Hyenas, Jackals & Wild Dogs: The Sharpest of Africa's Lesser Predators

Published: 23rd August 2006
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The big cats- leopard, lion and cheetah, are the top dogs of Africa's predators. The pre-eminence of these feral celebrities in the public imagination has relegated to second place other predators whose success is equally impressive, and sometimes even more so. The hyena, jackal and African wild dog are the sharpest of Africa's lesser predators. Though key players in the ecological dynamics of the African wilds, their image has for long been plagued with myths, allegories and outright slander.
The hyena is the most eminent of Africa's secondary predators. It is the most common large carnivore, and easily the most misunderstood. The poor beast has been painted as an unrepentant scavenger- that reaps where it has not sown, and a cowardly thief, lacking in grace, beauty and brains.
Now, matters of grace and beauty are subjective, but it is easily demonstrated that the hyena has both intelligence and social skills to match many better-regarded primates. With other predators, such as lion and cheetah facing various serious threats, the hyena is counted as one of Africa's most successful animals. It thrives best in savannas, semi deserts, forest edges, woodlands and lower mountain slopes.
Hyenas classify into three species: the spotted, the striped and the brown hyena. There is however a fourth species - the aardwolf, that is closely related to the stripped hyena. The aardwolf is much smaller and is the shyest of all hyenas. It stands at 20 inches at shoulder height, and weighs about 25 kg. The aardwolf, unlike other hyena types, it is not carnivorous but rather insectivorous, surviving on termites and other insects that constitute its strict diet.
The aardwolf lacks the aggression and sociability of its distant kin. You will find it from southern Egypt all the way to Tanzania, but largely in Angola, Zambia, and South Africa. The spotted and stripped hyena species are common in most of sub-Saharan Africa, except in the rainforests. The shy and much smaller brown hyena is only found in Southern Africa.
The spotted hyena is the most common type and is the most studied by scientists. The best places to see it at work include: Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti (Tanzania), Maasai Mara (Kenya), the Savuti Pan and Chobe (Botswana), Kruger (South Africa) and Etosha (Namibia).
The hyena is a stout, rather awkward looking beast, with hind limbs shorter than fore limbs. It is related to the mongoose family and has dog like characteristics. Weighing an average of 45 kg, the hyena stands 30 inches at shoulder height, and is 1.5 m from muzzle top to tail tip. Relative to its body size, this carnivore has the most powerful jaws in the entire animal kingdom, and is able to crush even the toughest of bones. Hyenas have a lifespan of about 20 years in the unforgiving wild, and about double that in captivity.
Hyenas are territorial and are organised as matriarchal clans consisting of up to 100 individuals. Each clan comprises of smaller packs of as many as 30 folks. The pack is usually made up of related adult males and females, as well as cubs. The fiercest of the females is usually the leader of the pack. Hyena society is peculiar in the animal world in that females outrank males. They are usually larger in build, and are more aggressive in tackling intruders. The ascendancy of females is the single most important deterrent that keeps males from eating young ones.
Another very strange matter with the hyena is the close resemblance between male and female genitalia. The female organ comprises of a pseudo-penis, through which they copulate and give birth. The disguise is so complete that this pseudo-penis comes with both a false scrotum and testes. This most unusual situation is what gave rise to the myth that hyenas are hermaphrodites.
Even in matters of sex, females are dominant and a male's life has few privileges indeed. If the hyena did not have such a rough image, you would surely find it in the emblems of radical feminist groups.
Hyena females give birth to an average of two cubs per litter. Amazingly, cubs are born already highly developed- with a full set of teeth and are able to open their eyes and see well right after birth. They are ready to eat meat at about five months, and by about the first birthday, lessons begin in the dark arts of killing and scavenging. All said, hyena females make first-rate mothers.
Hyena cubs are vicious little savages, an attribute they sharpen during cub's playtime. Sometimes the violent play leads to death of one of the cubs, especially if the fighting is between sisters. This infighting of the cubs is crucial preparation for adult life. For the daily life of a hyena is full of danger and strong enemies lurk outside the den.
Hyenas have a highly social lifestyle, and members of a pack do virtually everything together. They hunt collectively, and unlike the big cats, their special technique involves wearing out the victim. To their advantage, they can run sturdily without tiring for 2-3 km at a speed of 45km/h. And when one tires, it steps back and allow another member of the pack still up with stamina to take its place.
Hyenas on a hunt are ruthless and lack in sportsmanship. They chase the hapless victim for long distances, biting and tearing at the prey's posterior, while still on the run. The victim finally succumbs to exhaustion and the inevitable pain of death. It takes about 4 to 6 adults to hunt down a prey the size of a wildebeest, but they gladly share the meal with the rest of the pack.
Even before the victim takes its last breath, hyenas begin to feast, and the prey is for all purposes eaten alive. It takes about 10 minutes for six adult hyenas to entirely devour an impala: teeth, bones and all; nothing remains. This has earned them the name "cleaners of the savannah".
Besides hunting for food, they also feed on carrions that junk the savannah. Vultures unwittingly guide them to carcasses, whereupon they fall on whatever remains with the same unprecedented gusto that they take to a hunt. They clear the horizon of debris and keep their territories free from easy disease. Hyenas are almost indiscriminate feeders- they will eat bones, vegetation, animal droppings, carrion, and animals of all sizes including other hyenas.
The hyena's heavy-duty stomach is the envy of the animal world. It consumes hides, bones, teeth, hooves and horns and digests all within 24 hours. These are later efficiently regurgitated in the form of pellets. Despite their reputation as scavengers, they usually prefer to hunt. Spotted hyenas, for example, kill up to about 95% of their prey, in areas where prey is plentiful such as at Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater.
After making a kill or sighting carrion, hyenas make some giggling, growling, whooping and laughter-like noises. This is a call of the pack to dinner. Owing to their sheepish laughter, spotted hyenas have been subjected to ridicule, especially by those who do not understand that they do not mean to be funny. Many movies caricature hyenas, depicting them as stupid, greedy, dirty characters. In the popular animated film "The Lion King", for example, one of the three hyena characters is named Shenzi, which is Swahili for stupid.
Though hyenas are reputed to be cunning thieves of other predator's kill, lions- their enemies unto death, many times steal from them. Hyenas are formidable adversaries, but they are no match for lions. It takes four shaggy hyenas to bring down a lioness, and six to tackle a full-grown male.
The bitter enmity between hyenas and lions has often resulted into fierce battles. The most bizarre of them being a bloody melee in the Gobele Desert of Ethiopia in April 1999 that lasted a whole week. At the final whistle, 3-dozen hyenas and 6 lions had perished. Besides the lion, man is the other of the hyenas' mortal enemies. Hyenas in turn have been known to viciously attack and eat humans.
Another of Africa's misreported predator of secondary rank is the jackal. The jackal is a medium-sized carnivore of doglike build, found mainly in Africa and Asia. The jackal's ecological specialisation is similar to that of the coyote found in North America. Though it scavenges, it is also a proficient and well-respected hunter. In Africa, it is common from Cairo to the Cape, and is particularly successful in East Africa's Ngorongoro Crater.
In Ancient Egypt, Anubis the Jackal -the god charged with embalming and burial had a jackal's head. When you consider how singularly important correct burial was in that world for a successful afterlife, you begin to appreciate the magnitude of the task entrusted to Anubis. Jackals have been associated with superstition, and in parts of Uganda, their skin and nails are sold as an antidote to evil spirits. In similar spirit, in the 1976 horror movie "The Omen" (and its 2006 remake), the Anti-Christ is born of a jackal.
The jackal comes in 3 species: the golden or common jackal, the side-striped jackal and the black-backed or silver-backed jackal. These species differ mainly in the colour of their jackets and in choice of habitat. The golden jackal is thought to have evolved in Asia, though it is also found in southeastern Europe, and in North and East Africa. It fancies open, grassy plains and can survive in arid deserts.
The other two species- side-striped and black-backed jackals are said to have evolved in Africa. The side-striped jackal has distinct black and white stripes along the sides of its light olive brown or khaki coloured coat. It prefers to live along watercourses with dense brushwood. It is mostly found in East, West, and Central Africa, excepting in the rainforests. Males can reach 12 kg, and are a little bigger than females.
The black-backed jackal is easy to recognise by the black hair shroud that lines its back. The black mantle is patterned with specks of white giving it a silvery appearance. This jackal prefers dry savannas and semi-desert and is found exclusively in Africa- particularly Eastern Africa -Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, and Southern Africa -South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. This jackal lives for about 7 years in the wild, and for 14 years in captivity.
Jackals are nocturnal and are most active at daybreak and sunset. They are social beings living in packs and families. Usually, a family constitutes of a father, mother, their grown-up offspring -helpers, and their litter of pups. Together with other families they institute a pack, whose sole purpose is to look out for one another. Adult males are the leaders of the pack.
Jackals are monogamous- usually, a male and a female will mate and partner for life. The helpers assist the family in many ways; they keep guard outside the dens and warn of oncoming danger and sometimes they even hunt for the pups and nursing mothers. Helpers are young jackals that have reached sexual maturity but have avoided breeding and stay on with the parents to help take care of younger siblings.
Jackals normally hunt singly or in pairs, but they will labour communally when it suits them. Like hyenas, they hunt by chasing their prey to near death exhaustion -biting and tearing at its behind. Once the victim dwindles, the pack closes in and begins to feast. Those unable to make it to the kill are not forgotten: some of the meal is spared and delivered or regurgitated to them later.
Jackals are cunning and every hunt is well calculated. From a herd of prey, the leader of the pack first singles out the weakest or youngest. The leader of the herd or the calf's mother is usually noted and a number of jackals sent out to distract them. The rest of the hunters then move to surround the unfortunate victim and the chase begins. Jackals on a hunt thrive on the motto, "united we stand".
They also steal from other predators- for a pack of them can be very irritating, and easily causes a larger predator to abandon its kill. They growl and howl, running around the predator in an attempt to sidetrack it off its meal. In most cases this works, and the much smaller jackal has many times ended up with the dinner of mighty king lion. But this is a risky strategy, and woe unto the jackal that is caught-up-with by a lion; it is a death sentence.
Their varied diet includes small antelopes, mongooses, fruits, berries, rodents, small invertebrates, insects, and interestingly scorpions and spiders. They are also renowned carrion foragers and livestock thieves. On these grounds South African farmers kill many jackals. These wild animals are a lot like dogs, behaving and communicating in similar ways. Jackals are prey to leopards, hyenas and eagles.
Another of Africa's lesser predators is the African wild dog- also known as the African painted dog, painted wolf or the hunting dog. This is very rare animal, lives in arid areas and in the savannah and is only found in good numbers in Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. In East Africa, you have small populations in Kenya's Maasai Mara, but impressive numbers in southern Tanzania, particularly in Selous and Mikumi. In much of the rest of Africa, wild dogs are either extinct or are on the verge of vanishing.
The African wild dog actually is more like a dog, with long legs, raised bat-like ears and a huge jaw. Marked with patched patterns of various earth colours, these dogs can easily camouflage into nature. Individuals bear a unique pattern, which is their identity; just like the human fingerprint.
Wild dogs are highly intelligent and social animals. They live and hunt communally, usually in packs of 6 to 20 dogs. All members of a pack are involved in looking after the young, most of who are born of the dominant female. The dominant male in the pack enjoys most of the breeding privileges. Wild dogs weigh an average of 25 kg, and length-wise stretch about 80-110 cm.
Members of a pack share a strong bond built through play. They hunt in a similar manner to hyenas and jackals. They have the ability to run for long without tiring at a steady speed of about 55 km/h. With their poor night vision, they prefer to hunt at sunrise and sunset.
A successful wild dog hunt will rarely have less than 6 hunters. They hunt when very excited, and take time to work at raising the spirits of all in the pack. Before the hunt they socialize among themselves, vocalizing croons and touching. This creates a frenzied state of excitement in the pack, and then the hunt begins!
Like warriors on a mission they follow their leader who picks the least likely survivor in a herd of prey. The leader charges first, with the rest in tow. If the leader tires, another strong member steps in his place. After the leader initiates the first bite, the rest of the pack is at liberty to close in and make merry. Very much like jackals, those absent are not forgotten and are assured of a take-away dinner.
Wild dogs are very efficient hunters and once an animal is marked, it will almost certainly come to a sad end. They show little mercy, and will gladly tear a catch alive, devouring it to the last bit of flesh and occasionally bone. Most people find this revolting and wild dogs are dogged with a bad image.
Wild dogs are in constant competition with hyenas, and as result they share in mutual loathing. In many instances, wild dogs engage hyenas in a tight fight while attempting to steal a kill. But hyenas are sharper in this kind of game, and in which they tend to win. Arising from such bitter memories, hyenas will provoke a brawl with wild dogs, even when there is no food involved.
The painted dogs are always on the move and will seldom stay in an area for long. In the absence of prey, they will not pass on an opportunity for a carrion meal. They mostly hunt and eat medium-size antelopes- such as impala and Thomson's gazelle, and smaller animals such as rats, hares and even lizards.
Wild dogs occasionally raid livestock after straying into farms, resulting in farmers shooting or poisoning them. Today, this species of the African wildlife heritage is endangered and frantic efforts are being made to safeguard and replenish it.
The best way to see the pick of the lesser predators is by taking a combined Kenya-Tanzania safari. This gives good value as you will also see the big cats, and all of the other wildlife East Africa is famed for.

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