I think most hunters would agree that, the more they know about the animal they intend to hunt, the better are their chances of success. For years, however, when it came to hunting hyenas, the information was scanty at best and terribly misleading at worst.
Pre-1950 it is difficult to find anything positive written by anyone about hyenas. In retrospect, reading the writings of the early explorers, naturalists and hunters, I wondered how much of their views was based on scientific study and how much on the opinions of their trackers, gun bearers, camp staff and the villagers they met. Many of these primitive folk lived in cultures where the dead and, often the dying, were left out in the bush. They were, of course, preyed upon and eaten by a variety of carnivores, of whom one of the biggest (and certainly the most numerous), was the hyena.
The animists and ancestor worshippers amongst these peoples, coupled with their innate superstitions and fears, meant that they attributed a host of characteristics to hyena which, supported by its appearance and behaviour, contributed to a number of attributed anthropomorphic characteristics, which had little or no foundation in fact or science.
Nine hundred years ago the following words were written, in Latin, in a twelfth century Bestiary:
“This beast has a stone in its eye, also called an Yena, which is believed to make a person able to foresee the future if he keeps it under his tongue. It is true that if an Yena walks around an animal three times the animal cannot move. For this reason they affirm that it has some sort of magic skill about it".
Centuries later, in 1890, Sir Samuel Baker, the famous and highly experienced African explorer, naturalist and hunter wrote in his book, “Wild Beasts and their Ways", that, “I have among the “Wild Beasts" to bring in this low-caste creature. It is not worthy of a position among sporting animals, as it is a mere scavenger, useful in its repulsive habits as a four-legged vulture, to remove impurities from the surface".
Just under 100 years ago, Baloo (the bear) in Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book" says to the wolf cubs, “Feet that make no noise; eyes that can see in the dark, ears that can hear the winds in their lairs, and sharp white teeth, all these things are the marks of our brothers except Tabaqui the Jackal and the Hyena whom we hate".
In the 1930s, Captain Pitman, Uganda’s Game Warden, who should have known better, refers to hyena in his book, “A Game Warden amongst his Charges" as that “odious beast", a bully and a coward, the latter word being used almost without exception by the early explorers, naturalists and hunters to describe the hyena. Most of them also referred to only two types of hyena – the striped and the spotted – whereas today we include the brown hyena and the aardwolf in this family.
From the early 1900s onwards, however, some writings started to show an ambivalence towards fisi. They began to see certain positive characteristics, from a human perspective at least, and also recognized that there was more than two species of hyena.
For example, Percival, writing in “A Game Ranger’s Note Book" in 1924, while stating that he hated hyenas and repeating the conventional wisdom that they “live almost entirely on carcasses of animals killed by lions", admitted that, “on two occasions a trapped hyena has shown fight, and once the brute was nearer taking hold than I liked. He had a particularly good skin, and, anxious not to damage it more than necessary, I stooped to shoot him through the chest. Before I could pull the trigger he came at me, the trap on his leg little hindering, and had it not been for a Masai who received the beast on his spear, he would have got home".
Roosevelt in “Life – Histories of African Game Animals", published in 1914, probably exemplifies this ambivalence towards hyena best. He writes, “They are queer creatures. Ordinarily they are scavengers, feeding on carrion yet they occasionally kill mules, cattle, donkeys, and young rhinoceros. Their jaws are so powerful, their strength is so great, and they are so tough, that only a number of big fierce dogs can kill one". Still later he goes on to add, “In fact, the hyena is a singular mixture of abject cowardice and the utmost ferocity. Usually feeding on carrion, and often hesitating to attack even the weakest animal if it is unhurt and on its guard, the ravenous beast will, on occasions, even when single but especially when in troops, assail very formidable creatures … In killing men, woman and especially children, a man-eating hyena will penetrate big villagers; one took a native from a hut in Nairobi itself. When in troops they have been known to seize animals that have been wounded by hunters, and attempt to stand off the hunters. We have never known them in such a case actually to attack the hunters. But under certain circumstances they do attack lions, which seems quite extraordinary".
It was not until scientists like Kruuk, Eloff and Mills began publishing the results of years of patient and scientific study from the 1960s onwards that ordinary hunters like me began to understand that the previous uncomplimentary comments about hyena were often made by people who did not know anything about them but were merely repeating what they had heard others mouth who were, in turn, only repeating etc. etc.
Gus Mills debunked many of the myths surrounding hyena in his book on the brown and spotted varieties, “Kalahari Hyena – The Comparative Behavioural Ecology of Two Species", the product of 12 years of painstaking research in the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. Apart from having great speed and endurance, he established scientifically that hyena have outstanding senses. Using their sense of smell, hyenas have detected upwind carcasses from distances as far as 4.2 kilometres. Their hearing is also acute and on two occasions hyenas have heard their fellow clan members vocalizing while feeding on a carcass from distances of 10 and 10.5 kilometres, respectively, and ran off to join them. He also recorded hyenas locating live prey by sound from distances of 2.4 to 0.7 kilometres and one wildebeest herd from as far as 6 kilometres away. Their sight is also excellent and Mills confessed that, at night, they would often stop and stare at things which he could only locate with a light.
The most important myth which Mills and the other scientists debunked was that spotted hyenas were mere scavengers or “four-legged vultures". While it is true that only six per cent or so of brown hyenas’ food comes from their own kills, in the case of spotted hyenas that percentage has reached as high as 73 per cent in some areas. In the Kalahari, nearly 60 per cent of spotted hyenas observed feeding by Mills were doing so on their own kills.
But is it a myth? In a much more recent paper entitled, “Hyaena – Scavenger or Predator? – Human Influence on Hyaena and Lion" by Steve Pope, he argues that the drop in lion numbers has been caused by the dramatic increase in the hyena population as a result, in turn, of the huge rise in unnatural, “scavengeable" food sources from, for example, unscientific culling, the extensive poaching of elephant and rhinoceroses for tusks and rhino horns, respectively, which has left carcasses behind for scavengers, the over hunting of predators other than hyenas and the feeding of hyena packs by eco-tourist lodges. He quotes compelling examples from Mana Pools, Wankie National Park, Chiteke Springs, Botswana’s Savuti and Tanzania to support his views.
Another reason behind this increase could be their resistance to diseases, which ordinarily has killed other competing carnivores, as described in the recently published (2013) Mammals of Africa edited by Kingdon and Hoffmann. They pointed out that these hardy animals have shown resistance to various diseases including rabies and, for example, when cubs died of canine distemper, those subsequently born to the mothers of the dead cubs, did not. This has allowed bands of hyenas to mob lions and push them off their kills but, given their increased numbers, they have been forced to hunt for additional food to satisfy the extra mouths.
Pope refers to Richard Estes work, “The Behaviour Guide to African Mammals" with approval and writes that “the desiccated corpses of wildebeests that died months earlier are consumed (by hyenas) and yield protein, fat, calcium, phosphorus and other minerals sufficient to suckle young. No (other) predator would even survive on such a food supply. This description of a highly efficient digestive system is of an animal that spent millions of years evolving as a scavenger, utilising the food niche unused by predators."
He goes on to add that, if you look at the larger heart of the hyena relative to the lion and its foot structure, suitable for covering long distances, this is because it is a scavenger, whereas the lion’s relatively smaller heart is because it is an efficient predator.
What no-one can deny, however, is that spotted hyena are very determined hunters. Once they have selected their prey – anything from eland to steinbuck, porcupine to field mice, they will chase it for kilometres. Gus Mills has measured speeds of 40 to 50 kilometres per hour up to 3.8 kilometers and they are known to even follow their prey into deep water and kill it there.
I confess I came to hyena hunting quite late in my career, having been put off these highly successful predators by hunting writers and professional hunters who repeated a refrain like a chorus from an old Beatles hit song, “the hyena is a coward, the hyena is not bold, the hyena is a scavenger, or so I have been told".
What I found was different. I found it was almost impossible to generalize about the behaviour of these clever animals. For example, they are meant to be almost strictly nocturnal and yet I have often seen them in the day. In areas where there is regular hunting pressure, they can be difficult to attract to bait and I spent four nights in vain in Namibia waiting over a carcass in known brown hyena habitat. I had a similar experience in Zimbabwe on two separate occasions. And even when they do come to bait they can be shy and skittish, although once they have established the presence of food, they are not easily deterred and will return again and again even if actively scared away. As such, I have found them both very difficult and very easy to hunt depending on hunting and population pressure and the availability of food.
One thing is certain. They are extremely tough animals. Writing in 1895, Gibbons, in “Exploration and Hunting in Central Africa", describes an unsuccessful lion hunt as follows: “To my disgust, in place of the majesty of the lion I saw only a couple of skulking spotted hyenas returning to covert after a scavenging expedition. I gave the brutes a right and left, wounding them both, but too far back . . . One animal bolted, but in doing so received an ounce of lead in his hind quarters. The other fell to the ground apparently lifeless, though subsequent events indicated he was more frightened than hurt. I was looking in the direction of his retreating friend when up he sprang and went off at a heavy gallop. It is hard to explain why I should have run between six and seven miles over heavy sand and under a hot sun after a member of the most loathsome species of the canine tribe, but the fact remains that I did . . . (Gibbons is then joined by some of his trackers) . . . On coming up he led me forward till the hyena sprang up and moved off slowly taking with him an assegai bitten off a few inches from the left flank and protruding beyond the right. Two bullets did not stop him, but I easily ran up alongside and rolled him over with a third . . . The game brute had made such a plucky bid for life that after photographing his remains, with the four boys who were in at the kill, in rear, I saved the head to remind me in years to come of the hard run its owner had given me".
And a hyena’s jaws are not to be fooled with. Their strength is legendary. Percival, in “A Game Ranger’s Note Book", wrote : “They have extraordinary strength of jaw. I once found a trap of which the captured hyena had bent and twisted the strong iron plate in several places to the shape of his bite".
I have never used anything lighter than a .375 loaded with premium 300 grain bullets on hyena and been glad to have done so. On two of the beasts the bullet penetrated the entire length of the animal but, to my startled amazement, after knocking them down, these 120 pound animals both struggled to their feet and ran off for 30 to 40 paces before collapsing for the final time. Even the slightly smaller striped hyena (which I shot through both shoulders in Masaailand, the southern-most edge of their range), with the selfsame rifle/bullet combination, ran off and I thought for one moment was going to escape before his wounds and my guide, Schalk Tait, put an end to proceedings.
In a book published in 2004, “The Trouble With Africa – Stories from a Safari Camp", the artist, Vic Guhrs, who lived for 25 years in the Luangwa Valley, places hyena in a more modern perspective. He writes, “But generally hyenas prefer to sleep during the day, lying up in cool places, on the hard trampled mud around water holes, in the tall grass, under shady thickets. When night falls, they begin their nocturnal raids, often covering vast areas foraging, scavenging, killing if necessary. They are opportunists. Like most predators they prefer an easy meal, something that can be obtained with a minimum of effort and risk to their lives. Perhaps more than any other predator they have the instinctive ability to seek out the new born, the lame, the sick and defenseless".
While our knowledge of hyenas has evolved considerably based on scientific research, in my humble opinion I cannot say the same for our approach to the hunting of these clever, strong, resourceful and determined predators with their exceptional senses. To me it is every bit as difficult to hunt a top trophy hyena as it is a mediocre lion or leopard. What makes it appear easier is that, currently, there seem to be so many more of them than the big cats.
Like the other canids, however, who are often killed indiscriminately by any and all means, hyenas often suffer the same fate. Without wishing to sound pompous or “holier than thou", is it not time for us hunters, if we are not doing so already, to acknowledge the hyena for what it is – one of, if not the, top predator – and give it the hunting respect it deserves? For what is a trophy room without this “Voice of Africa" on the wall or floor? And if you believe, as I do, that controlled and ethical hunting, within the framework of sustainable utilization, is one of the best weapons that bio-diversity conservation has in its armory, then should we not be petitioning the record books to establish a grand slam of hyenas – brown, striped, spotted and aardwolf – to attract the attention of hunters and encourage them to make these special animals a priority on their next hunt in Africa?