Africa's animal kingdom Matira Magazin

Tough hunters

In the twilight: Spotted hyenas don’t have a good reputation and many people still see them as scavengers. No question, they take what they find! But since the work of biologist Hans Kruuk in the late sixties of the last century it is proven, that they are supreme hunters, even more effective than lions!

Tough hunters – Spotted hyenas

Reinhard Radkes column on African wildlife

To many people hyenas (in this article I talk only about the spotted hyena, (Crocuta crocuta)) are not very attractive animals. Finding them in early morning fighting noisily over a carcass, most visitors leave them with the impression of having watched scavengers, squabbling over scraps left by the big cats. It seems to be impossible to change that opinion, although Hans Kruuk has proven already 50 years ago that spotted hyenas are the most important predators in the Ngorongoro crater and in most parts of the Serengeti. There, often it’s the lions, stealing from hyenas!

 

A hyena chases a wildebeest calf through a herd, completely focused and not taking notice of any other animal from the herd. Chases are usually not very fast, some 50 to 60 kilometers per hour. (Photo: Gabriele Mierke-Radke)

Spotted hyenas have a very complex social life, which I will deal with in a separate column later. Here, it’s just about their hunting skills. The tactics employed could not be simpler. Completely in the open they walk towards potential prey and are allowed surprisingly close! Probably because they are not seen as “hunting” when walking so relaxed. Only females with young keep their distance, with good reason. Often, hyenas approach groups of antelopes alone or in pairs. Suddenly they lope forward, making the prey run. This might go on for some time, until the hunter gives up or starts to chase in earnest. For an observer it is difficult to say why suddenly they decide to attack. They might have seen any sign of weakness in the way an animal runs, or spotted a calf, which is not closely attached to a mother. The targeted individual is then chased relentlessly for up to five kilometers.

 

Such a chase might take many minutes, until the young is so exhausted, that it can’t run any more. Hyenas are famous for their stamina: Related to body size, their heart is the biggest in all African predators! (Photo: Gabriele Mierke-Radke)
Finally, the calf must slow down and is grabbed. Soon a second hyena joins the attack, attracted by the turmoil of the chase. (Photo: Gabriele Mierke-Radke)

In relation to body size, spotted hyenas have the biggest hearts of all African predators. That gives them a stamina which is far beyond the capabilities of lions or cheetahs – and beyond the limits of ungulates, too! After selecting an individual, it will be hard for it to escape. Hunting success rates in hyenas are in the range of 30 to 40 percent, and thus higher than in lions.

Of course, hunters make it generally as easy as possible for them and look for young or incapacitated animals. But when prey gets scarce, hyenas might even attack fully grown buffalos (personal observation)! Most hunts take place when it is cool, at night, at dusk or dawn. That is to be expected with such strenuous tactics. But hyenas are unpredictable: one day I observed a hyena chasing a Thomson gazelle in the midday heat. The gazelle looked pretty healthy and it was not clear, what triggered the attack. The chase ended after three minutes watching (I didn’t observe the beginning of the hunt).

 

Hyenas hunt usually at night or in the cool morning or evening hours. This one, however, attacked at midday a Thomson gazelle, the fastest hooves of the savannah! A long chase developed, and the gazelle tried to irritate the hunter by running close to conspecifics.
When chased, gazelles run only as fast as they must, to keep a predator at distance. Thus, the attacker managed to follow as the gazelle didn’t use its superior top speed to outdistance the hyena. But after a while, gazelles tire while the hyena still has enough stamina to continue. That day, however, the heat was in favor of the gazelle.

Hyenas have no killing bite as lions or cheetahs to stop potentially dangerous struggling of the victim. On top, their slender legs, made for long runs, carry no sharp claws to give them a good hold on a prey animal. For all this, the killing of their victims is a cruel drama, nothing you would like to watch. They open the belly, leading to severe bleeding which finally kills the prey. Victims look rather like in a state of shock and offer little resistance. When other hyenas join in, the prey dies usually in a few minutes.

 

When going to hunt big prey like zebras, often several hyenas gather. Here, they spotted a sick zebra which was killed in halve an hour, with long pauses between attack attempts.
Hyenas have no killing bite and victims bleed to death. Because usually many hyenas gather at big prey, there is tough competition over food. That is why as soon as the victim can’t run anymore, no hyena “wastes” time to kill it, but feeds as fast and as much as it can.

Hyenas might hunt in big packs, but more often single animals go out hunting, selecting a victim and starting a chase. Sometimes other hyenas join them to bring prey down together. However, if prey is rare, hyenas form regularly big hunting groups in the evening to go for bigger prey, like zebras. Or they might try to isolate buffalo calves from the herd. In fact, when the migration has left the Mara, buffalo calves form a great part of hyena’s diet!

 

A weak buffalo calve could not follow the herd. Hyenas monitor buffalos and wait for such opportunities. (Photo: Gabriele Mierke-Radke)
The mother stays with its young and tries to defend it. But the agile hyenas can run this cat-and-mouse-play for hours, while the heavy buffalo soon is exhausted. (Photo: Gabriele Mierke-Radke)
Easily they avoid the furious cow until the mother finally must give up its calve. (Photo: Gabriele Mierke-Radke)
Spotted hyenas have a very interesting and highly complicated social system. But that is a different story…

 

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