We spent six days in Mashatu Game Reserve in late July with friends, staying at Eagle’s Nest syndicate camp which is about 15 kilometres into the reserve, north of the Botswana-South African Pont Drift border post, beyond Main Camp. Mashatu is part of the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (NOTGRE). It is one of the largest privately owned game reserves in Southern Africa incorporating three major private concessions (Tuli Safari Lodge, Nitani Private Game Reserve, and Mashatu Game Reserve) and is bounded by the Motloutse, Shashe and Limpopo Rivers. The latter two rivers serve as natural boundaries with Zimbabwe and South Africa. The greater reserve comprises 71,000 hectares of wonderfully diverse habitat.
“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”
– Pat Conroy
It is winter in Mashatu in July and usually the reserve is very dry and dusty in the winter months. This year was different, the reserve still had a lot of water in the rivers because of the late rains in April. The fauna was still in good condition with the colourful splays of green, gold, orange and brown leaves on the Mopani trees, which were only just starting to dry out. The animals, especially the herbivores, were in surprisingly good condition.
Before we start there are two accepted spellings for the subject of this post, Hyaena and Hyena, and I have chosen to use the former.
On our first day, Maifala, our ranger and guide took us to a Spotted Hyaena’s den on the northern bank of the Majale river. At first view there were two adults, probably feeding mothers, resting close to the den entrance. Others were resting some distance away from the den. In front of the den was a large sand/dust area which made the viewing and photography easier. The entrance to the den was not directly visible and the back drop was the tree line on the edge of the Majale river bank.
Activity around the den seemed to pick up in early morning and late afternoon with nap time roughly between 10h00 and 16h00. The photography was best in the afternoon because the open area in front of the den was west-facing so the late afternoon light lit up the den area and playful cubs.
Spotted Hyenas are organised into territorial clans of related individuals which are controlled by a matriarch. Females dominate the adult social structure with a clear, well reinforced hierarchy. A female Spotted Hyaena can be up to 14 percent heavier than a male. The matriarch seems to be the largest and best fed member of the clan. You need to spend time observing the clan to work out the hierarchy.
On the three occasions we visited it, we never spent more than an hour at the den at a time so never had enough time to work out who was who in the clan. It was also difficult to work out how many cubs there were, as they were in and out of the den and there were a couple of different age litters in the den. This older cub was waiting patiently close to the den entrance for some of the adults to come closer.
Hyaenas are essentially nocturnal. They rest up during the day and go hunting at night. Hunting Hyaenas do not usually bring food back to the den so as not to attract other predators to the den site and thereby helping to protect the cubs.
Spotted Hyaenas have an undeserved reputation as being sly and cowardly. This view is perhaps conjured up by their cackling, scavenging habits, eating their prey alive and their downward sloping back and apparent weak back legs. Nothing could be farther from the truth, they are tough, fascinating and intelligent carnivores with an organised and ordered social system.
The Spotted Hyaena is the second largest carnivore in Africa after the lion. Vise-grip jaws and specialised teeth help slice through thick skin and stubborn tendons with ease. Spotted Hyaenas will crunch up bone, digesting the marrow and excreting the waste calcium. Hyaenas have the ability to digest practically anything making their physiology extraordinary . Scientists still want to know how it is they can ingest deadly anthrax without even becoming sick. Their immune systems seem exceptional, enabling them to avoid diseases like rabies and distemper that kill other big predators.
Spotted Hyaenas look like hermaphrodites because the females have a pseudo-penis that is basically an elongated clitoris. Females give birth through their penis-like clitoris. During the birth process, the clitoris ruptures to permit the passage of the new-born, creating a large bleeding wound of several centimetres that can take weeks to heal. Other than size and the perhaps hierarchial behaviour, the only physical way to determine the sex of a Spotted Hyaena is by the shape of the tip of its penis, according to wildlife expert, Kim Wolhuter.
The females rear their young together in the communal den.
Spotted Hyaenas have a dog-like appearance, with high shoulders and powerful forequarters sloping down to what looks like diminished weak hindquarters. Despite their dog-like appearance, Hyaenas are more closely related to cats than to dogs. Their hair is coarse, short with a mix of sandy, ginger, dull grey and brown colouring with dark spots on the back, flanks, rump and legs, which fade with age. A short mane ends just behind the shoulders, and the short, brown tail has a black, bushy tip. Hyaenas seem to have very tough skin. Even when a Spotted Hyaena is mauled by a Lion you will rarely see the Hyaena ripped open.
The structure of den does not normally permit the adults access, so cubs must come out of the den chamber to have contact with their mother and other adults. The males seem to play no role in the rearing of the cubs. As you can see the older siblings give the very young ones quite a rough time. From what we saw the little ones keep coming back for more and try to give as much as they get.
The size of an animal’s frontal cortex is believed to be connected to its social intelligence, and Hyaenas have a frontal cortex on par with primates such as Baboons.
The Spotted Hyaena’s highly social nature has led to a range of vocalisations creating a language. The best known is the whoop, which can be heard over several kilometres. Research shows that Spotted Hyaenas can recognise each other individually by their whoops. These whoops can function as a rallying call to gather scattered clan members together to defend territory boundaries and call them to food found or killed.
Mothers whoop to locate their wandering cubs and some to gather a hunting party together. Whoops are also used as a form of status display. Spotted Hyaenas are also recognised by their laugh or giggle, which is a signal of submission.
The Spotted Hyaena has excellent eyesight, and acute hearing and smell senses. During the day, Hyaenas watch the sky for signs that Vultures have detected a carcass. Hyaenas are opportunistic scavengers and efficient hunters with great endurance. These predators seem to eat almost any mammal or bird or reptile they can find. They detect carrion by smell or from the noise of other predators feeding on the carcass. Their hearing is acute enough to pick up noises emanating from predators killing prey or feeding on carcasses over distances of many kilometres.
When a Spotted Hyaena greets another Hyaena after a long separation, they engage in greeting ceremonies. During these greeting ceremonies the two individuals stand head to tail with each usually lifting the hind leg nearest to the other and sniffing or licking the anogenital region of the other. The unique aspect of greetings between individuals is the prominent role of the erect “penis” in animals of both sexes. This is used to signal submission and usually the submissive animal is required to initiate the greeting. I am glad I am not a Hyaena!!
In the afternoons, once the cubs have been called out of the den they are very playful and inquisitive. The cubs start to follow the adults on a hunt after one year.
Siblings play things range from sticks to each other’s tails, legs and necks. I can only assume that a Hyaena’s skin is very tough and they never seem to draw blood during play and they go for it at times.
The next image is of one of the older cubs who was very playful, spending much of its time in the open in front of the den. It was also very inquisitive. The very young cubs are almost completely black but they do not venture too far from the den entrance.
“I soon realised that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.”
– Lillian Smith
These greetings occur between all ages and both sexes, although greetings between adult females and males are uncommon and are typically restricted to males above median rank, principally the alpha male. Cubs can erect their penis or clitoris and engage in greeting ceremonies as early as four weeks after birth.
Suckling mothers stay close to the den in the afternoon allowing their cubs to feed. Others stay some distance away to get some peace and quiet.
Spotted Hyaenas have a range of vocalisations. In the evenings they disperse to go hunting for food and keep in touch with other members of their clan with whoops and yells. One of the young adults at the den entrance, we think a male, was giving a low growl which was seemingly a call to bring the cubs out of the den.
Spotted Hyaenas eat almost anything, which makes them very important to the health of the ecosystem. Their scavenging makes them a vital waste disposal team in the bush ably assisted by Jackals and Vultures. As hunters, they probably help maintain the genetic health of the herbivores in the area.
The information about Spotted Hyaenas in this blog has been gathered on observations on many bush trips, with behavioural detail referenced from http://www.hyaenidae.org/ and from discussions in front of the aforementioned den site with Kim Wolhuter. We were privileged to meet Kim Wolhuter who is an acclaimed wildlife filmmaker and photographer. Kim spends his life in the bush and comes from a family of game rangers. He has taken award-winning photographs for National Geographic and made award-winning documentary films for National Geographic Television & Film and the BBC. Kim began his film making in 1998 and has since produced numerous wildlife documentaries and TV series throughout Southern Africa, in places such as the Okavango Delta in Botswana, the Skeleton Coast and Namib Desert in Namibia, the Zambesi Valley and Malilangwe Reserve in Zimbabwe and Mala Mala Game Reserve in South Africa. Some of his best known documentaries are Hyaena Queen, Predators at War, Stalking Leopards, Africa’s Deadly Dozen and Cheetah, Man, Wild. He is currently doing the preparatory work for his next wildlife film based in Mashatu.
“Our key to greatness lies not in our ability to project ourselves to others as if we are putting ourselves onto a projector and creating an image of ourselves on a projector screen. Rather, our key to greatness lies in who we are which we can give to other people in a way that when they walk away from us, they are able to say in their hearts that they have taken away something with them quite extraordinary.”
During two of our visits to the den site in the afternoon, Kim arrived at last light on each occasion in his iconic Land Cruiser which looks “thoroughly converted for bush work”. Kim was disarmingly friendly and willing to share information about these Hyaenas and their behaviour, which we found fascinating. This guy takes photography and wildlife film making to an altogether more intimate and insightful level. Have a look at this Youtube links to get a sense of what I am talking about. Double click on the image below.
Kim is writing a fascinating commentary on Facebook on his experiences at night in Mashatu, which I urge you to read.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go and do it.
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
– Howard Thurman
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.