protection under Victorian law, which is undermined by a purity focus and other conflicting laws.

We continue to attempt to turn around public perception of the iconic dingo, and encourage Governments to focus on the bigger picture of ecosystem health rather than getting caught up in purity debates. We have invested in research by supporting PhD candidates looking into the dingo’s ecological role as well as non-lethal stock protection methods to change the perceived need to kill dingoes in the landscape.

Dozens of Wildlife Land Trust members provide habitat for dingoes, with several involved in breeding and caring for the species, and we have also sought representation on Victoria’s Wild Dog Management Advisory Committee in an attempt to enable increased pursuit of alternative stock protection methods and closer scrutiny on the state’s well-intentioned but ineffective threatened listing.




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