The spotted hyena is a misknown, misunderstood and unjustly maligned animal. Yet, it is a fasicinating animal with an original social structure. Personally, I find them more enjoyable to watch than lions. Hyenas are widespread in subsaharan Africa and are present in most parks of Southern and Eastern Africa.


There are three other rarer species of hyaenidae: the striped hyena a lone scavenger found in Eastern Africa up to India, the brown hyena with a similar biology which is found in the Kalahari and the aardwolf an insect-eater. These species are all smaller than the spotted hyena, are less powerful and their perdatory instincts are less developped.


Often despised by tourists and the general public who see it only as a cowardly and ugly scavenger, the spotted hyena is nevertheless one of the most intelligent animals of the African savannah, with a complex social structure that allows it to rank second in the hierarchy of African land predators, just behind the lion. It has the most powerful jaws of any land carnivoreS, enabling it to crush the largest bones. It is also incredibly bold and brave, not hesitating to confront lions, leopards and packs of wild dogs in its quest for food. The spotted hyena is the largest, most powerful and most predatory of all the hyenids, which also include the brown hyena, which is found in the arid environments of southern Africa, and the striped hyena, which ranges from East Africa through North Africa to India, and which are both primarily scavengers. The spotted hyena is widespread mainly in sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal to South Africa, bypassing the Congo basin where it is absent. It is also almost absent from the Sahara, which is the domain of the striped hyena, and from the Namib desert where the brown hyena reigns. Rare in West Africa, it is relatively common in the conservation areas of eastern and southern Africa.

Spotted hyena (Harar, Ethiopia)


Length: 95-165 cm
Shoulder height: 75-85 cm
Weight: Femelle= 55-90kg ; Mâle=54-79 kg


Habitat: Very adaptable, the spotted hyena is able to colonise all ecosystems from semi-deserts such as the Kalahari or the Sahel to wooded savannahs and mountainous areas (Bale massif in Ethiopia and Aberdares in Kenya). It can also be found on the outskirts of large cities such as Addis Ababa or Harar in Ethiopia. It avoids dense rainforests like that of the Congo Basin and true deserts such as the Sahara. It is found in all savannah ecosystems such as the short grass savannahs or woodland savannahs. It is also found in some forest ecosystems such as dry forest, miombo and gallery forests.

Food and foraging: Food: An opportunistic predator, the spotted hyena feeds mainly on medium to large ungulates. It can feed on small animals such as rodents, lagomorphs, duikers, antelope calves and young gazelles especially when alone. Although spotted hyenas live in clans of up to a hundred individuals, they often hunt alone or in small groups of 2 to 5 hyenas. A solitary hyena is quite capable of taking down an adult top,  adult greater kudu or a 250kg bull wildebeest, but this remains exceptional. To do this the spotted hyena, after winding down its quarry thanks to its superior stamina, harasses its prey with numerous bites to the underbelly and rump. The prey often collapses due to blood loss and fatigue. Despite the power of its jaws designed to crush bones, the hyena does not deliver a fatal bite like felids, it ends up disembowelling its prey by devouring it alive, which does not help to improve its image with the general public. The spotted hyenas of the Masai Mara have developed an unusual technique for hunting topi. A lone spotted hyena waits for a topi to doze off and approaches as close as possible without spooking it. A few metres from its future victim, it lunges at it and grabs any part of the body between its jaws and does not let go until the topi tires. In most cases, the topi manages to avoid the hyena's jaws at the last moment but this strategy pays off in many cases. If a spotted hyena is therefore able to bring down prey more than three times its own weight without the help of its fellow hyenas, it is not without difficulty and it can take more than an hour before a lone hyena manages to subdue an adult wildebeest. Hyenas are therefore more effective when they are in groups of two to four, especially when it comes to taking down tough and dangerous prey such as adult gemsbok in the Kalahari or adult zebra. Gus Mills' studies in the Kalahari show that a minimum of four spotted hyenas are needed to bring down a combative antelope such as an adult gemsbok whose horns can impale a hyena. For adult zebras, up to ten hyenas may participate in a hunt. When hunting large prey in groups, hyenas use the same method as the African wild dog by winding down their prey thanks to their superior endurance, but their attacks are much less coordinated and hyenas keep an individual behaviour during the hunt. When they reach the prey, they harass it with bites on the belly and rump until the victim stands still. The hyenas then attack the prey from all sides and tear it apart within minutes. In pairs or alone, spotted hyenas often prefer to attack the most vulnerable prey such as young antelopes or disabled adults. When attacking a young antelope defended by its mother, such as a wildebeest calf or a young zebra, one hyena distracts the adults while the other catches the young.

Spotted hyenas have no favourite prey. Their eclecticism and power allow them to attack all antelope species from the dik-dik to the adult Cape eland. In general, they select their prey among the medium to large antelopes most common in the ecosystem where they live.  Wildebeests, topis, hartebeests and Thompson's gazelles are therefore the preferred preys in East Africa, while gemsboks, wildebeests, red hartebeests and springboks are the main preys in the Kalahari. In the mesic and wooded savannahs of southern Africa impalas, greater kudus, nyalas, waterbucks, lechwes are often on the menu. Besides antelopes, zebras and warthogs are also common prey. At the extreme end of their diet, hyenas may exceptionally prey on adult buffaloes and the young of giraffes, rhinoceroses, hippos and elephants.

Spotted hyenas are also scavengers and do not hesitate to steal the prey of other predators. Provided that they greatly outnumber lions 4 to 1, spotted hyenas can steal the prey of a pride of lions, especially in the absence of a male lion. Similarly, spotted hyenas will often attempt to steal prey from wild dogs, especially if they are outnumber them but the wild dogs are often able to fend them off with their superior cohesion and coordinated defence.  A lone spotted hyena will usually be able to steal prey from leopards or cheetahs. Leopards are solitary hunters and are reluctant to engage a hyena for food in order to avoid injuries that could affect their ability to hunt, as they can only rely on themselves. However, leopards, especially males, will sometimes fight off a lone hyena and more rarely a pair. Cheetahs avoid fighting hyenas for the same reasons whether they are solitary or even in coalition. The cheetah's ability to feed depends entirely on its running ability, which would be reduced to nothing if it were injured in a brawl with a hyena. The spotted hyena is also more powerful than anw cheetah. On carcasses, hyenas dominate all other scavengers except lions. Hyenas keep vultures at bay. On the other hand, they tolerate jackals. Jackals are also capable of stealing food from a lone hyena if they operate in pairs, with one jackal harassing the hyena while the other steals the food. Contrary to legend, spotted hyenas are primarily predators, and it is often the lions that steal their prey, not the other way around.

Behaviour and social structure: The social structure of spotted hyenas is among the most complex in the animal world. Hyenas live in clans of up to 100 individuals. These clans are led by a matriarch. The female hyenas are larger than the males and dominate them. The clan occupies a territory which it defends against opposing clans. The number of hyenas in a clan and the size of the territory varies according to the density of prey. The higher prey density, the smaller the territory of the clan (e.g. Ngorongoro Crater). Conversely, the more scattered or scarcer are the preys, the larger the territory of the spotted hyena clan, as in the Kalahari. The defence of the territory is one of the activities that is carried out in community. The males and especially the females mark the territory with a whitish pasty substance emitted by their anal glands, which the hyenas deposit by crouching and lowering their rump. These markings are left both at the border of the territory and within it, as it also allows for individual identification of each depositing clan member.  The clan also patrols the borders of their territory, which may lead them to confront neighbouring clans, especially if a prey item has been killed in the territory of a foreign clan. As a general rule, the clan with the fewest hyenas will make way. Despite the territorial behaviour of hyenas, spotted hyenas sometimes leave their territory to follow migrating herds of herbivores, crossing the territory of several other clans in the process.

Cohesion between clan members is maintained through ceremonial rituals in which two hyenas stand in reverse parallel and raise a hind leg to sniff each other's genitals. A rich repertoire of calls is used for communication. It would be futile to try to list them all here but among the most important is the whoop emitted facing the ground to amplify the reverberation of the sound and which is mainly a rallying cry when a prey has been killed or when a hyena needs reinforcement to defend a prey or to steal the prey of a more powerful predator and/or group of them such as lions, wild dogs or a recalcitrant big male leopard. The hyena cackle is a sign of nervousness that is emitted when hyenas are confronted by lions or when individuals of lower social status are confronted by a dominant animal or when a group of hyenas is facing another hyena clan.

Spotted hyena clans are highly hierarchical. Females, regardless of age, size and fighting prowess, are dominant over all males. Thus the lowest ranking female will have a higher social status than the highest ranking male. Females remain in their natal clan all their lives and inherit the social status of their mother. Females often form coalitions within their clans with other females close to them in the hierarchy in order to maintain their social status. Males leave their natal clan after reaching maturity at the age of 4 years in order to have opportunities to reproduce. Like females, males inherit their mother's social status but lose it when they join another clan where they will occupy the bottom of the hierarchy. However, males born to females with a high social status in their native clan will still have an advantage in that they will have had a richer food supply than other males due to their mother's privileged access to carcasses. They are therefore likely to be larger and more aggressive than other immigrant males and will be more easily selected by the females of the adoptive clan because of their superior genetic make-up. The longer a male remains in his adopted clan, the faster he will move up the hierarchy as older males disappear. A linear system of social promotion exists within the male hierarchy, with the first to arrive having the highest social status. Upon arrival, immigrant males often ally with younger females who reject older males to avoid inbreeding.

Females are able to select their sexual partners and resist male advances not only because of their larger size and increased aggression but also because of the unique configuration of their clitoris, which resembles the male reproductive organ - leading to the myth that hyenas are hermaphrodites - and prevents coercion of males over females. Males are generally very fearful during mating. The physical superiority of females over males and the resulting dominance is the result of much speculation, which does not offer a convincing explanation for this phenomenon.

Spotted hyenas are rather nocturnal predators but can be active during the day.

Reproductive behaviour: Spotted hyenas reproduce all year round. Mating is a difficult process for both anatomical and social reasons. Indeed, spotted hyenas have a clitoris that resembles a false scrotum that they must retract to allow mating. The male's penis can only become erect after penetration. The male must also stand on his hind legs while moving his lower abdomen under the female's belly. Prior to this, he will have engaged in a polite but fearful courtship due to the aggressiveness and superior power of the female, which may last for a week. The male usually stands at a respectful distance from the female, penis erect and tilts his head repeatedly. If the female grunts or behaves aggressively, the male retreats. If the female is receptive, the male follows with his snout to her tail until the female agrees to mate. During mating, it is common for a rival male to try to disrupt the mating.

Spotted hyenas usually give birth to one or two young, which are among the most precocious carnivorous mammals as they are born with their eyes opened and their teeth more or less formed. After about ten days following birth, the cubs are deposited in the communal burrow which they share with the other hyenas. The communal burrow is the focal point of the territory around which the clan gathers. The cubs compete for the female's milk, which can lead to siblicide. One cub will often be dominant over the other, especially in times of food shortage when the female's milk may be in short supply. The dominant cub will therefore have privileged access to the mother's milk and food to the detriment of the submissive cub who may die as a result. The cubs are able to feed on meat after two months. Cubs suckle until they are one year old. They are able to hunt after one and a half years.

Enemies and predators: The lion is the adult spotted hyena's archenemy and the main cause of mortality of adult spotted hyenas. Despite the superior strength of its jaws, a spotted hyena is no match for an adult lion or lioness that is nearly two to three times its weight, if not more. It only takes one adult lioness to kill an adult hyena despite the hyena's stubborn defence. Spotted hyenas can only confront lions if they outnumber them 4 to 1 and if there are no adult male lions present. Lions often kill hyenas in disputes over carcasses, with lions dispossessing hyenas more often than the other way around, or when a hyena gets too close to lion cubs. They do not devour its corpse. The competition between lions and hyenas is exacerbated and the two species hate each other cordially. A lion can sometimes attack a hyena without any provocation. Hyenas are direct competitors for lions because they hunt the same prey species and occupy the same habitats. Hyenas sometimes have their revenge on lions and are also capable in large groups of killing an isolated or injured lioness or even young male lions or at  lions at the end of their lives.

Apart from lions, Nile crocodiles are one of the few animals that can attack an adult hyena and even consider it as potential prey. Spotted hyenas are therefore cautious around crocodile-infested waterholes. Leopards, especially large males, may also kill an adult hyena in a confrontation over prey or simply to feed and eliminate a competitor. Zoologist Theodore Bailey reports a case of a medium-sized male leopard killing two adult spotted hyenas in the Kruger National Park. In the Mala Mala Game Reserve in South Africa, an adult male leopard caught a hyena eating an impala and almost killed it by grabbing it by the throat. These cases of leopard predation on adult spotted hyenas are exceptional. Leopards generally avoid spotted hyenas, especially if they are in a group, and will abandon their prey even when confronted with a lone spotted hyena to avoid potential injury. When a solitary spotted hyena encounters a leopard without food in contention and when the two species do not target each other's cubs, the two species ignore each other and remain at a respectful distance. Both species are of more or less equal strength and have nothing to gain from a confrontation that could potentially have dire consequences for both parties. Spotted hyenas in groups, on the other hand, invariably dominate leopards. Leopards, on the other hand, prey on young spotted hyenas and carry them into the trees as if they were simple prey, and hyenas also kill young leopards.  Occasional predators of the spotted hyena also include the African rock python. Indeed, there is a video on Youtube of a python subduing an adult spotted hyena and devouring it. As with the leopard, the balance of power can be reversed, a spotted hyena or a group of spotted hyenas can also attack and devour a python, especially when it is ingesting prey.

Best places to see them: Spotted hyenas are among the most common predators in the African savannah. They are frequently found in most of the major national parks in eastern and southern Africa. The Ngorongoro Crater probably has the highest density of spotted hyenas followed by the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem in Kenya-Tanzania. It is also common in the Savuti Game Reserve and the Okavango Delta in Botswana or in the Etosha Game Reserve in Namibia.