CREATURES OF THE NIGHT – The “devious villains of the bushveld” is often what is thought of the hyena. Well, that is the reputation the Spotted Hyena, relatives to the Brown hyena, have achieved. But looking at the big picture and understanding their ecological contribution, you soon realize the importance of hyena in any environment. Although the spotted hyena is by far a more regular sight out in the bush, out in the right environment one might have a glimpse of the elusive and shy brown hyena.
To improve one’s chances of seeing this elusive animal, focus would need to be given to the more arid regions of Southern Africa. As competition amongst large predators is fierce in the African wilderness, mammals require strategies and adaptations to avoid competition to ensure their survival. In turn, the brown hyena has managed to penetrate the most arid of areas which can be more uninhabitable to its larger competitors such as spotted hyena and lion (due to lower densities of larger ungulates). This means that the brown hyena has had to adapt to becoming predominantly a scavenger, and not a hunter like the spotted hyena. In fact, only around 6% of their food is hunted. They may travel up to 30 km in a night looking for carrion which can be detected up to 3km away with their incredible sense of smell. One very significant adaptation for the brown hyena to allow them to penetrate the most arid areas is their fruit feeding behaviour. Tsama melons, a regular find in the Kalahari can weigh between 300 and 900 grams and can have 90% water content. They can also be an excellent source of food for brown hyena, as roughly 22 melons can have the equivalent energy to 1kg of fresh meat.
Although they are social animals living in small clans of up to 10 individuals, they prefer to seek out food alone; therefore sightings of these creatures are usually of individuals. However, small carrion is often taken back to the den sight for pups, so sightings at den sights can be more productive. The clans are dominated by one or two adult females with usually up to 3 males and the rest sub adults and cubs.
Brown Hyena are one of the rarities to see out on a African safari, but the Southern Kalahari is probably one of the best places to see them.