Spotted hyenas are successful hunters

Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) occur throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Exceptions are Central- and West African rainforests and Southern grassland biomes and further beyond the south. The density of a hyena population in a suitable habitat depends significantly on the density of the lion population. About 75% of hyena deaths causes are through lion kills. The more lions, the less hyenas. And vice versa. If the lion population declines, hyenas (and leopards) will become Apex predators in these areas.

Hunting tactics of hyenas

Against common belief, about 70% of a hyena’s diet will be actively hunted. Due to their strong front legs and weaker hind legs, they can keep up a high speed over long distances. Thus they can outrun most of their prey, who are metabolically geared for only short sprints. Their main prey is in the 100 kg range, which includes Wildebeest, Zebra, and Kudus, but depends on the area. Wildebeest for example is caught on average after a 60 km/h chase at around 5 km distance from starting.

Spotted hyenas depend for hunting primarily on sight and sound. They can hear feeding noises on a carcass from a distance of up to 10 km. And they do not depend as much on smell. They actively watch vultures and their behavior for finding carcasses.

Active hunting of hyenas

When hunting actively, it is amazing to see how cleverly clan members are working together. One of them will be observing the whole area. Others are lying in ambush positions further apart. Some are systematically combing an area and flushing out the game. Other individuals are driving this game towards the ambush sites. No words or shouting are needed. Everything happens in dead silence and functions like a clockwork.

The danger of habituated hyenas

Outside of National Parks, hyenas are often getting habituated to humans. Mainly inhabitants of weekend homes in the bush, game lodges, or kraals often start feeding hyenas intentionally. Others are throwing away food leftovers. Hyenas will sneak around and will often visit these sites. The problem is that hyenas will get used to certain ways humans act towards them (habituation). In case somebody acts outside this scenario, aggression can occur. Such aggression will intensify, the stranger and weaker this person acts.

When are humans getting attacked by hyenas?

Hyena attacks on humans are not rare. A WWF report of 2004 reported for 12 months in Mozambique 52 hyena attacks, of which 35 were fatal. The remaining 17 others either lost their scalp or half a face or suffered bitten hands or feet. Most attacks occurred in September. At this time it is warm enough to sleep outside and bushfires drove off the game, so hyenas were hungry. Generally, it can be seen from reports, that the majority of attacks happen to people sleeping outside in the bush.

Precautions for warding off hyena attacks

If somebody wants to sleep in the open outside in the bush, special precautions have to be taken against hyenas. If there are lions, it is necessary to build a massive thorn ring (‘Kraal’) around the sleeping area. And such a kraal should be at least 1,5 m high.

Head under thornbush

The bare minimum for sleeping out in the bush is to put the head area under a massive thornbush. This could be either Buffalo thorn, Black monkey thorn, Flackythorn, or similar others. It is of paramount importance to protect the head from getting bitten during sleep.

Personal gear at the foot area

In addition, it is necessary to lay out a pile of personal gear with human smell. This could be a backpack for example. And that gear should be situated one meter down the foot area towards the open. This should serve as an initial attraction for hyenas and give us time to react.

Primitive weapons

As a third line of defense, it is necessary to hold some primitive weapons handy. At least two fist-sized stones should be kept nearby. And a long stout stick, into which a hyena can bite and be kept away from our body. With a throwstick, a blow to the hyena’s muzzle area could be delivered, when biting into the stick. Such a throwstick is called Kerrie in Southern Africa and more information can be found here.

These three requirements are the bare minimum for danger reduction if sleeping alone outside in the African bush. If possible, a thorn ring should be built around the sleeping area – which improves safety significantly. Against common belief, lighting a fire is not always a good idea. Because a fire will attract hyenas and many of them are not afraid of fire. But: this is not a recommendation. See our disclaimer at the page footer.

The second person on guard duty to spot hyenas early

The best protection however is a second person, who will help to build a kraal. Thereafter lighting a fire to embolden oneself. And one person should always stand guard, whereas the second person (or other persons) can sleep. The person standing guard should check with a flashlight regularly all around the bush. And if he sees the two green shiny eyes of a hyena it is time to get up and start shouting. This helps in areas where hyenas are not habituated to humans.

If they are habituated, the situation can get dicey. Hyenas will look for food, which was either thrown away or are looking for food remaining in the fire or ashes. In this case, shouting and throwing stones will only help for a short while. Often, they want to get to the fire and are coming back again and again from the most invisible angles. Only constant vigilance, lots of shouting, and throwing stones can keep them at bay. The stronger the defending person appears, the higher the likelihood for hyenas to push off and find an easier meal.

Lessons learned about Spotted Hyenas

  • Spotted hyenas are a real danger when sleeping out in the open in the African bush
  • A thorn kraal around the sleeping area will provide protection
  • One person should always stay on guard and the other person(s) can sleep
  • Collecting a pile of throwing stones before dark is a good idea
  • Acting loud and strong towards hyenas is of paramount importance

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