Clans on the Mara plains

The Mara is a stage where intense dramas of life and death are played out. None more so than among predators. On the plains, the predator interactions take on epic proportions. Both lions and hyaenas work in large groups because cooperation is key to their survival when the opposition is an army.

“There is much you do not understand about me! You do not understand by cackles. My whoops carry for miles and bind our clan together. I am tough, fast and have endurance. I know my place in the family and work cooperatively when out on the plains. I am intelligent and enigmatic, so under-estimate me at your peril.” ~Mike Haworth

This post focuses on the hyaena clans in the North Mara, in Kenya’s Maasia Mara reserve. The archetype of hyaenas being hideous, filthy scavengers is firmly dispelled in the Mara. Here hyaenas are not the cowardly gangster scavengers they are made out to be in so many characterisations, but rather they are tactical hunters who do most of their hunting for themselves and lions are more often or not the scavengers.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”~ Benjamin Franklin

Hyaenas are mostly nocturnal and have excellent night vision so do most of their hunting at night. The females with cubs sleep or spend time near their den during the daytime. Otherwise they are scattered across the plains, hiding out as opportunists. We found these three hyaenas at dawn close to their den.

Hyaena scouts lie dispersed throughout the plains. As soon as an opportunity arises the individual hyaena will capitalise on that opportunity for itself. If the quarry is too big then the individual will call for reinforcements. The closest scouts will respond quickly.

The respondents move on at pace for extended periods and can reach speeds of 60 kilometres per hour.

“We slander the hyaena; man is the fiercest and cruelest animal.”~ Henry David Thoreau

The first clan members at a kill eat first. The strict hierarchy only comes into play once the dominant clan members arrive. Until that time, the lower ranking members of the clan fight viciously to assert their rights and claim their share.


There are many distractions at the kill. Lower ranking clan members try distraction tactics. If successful they quickly snatch the remains and run.

“A hyaena has a formidable survival kit  – endurance, strength, powerful jaws and a digestive system which can cope with most things. But that is not enough on the plains, where their opponents work in prides and packs and much of its prey is too large for an individual hyaena to take down. Cooperation, discipline and tactics are the hallmarks of a successful hyaena clan.” ~ Mike Haworth

The bloody signs of an active breakfast.

Another morning another experience!!!! This particular morning we had an incredible sighting of a hyaena clan taking down a buffalo calf.


The take down was not quick. The adult hyaenas attacked the calf’s backside, belly and hind leg flanks. The buffalo calf was tenacious beyond anything humans can understand. 


“What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out. “ ~   Alfred Hitchock

Although hyaenas have incredibly strong jaws they do not have the paw gripping capability of lions. As a consequence they have to wear their prey down and bite chunks out of it so that it loses blood and eventually collapses. It was a difficult scene to watch for the first time, but this drama plays out on the plains almost every day.


Buffalo breakfast dining – hyaena style. Those bloody faces say it all. These clan members were piling in and gorging themselves, but were also very wary of lions. Rightly so, for everything changed a few minutes later with the arrival of two big young blonde male lions – hungry nomads.


Another time, another place in the Mara North at a clan den in the Marsh pride’s territory close to the Mara river, the hyaena family affair was playing out. There is usually fierce competition between pups from the same mother.


This female would not allow other female’s pups to suckle from her. There is a strictly enforced hierarchy in the clan when the matriarch is at the den, otherwise it can become quite a power struggle.


In short, not only are things not what they seem, they are not even what they are called!”Francisco de Quevedo

This hyaena pup had lost all of its black hair and had started to get its typical spots, but I am not sure whether this was a male or female. Female spotted hyenas have an elongated clitoris that closely resembles the penis of a male. These pseudo-penises are paired with “testicles” which are actually fused labia filled with fatty tissue. Female hyaena urinate, are fertilised and give birth through this pseudo-penis- all is not what it seems!!


A young cub, less than three months old, was seeking comfort from its mother. With teeth like that and the strongest jaws on the savanna, softness needs to be a delicate process.


Herbivores know only too well that hyaenas are dangerous and tenacious predators with incredible stamina and the last thing they want is to be caught in those jaws because the chances are they will not let go.

Anyone who has been anywhere close to hyaenas know they stink. I could not help smiling at this image, clan etiquette aside!!

Hyaena females do not suckle other female’s pups no matter how hungry the pups are !! 

“The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.” ~Atisa

Competition is bred in early in the programming process.

Once the hierarchy is established peace descends over the den and the pups can start to suckle again. Hyaena milk is estimated to be 30% fat and protein and eight times richer than that of a human.

Hyaenas have an unmistakable shape and gait in full colour or silhouette.

Hyaenas represent one of the most misunderstood predators in the African savanna and live much more complex, intelligent, cooperative lives than the archetypal cackling, savage scavengers they are made out to be. These are high intelligent, tactical animals which are excellent hunters. We humans are slowly getting to understand and appreciate these enigmatic predators.

“Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” ~ Phaedrus

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedeness and let it be.

Have fun,


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