Hyenas, Jackals & Wild Dogs: The Sharpest of Africa's Lesser Predators
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The big cats- leopard, lion and
cheetah, are the top dogs of Africa's predators. The
these feral celebrities in the public imagination has relegated to
second place other predators whose success is equally impressive,
sometimes even more so. The hyena, jackal and African wild dog are the
sharpest of Africa's lesser predators. Though key players in
ecological dynamics of the African wilds, their image has for long been
plagued with myths, allegories and outright slander.
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
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 primates.
predators, such as lion and cheetah facing various serious threats, the
hyena is counted as one of Africa's most successful animals. It
best in savannas, semi deserts, forest edges, woodlands and lower
Hyenas classify into three species: the
the striped and the brown hyena. There is however a fourth
species - the aardwolf, that is closely related to the stripped hyena.
The aardwolf is much
smaller and is the shyest of all hyenas. It stands
at 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 that constitute
its strict diet.
The aardwolf lacks the
sociability of its distant kin. You will find it from southern Egypt
all the way to Tanzania, but largely in Angola, Zambia, and
Africa. The spotted and stripped hyena species are common in most of
sub-Saharan Africa, except in the rainforests. The shy and much
brown hyena is only found in Southern Africa.
The spotted hyena
is the most common type and is the most studied by scientists. The
places to see it at work include: Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti
(Tanzania), Maasai Mara (Kenya), the Savuti Pan and Chobe (Botswana),
(South Africa) and Etosha (Namibia). The hyena is a stout,
rather awkward looking beast, with hind limbs shorter than fore limbs.
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 1.5 m 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.
are territorial and are
organised as matriarchal clans consisting of up
to 100 individuals. Each clan comprises of smaller packs of as many as
30 folks. The pack is usually
made up of 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.
very strange matter with the 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
is so complete that this pseudo-penis comes with both a false scrotum
and testes. This most unusual situation is what gave rise to the
that hyenas are hermaphrodites.
Even in matters of sex, females
are dominant and a male's life has few privileges indeed. If the
did not have such a rough image, you would surely find it in the
emblems of radical feminist groups.
Hyena females give birth to
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. All said, hyena females make
Hyena cubs are vicious little savages, an
attribute they sharpen 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 of the cubs is
crucial preparation for
adult life. For the daily life of a hyena is full of danger and strong
enemies lurk outside the den.
Hyenas have a
lifestyle, and members of a pack do virtually everything together. They
hunt collectively, and unlike the big cats, their special
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
tires, it steps back and allow another member of the pack still up with
stamina to take its place.
Hyenas on a hunt are ruthless
lack in sportsmanship. They chase the hapless victim for long
distances, biting and tearing at the prey's posterior, while still on
The victim 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
Even before the victim takes its last breath, hyenas
begin to feast, and 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
"cleaners of the savannah".
Besides hunting for food, they also
feed on carrions that junk the savannah.
Vultures unwittingly guide
them to carcasses, whereupon they fall on whatever remains with the
same unprecedented gusto that they take to a hunt. They
horizon of debris and keep their territories free from easy disease.
Hyenas are almost indiscriminate feeders- they will eat
vegetation, animal droppings, carrion, and animals of all sizes
including other hyenas.
The hyena's heavy-duty stomach is the
of the animal world. It consumes hides, bones, teeth, hooves and
horns and digests all within 24 hours. These are later efficiently
regurgitated in the
form of pellets. Despite their reputation as
scavengers, they usually prefer to hunt. Spotted hyenas, for example,
kill up to about 95% of their prey,
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 a call of the pack to dinner. Owing to
their sheepish laughter, spotted hyenas have been subjected
ridicule, especially by those who do not understand that they do not
mean to be funny. Many movies caricature hyenas, depicting them as
greedy, dirty characters. In the popular animated film "The
Lion King", for example, one of the three hyena characters is named
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. It takes four shaggy
hyenas to bring down a lioness, and six to
tackle a full-grown male.
bitter enmity between hyenas and lions has often resulted into fierce
battles. The most bizarre of them 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. Hyenas in turn have been
known to viciously attack and eat humans.
misreported predator of secondary rank is the jackal. The jackal is a
medium-sized carnivore of doglike build, found mainly in Africa
Asia. The jackal's ecological specialisation is similar to that of the
coyote found in North America. Though it scavenges, it is also
proficient and well-respected hunter. In Africa, it is common from
Cairo to the Cape, and is particularly successful in East Africa's
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 world 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
movie "The Omen" (and its 2006 remake), the Anti-Christ is born of a
The jackal comes in 3 species: the golden
jackal, the side-striped jackal and the black-backed or silver-backed
jackal. These species differ mainly in the colour of their jackets
in choice of habitat. The golden jackal is thought to have evolved in
Asia, though it is also found in southeastern Europe, and in North
East Africa. It fancies open, grassy plains and can survive in arid
The other two species- 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
brown or khaki coloured coat. It prefers to live along watercourses
with dense brushwood. It is mostly found in East, West, and
Africa, excepting in the rainforests. Males can reach 12 kg, and are a
little bigger than females.
The black-backed jackal is easy
recognise by the black hair shroud that lines its back. The black
mantle is patterned with specks of white giving it a silvery
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
Jackals are nocturnal and
are most active at daybreak and sunset. They are social beings living
in packs and families. Usually, a
family constitutes of a father,
mother, their grown-up offspring -helpers, and their litter of pups.
Together with other families they institute a
pack, whose sole purpose
is to look out for one another. Adult males are the leaders of the pack.
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