The Horrible History of the Hyena
Updated: Sep 20
If there’s any animal that deserves an entire day of appreciation, it has to be the hyena. This isn’t just because they’re incredible, but also because of the terrible injustice they have faced in their 22 million years on our planet. Hyenas do pretty much everything we humans don’t like: they’re nocturnal, they have a high-pitched haunting giggle, and they feast on the dead. But they're also one of the most intelligent, adaptable, and absolutely peculiar animals on our already weird and wonderful planet. Today, these near-threatened animals have never been more in need of a make-over. While they might not have the good looks of a panda, their role in our environment is just as important and they are no less deserving of a global conservation effort.
It’s easy to put this bad rep down to Disney’s eternal Lion King, but hyenas have occupied an undesirable place in African folklore for as long as humans and hyenas have co-existed. Even today in northern Africa, suspicious rumours circle of werehyenas with magical powers. In Ethiopian folklore, wizards can supposedly transform themselves into hyenas at will, in Somalia, they require a magic stick, in Morocco, it’s an overnight transition, and in Sudan, these were-hyenas have a taste for late-night lovers and small children. The rumours don't end in northern Africa either, with witches replacing brooms with hyenas in Northern India, and allegations of treachery and stupidity across the middle east. This might not surprise you: other than having been left somewhat lacking in the looks department, their superior intelligence means they're also quick to associate human settlements with a calorie-rich, easy food source.
But… so too do lions and leopards, and tourists still contribute millions of dollars to Botswana’s GDP coming to catch a glimpse of them. So, what is it about hyenas that are so undesirable then? Why is it they that have come to be the evil, mysterious, lurking creature of the night that mothers use to scare their children into coming home at night? Why not the mighty lion, or the elegant leopard? Ernst Hemingway, in his 1935 book ‘Green Hills of Africa’ does not hold back the punches when describing the hyenas he encountered on his travels… “Fisi, the hyena, hermaphroditic self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off of your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp follower, stinking, foul, with jaws that crack the bones the lions leave, belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain…”. It’s hard to judge Ernst. Habituated hyenas can be a dangerous menace, but today, especially in developed nations, there isn’t really an excuse for habituation. We know that improper disposal will attract intelligent animals like hyenas (who can blame them!) and that of course, a hyena isn’t going to turn down a juicy piece of steak mischievously held out to them over a campfire. Authorities have no choice but to put down overly habituated hyenas, so it is up to us to make sure that that never happens.
Between Ernst and the African Folklore, hyenas were already facing an uphill battle. It didn’t seem like things could get much worse and when researchers from Disney’s animation team were sent to the University of California’s research station in Kenya, it was supposedly on the condition that the hyenas would be portrayed in a positive light. Quite clearly, this didn't happen. Not only did Disney choose to portray them as the evil villains of the animal kingdom, they even assigned these characters the tragic job of offing Mufasa. Today, across the Western world, a hyena’s bad rep is pretty much down to the PR disaster that was the Lion King. In fact, things got so bad that a hyena research biologist even went so far as to sue Disney for defamation of character. Things take an even more sinister tone when you delve into greater detail. With accusations of racism, Harvard psychologists pointed out that in a film voiced by overwhelmingly white actors, the villainous hyena characters were one of the few creatures voiced by individuals from minority backgrounds and were given a darker skin tone than in real life. If that weren’t bad enough, it's no secret that the scene of the hyenas marching to Scar was inspired by the Nazi propaganda film "The Triumph of the Hill".
It’s pretty clear that hyenas need a re-brand if there is hope to save them. Let’s start with the hermaphrodite rumour, a personal favourite. You can only imagine the first scientific explorer’s curiosity when they arrived in Africa and found not a single female hyena. There were two equally outrageous possibilities for this conservative, sexist and strictly religious era: 1) male hyenas mate and give birth, or 2) the females were hermaphroditic. Well, they weren’t far off with either. Female hyenas have evolved ‘pseudo-penises’ and enlarged growths that surround them that resemble testicles. And yes, through this ‘pseudo-penis’ the females typically squeeze out not just one, but twins. According to the author Lucy Cooke, this “eye-watering feat is like squeezing a cantaloupe out of a hosepipe, and one in 10 first-time hyena mothers die in the process... and up to 60% of cubs suffocate on the way out”. These unique traits most likely evolved to ward off male dominance and danger, as sex is so difficult that it requires 100% cooperation from females: thus giving them the choice of mate. Today, hyenas live in clans formed of related females who scavenge and hunt together and even babysit and protect each other’s young. These female hyenas are also larger, fiercer, and much more dominant than males, who rank near the bottom of their hierarchies.
The next rumour to debunk is that of hyenas being exclusive scavengers. In the Lion King (and now too in the popular imagination) hyenas only feed by stealing their prey from the noble lions, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, zoologist Hans Kruuk found in his study of the Serengeti ecosystem in the 1970s that when spotted hyenas and lions share a carcass, it was hyenas who made the kill 53% of the time – so, really, the lions were scavenging more off the hyena than the other way around! We’ve found that this behaviour varies from place to place, dependent on relative lion and hyena populations in the area. In some places we’ve worked in, hyenas are dominant over lions, while in others, it’s the opposite. With adaptations for stamina allowing them to chase down their prey over long distances and travel far in search of food, their supposedly unattractive sloped backs and stubby legs are really to help with their endurance hunting. Their unique appearance might also have something to do with the fact that they are more closely to mongooses than either cats or dogs!
And... if they were exclusive scavengers, so what! The hyena’s scavenging plays a vital role in our ecosystem as nature’s very own eco-janitors. Hyenas really aren’t picky, with ultra-acidic stomachs and one of the strongest jaw strengths in the animal kingdoms, letting them even crunch through bone and leaving them with bright, white faeces from all the calcium they consume. By removing rotting carcasses, they also remove any diseases that may be lurking within them and cycle nutrients for the benefit of every other living thing around them. On top of that, as opportunistic apex predators, hyenas play an invaluable role controlling prey populations and keeping the ecosystem balanced and in check. Using their high-pitched staccato call (which is unique to each individual and gives an important reminder of their social position in the hierarchy) they even do us the good service of calling in other clan members to help.
Those of us who are lucky enough to spend quality time with wild hyenas are quick to see that they are not the vicious, vile, vilified creature they’ve been made out to be. Instead, they are nurturing, kind and immensely loving and supportive of one another. They fight hard for their survival and are quick to adapt or make the most of an opportunity when it arises. On this world hyena day, we at the NHFU encourage you to educate yourself and others on these remarkable, misunderstood creatures who have been so unfairly characterised for far too long. Today, spotted hyenas are locally extinct throughout much of Africa and remain heavily persecuted. With a change in public perception, however, there is reason to hope.