By Gregory McNamee
Of all the countless animals to have occupied a place in the human mind, only to be badly misunderstood there, the hyena stands nearly alone.
Reviled, feared, scorned, it has long been hunted and tormented, trapped and slaughtered. Even today, when its numbers are perilously close to extinction across much of its range, the hyena remains an object of persecution. Call someone a hyena, in the manner of a Stalinist ideologue, and you’ll appreciate just how low the creature ranks in our collective esteem. Occupying much the same ecological niche as the coyote in North America and the dingo in Australia, the hyena is rather more closely related to cats than to dogs, though that evolutionary lineage is murky and convoluted. Its more truly doglike cousin, the aardwolf, specialized in eating insects, while the stockier, bone-crushing hyenas—only four species of which now survive—fanned out across southern Eurasia and Africa, acquiring in many human folkloric traditions, in time, a reputation for being cruel, furtive, opportunistic, and dirty.
Being without the humorous qualities of the coyote in legends and stories, the hyena was instead depicted as a haunter of battlefields, a companion of ghosts and vampiric creatures. It came by such company naturally, for the hyena was supposed to have been a scavenger that delighted in feasting on corpses, human and animal alike, and for this reason was often hunted or at best chased away when it came too close to the dwellings of people.
Biologists paint a different portrait of hyenas, though. The supposed scavenger, for instance, hunts proportionally as much of its prey as do lions. The supposed skulker has often been documented actively competing with lions, leopards, and other predators for game. And never mind corpses: At least two hyena species are known to have been active hunters of humans in prehistory, and while attacks on humans today are exceedingly rare, they do happen occasionally, if far less frequently than attacks by bears, leopards, and of course dogs in various stages of domestication.
Like coyotes, hyenas are also both intelligent and highly flexible, capable of living across a range of habitats. Because of this adaptability, as the scientists of the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT) remark, the hyena is a key member of the “predator guild,” interacting with many kinds of prey-seeking mammals across its range: lions in Africa, tigers in India, and all kinds of animals in between.
For all that, the daily behaviors of hyenas are not well understood. The BPCT has been studying a population of spotted hyenas, grouped into six “clans” whose membership is not entirely clear. It doesn’t help matters that the hyenas, given their leads, prefer to hunt in brushy countryside that disguises their movements and are by nature secretive—whence that “sneaky” reputation. This is particularly true of denning behavior, so the movement of clan members with young families is not yet well documented. Without such data, of course, and without a precise knowledge of the geography of clan hunting territories and the hyenas living within them, it is difficult to determine how best to protect the animals. Spotted hyenas under study have ranges averaging about 58 square miles (150 square km), for instance, but one member in particular often wanders more than 20 miles (32 km) outside her established territory; largely, one supposes, because, living in a game preserve, there is nothing to keep her from doing so.
In neighboring Namibia, the brown hyena shows similarly broad range, as well as a notable disinclination to mix with spotted hyena populations. Both species are widely hunted outside the confines of national parks and game preserves, even though biologists believe that the threats brown hyenas pose to livestock are of a decidedly low order as compared to other predators. Spotted hyenas, it appears, are more inclined to attack livestock, especially cattle, than are their brown cousins—for which reason, the Brown Hyena Research Project (BHRP) notes, “At present spotted hyenas are mostly not tolerated outside protected areas.” The BHRP study, it is hoped, will help identify which populations are moving out into farming areas beyond those protected areas and assess the nature and extent of their interactions with other animal populations, in part to help “avoid unnecessary persecution” if it can be reliably established that hyenas are less costly to farmers than are other livestock-hunting species.
A particularly searching study has recently been completed in a long-embattled area in the Congo, where hunting for bushmeat, poaching, and other human activities have reduced the numbers of ungulates in the savannahs of the Batéké Plateau, part of which is protected, at least in theory, by virtue of falling within the bounds of Odzala-Kokoua National Park. It was believed that the resident hyenas might similarly have been doomed to extirpation. Thanks to a census undertaken by doctoral student Torsten Bohm, the data may prove to point to a population that is just large enough to be sustainable—although it may also, and conversely, point to the fact that the spotted hyena is on the verge of extinction in that part of Africa.