A highly misunderstood animal, the Spotted hyena has the reputation of being cowardly and sly, but it is actually a fascinating and intelligent creature with a very interesting social system. It looks like a dog, but is a closer relation of cats, civets, and genets. It is also called the laughing hyena. It is a strong and capable hunter and the largest member in the hyena family. Females and males look exactly the same except that females are a little larger.
Spotted hyenas live throughout sub-Saharan Africa (Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Angola, Namibia, and parts of South Africa), though not in the far south or the Congo rainforests. They occur in savannas, woodlands, grasslands, and montane forest.
In terms of their social intelligence, Spotted hyenas are considered to be close to the same level as certain primates. They have excellent night vision, being mostly nocturnal, hunting at night and sleeping or staying near their den in the daytime. They have a matriarchal social order of related individuals that are called clans. One alpha female leads the clan. These animals mark their territory by scratching the ground and with an oily substance that they secrete from their anal glands. Areas far away from the den are their “latrines”, another way of marking their clan’s territorial boundary. Spotted hyenas have a large vocal range and communicate with clan members with whoops, yells, grunts, growls and giggles. The giggling sounds like manic laughter, hence their other name.
Spotted hyenas are omnivorous animals that hunt and scavenge. When hunting alone, they prey on smaller animals such as hares, foxes, jackals, birds, fish, and snakes, as well as carrion. In a group they hunt medium to large-sized hoofed animals like zebra, wildebeest, Grant’s gazelle, Thompson’s gazelle, topi, waterbuck, eland, hartebeest and impala. They also eat eggs, fruit and invertebrates.
Mating for this species is polygynous. Males do a bowing display for attracting females before mating. Breeding takes place at any time of the year at intervals of 11 and 21 months. Gestation is for about 4 months, and 1-3 cubs (with an average of 2) are born inside a birthing den. The milk of a spotted hyena is very rich, and cubs can last for a few days between feeds, unlike wild dogs and lions. Females have the sole responsibility for bringing up the cubs. At 2-6 weeks of age, the cubs are moved by their mother to a communal den. The young are entirely dependent on milk for about 8 months and are weaned at 12-18 months old. They reach maturity at the age of 2-3 years. Males leave their birth clan at around 2 years old, whereas females remain.
Whilst most populations of Spotted hyenas in protected areas within southern Africa seem to be stable, the ones in western and eastern Africa, including those in protected areas, seem to be declining. The main reason seems to be human persecution through shooting, poisoning, trapping and snaring, even in protected areas, often in farming areas following actual or assumed killing by hyenas of livestock, or to protect livestock. An additional threat is the decline in habitat quality outside of protected areas
According to the IUCN Red List, the total Spotted hyena population size is between 27,000 and 47,000 individuals. The largest known populations are in the Serengeti ecosystem in the Tanzania sector with 7,200 -7,700 animals, the Kenya sector with 500 -1,000 animals and in South Africa’s Kruger National Park with 1,300-3,900 animals. Currently Spotted hyenas are classified as Least Concern (LC), but their numbers today are decreasing.
Spotted hyenas are the most abundant large African predator in areas where hoofed animals are common. They are therefore a very important part of this ecosystem. A Spotted hyena will eat almost every part of its prey except for the rumen and horns, and they scavenge often.