The big cats - leopard, lion and cheetah, are the top dogs of Africa's predators. The pre-eminence of these feral celebrities in the public imagination has relegated most other predators to second place, even though their success is equally impressive, and sometimes even more so. The hyena, jackal and African wild dog are the sharpest of Africa's lesser predators. Though key players in the ecological dynamics of the African wilds, their image has been tarnished by myths, allegories and outright slander!
The hyena is the most eminent of Africa's secondary predators. It is the most common large carnivore, and easily the most misunderstood. The poor beast has been painted as an unrepentant scavenger that reaps where it has not sown, and a cowardly thief, lacking in grace, beauty and brains.
Now, matters of grace and beauty are subjective, but it is easily demonstrated that the hyena has both intelligence and social skills to match many better-regarded animals, including many primates. With other predators, such as lion and cheetah facing various serious threats, the hyena is counted as one of Africa's most successful animals. It thrives best in savannas, semi deserts, forest edges, woodlands and lower mountain slopes.
Hyenas classify into three species: the spotted, the striped and the brown hyena. There is however a fourth species - the aardwolf, that is closely related to the striped hyena. The aardwolf is much smaller and is the shyest of all hyenas. It stands just 20 inches at shoulder height, and weighs about 25 kg. The aardwolf, unlike other hyena types, it is not carnivorous but rather insectivorous, surviving on termites and other insects.
The aardwolf lacks the aggression and sociability of its distant kin. They can be found from southern Egypt all the way to Tanzania, but are most common in Angola, Zambia, and South Africa. The spotted and stripped hyena species are common in most of sub-Saharan Africa, except in the rainforests. The shy and much smaller brown hyena is only found in Southern Africa.
Because the spotted hyena is the most common member, it is also the most studied by scientists. The best places to see it at work include: Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti (Tanzania), Maasai Mara (Kenya), the Savuti Pan and Chobe (Botswana), Kruger (South Africa) and Etosha (Namibia). The hyena is a stout, rather awkward looking beast, with hind limbs shorter than fore limbs – this strange shape contributes to the animals loping gait which it can maintain for long distances on the hunt. It is related to the mongoose family and has dog like characteristics. Weighing an average of 45 kg, the hyena stands 30 inches at shoulder height, and is about 1.5m from muzzle top to tail tip. Relative to its body size, this carnivore has the most powerful jaws in the entire animal kingdom, and is able to crush even the toughest of bones. Hyenas have a lifespan of about 20 years in the unforgiving wild, and about double that in captivity.
Hyenas are territorial and are organised into matriarchal clans consisting of up to 100 individuals. Each clan is made up of several smaller packs of as many as 30 animals. Within the pack you will usually find related adult males and females, as well as cubs. The fiercest of the females is usually the leader of the pack. Hyena society is peculiar in the animal world in that females outrank males. They are usually larger in build, and are more aggressive in tackling intruders. The ascendancy of females is the single most important deterrent that keeps males from eating young ones.
Another really unusual phenomenon found in hyena is the close resemblance between male and female genitalia. The female organ comprises of a pseudo-penis, through which they copulate and give birth. The disguise is so complete that this pseudo-penis comes with both a false scrotum and testes. This unique arrangement is what gave rise to the myth that hyenas are hermaphrodites.
Even in matters of sex, females are dominant and a male's life has few privileges indeed. If the hyena did not have such a shabby image, you would surely find it used in the emblems of some radical feminist groups!
Hyena females give birth to an average of two cubs per litter. Amazingly, cubs are born already highly developed- with a full set of teeth and are able to open their eyes and see well right after birth. They are ready to eat meat at about five months, and by about the first birthday, lessons begin in the dark arts of killing and scavenging. Although they are alpha predators, female hyenas make first-rate mothers.
Hyena cubs are vicious little savages, an attribute they develop during cub's playtime. Sometimes the violent play leads to death of one of the cubs, especially if the fighting is between sisters. This infighting among cubs is crucial preparation for adult life, and helps them develop the necessary skills all adult hyenas require to cope with the constant dangers faced every day.
Although they are such good hunters, Hyenas have a highly social lifestyle, and members of a pack do virtually everything together. They hunt collectively, and unlike the big cats, their special technique involves wearing out the victim. To their advantage, they can run sturdily without tiring for 2-3 km at a speed of 45km/h. And when one tires, it drops back and allows another more-energetic member to take its place. They are ruthless on a hunt and do not believe in sportsmanship!
They chase the hapless victim for long distances, biting and tearing at the prey's posterior, until it finally succumbs to exhaustion and the inevitable pain of death. It takes about 4 to 6 adults to hunt down a prey the size of a wildebeest, but they gladly share the meal with the rest of the pack without the aggression one encounters at a lion kill.
The prey is for all purposes eaten alive. It takes about 10 minutes for six adult hyenas to entirely devour an impala: teeth, bones and all; nothing remains. This has earned them the name of “cleaners of the savannah”.
Besides hunting for food, they also feed on carrion - vultures unwittingly guide them to carcasses, whereupon they fall on whatever remains with the same unprecedented gusto that they take to a hunt. They clear the wilds of debris and keep their territories free from disease. Hyenas are almost indiscriminate feeders - they will eat bones, vegetation, animal droppings, carrion – just about anything they come across. They are also adept at scavenging from the Big Cats, although it appears they prefer to hunt, killing up to 95% of their diet in areas where prey is plentiful, such as at Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater.
After making a kill or sighting carrion, hyenas make some giggling, growling, whooping and laughter-like noises. This is to call the pack to dinner! Owing to their sheepish laughter, spotted hyenas have been subjected to ridicule, especially by those who do not understand that they do not mean to be funny. Many movies caricature hyenas, depicting them as stupid, greedy, dirty characters. In the popular animated film "The Lion King", for example, one of the three hyena characters is named Shenzi, which is Swahili for stupid.
Though hyenas are reputed to be cunning thieves of other predator's kill, lions - their enemies unto death, many times steal from them. Hyenas are formidable adversaries, but they are no match for lions. The bitter enmity between hyenas and lions has often resulted into fierce battles. The most bizarre of these being a bloody melee in the Gobele Desert of Ethiopia in April 1999 that lasted a whole week. At the final whistle, 3-dozen hyenas and 6 lions had perished. Besides the lion, man is the other of the hyenas' mortal enemies, and in return, hyena have been known to viciously attack and eat humans.
Another of Africa's misunderstood predators of secondary rank is the jackal. The jackal is a medium-sized carnivore of doglike build, found mainly in Africa and Asia. The jackal's ecological specialisation is similar to that of the coyote found in North America. Though it scavenges, it is also a proficient and well-respected hunter. In Africa, it is common from Cairo to the Cape, and is particularly successful in East Africa's Ngorongoro Crater.
In Ancient Egypt, Anubis the Jackal - the god charged with embalming and burial had a jackal's head. When you consider how singularly important correct burial was in that civilisation (for a successful afterlife!), you begin to appreciate the magnitude of the task entrusted to Anubis. Jackals have been associated with superstition, and in parts of Uganda, their skin and nails are sold as an antidote to evil spirits. In similar spirit, in the 1976 horror movie "The Omen" (and its’ 2006 remake), the Anti-Christ is born of a jackal.
There are 3 sub-species of jackal: the golden or common jackal, the side-striped jackal and the black-backed or silver-backed jackal. These species differ mainly in the colour of their jackets and in choice of habitat. The golden jackal is thought to have evolved in Asia, though it is also found in south eastern Europe, and in North and East Africa. It fancies open, grassy plains and has adapted to survive in arid desert conditions.
The other two species, the side-striped and black-backed jackals, are said to have evolved in Africa. The side-striped jackal has distinct black and white stripes along the sides of its light olive brown or khaki coloured coat. It prefers to live along watercourses with dense brushwood. It is mostly found in East, West, and Central Africa, excepting in the rainforests.
The black-backed jackal is easy to recognise by the black hair shroud that lines its back. The black mantle is patterned with specks of white giving it a silvery appearance. This jackal prefers dry savannas and semi-desert and is found exclusively in Africa - particularly Eastern Africa - Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, and Southern Africa - South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. This jackal lives for about 7 years in the wild and for 14 years in captivity.
Jackals are nocturnal and are most active at daybreak and sunset. Jackals can be solitary or may form small packs. Males and females mate for life, which is very rare among wild mammals, and a mated pair is very territorial, both partners actively marking and defending their territory. Usually, a family group consists of a father, mother, their sub-adult offspring (helpers), and their litter of pups. The “helpers” come in very handy to babysit the latest litter when the parents are out hunting, and often help to feed the latest litter. Together with other families they constitute a pack, whose sole purpose is to look out for one another. Adult males are the leaders of the pack. They communicate rather vocally, by means of yips, yells and howls, and each group recognises and only responds to the particular calls of their own pack.
Jackals hunt co-operatively and opportunistically! Their diet is composed of small antelope such as dik-dik or Thompsons’ gazelle, or immature larger buck, but they will also eat snakes and other reptiles, ground-dwelling birds, rodents and even insects. Unfortunately, since they often live quite close to human settlements they are also quite happy to kill domestic animals such as sheep and goats, which has led to human-jackal conflict and resultant wide-scale poisonings and snaring of large numbers of jackal. In addition, they are targeted by several other predators and many pups are killed during their first 14 weeks.
The wild dog is without doubt Africa’s most endangered predator. These striking canines used to roam the wide open plains of sub-Saharan Africa in large numbers, but have been seriously affected by loss of habitat (due to encroaching human habitation) which has brought them into conflict with man. They are also susceptible to several diseases that are common in domesticated animals, a fact which has further exacerbated their problems.
African wild dogs are extremely sociable animals and live in large packs, usually dominated by a monogamous breeding pair. Females have very large litters of up to 20 pups and the entire pack cares for them. They also care for each other, and sick or injured members of the pack will commonly be fed and assisted by their peers.
African Wild dogs are formidable hunters and once they have identified a particular animal as their prey they are seldom unsuccessful in bringing it down. Their co-operative hunting techniques have often been referred to as having military-style precision; while the main body of the pack pursues their chosen prey, some members will stealthily fan out and attack the prey from the flanks. A hunting pack can number from 6 (the minimum number for sustained successful hunting) to around 20, and although they generally hunt antelope, larger packs commonly tackle much bigger prey including wildebeest, particularly if they come across a sick or injured animal. They will also eat rodents and birds when they get the opportunity.
As human settlements have encroached on their traditional hunting ground, wild dogs have also developed a fondness or domestic animals. For this reason they are relentlessly killed by farmers, even though they simply hunt to eat, killing one animal and not attacking whole herds of animals in a blood-thirsty frenzy.
Coming across a pack of wild dog in their natural surroundings has become a very rare occurrence, but there are still some places where you may be lucky enough to find them. There are a few packs in the Kruger National Park and Madikwe (South Africa), which are fairly regularly spotted, even though they do quite often simply drop off the radar for a month or two (perhaps when a new litter is very young and vulnerable?).
Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve is home to an estimated 30% of the world’s last remaining Wild dogs, so this is a brilliant destination if you are a dedicated dog spotter. Botswana can also still boast a reasonable number of packs, generally seen in the Linyati region and you could also get lucky in the Laikipia region of Kenya or Hwange in Zimbabwe.
Bridget is Africa Point’s resident blogger and wordsmith. She’s a proud South African living in beautiful Cape Town. Bridget is passionate about travel to all corners of the globe and loves to learn about foreign cultures, cuisines and people.