*This article was a collaborative effort between myself and Katie Adams, an ecological scientist and field guide.
There have been many viewpoints written about the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), from both sides of the story. They have been painted with broad brushstrokes as the villainous, thieving scavengers of the African bush on one hand and on the other, highly intelligent, cohesive and beautiful animals. Yet … in a world of pure survival, where the weak falls and the strong flourish, there are none better suited than that of the hyena. They’re animals with such unique traits, and it would be easy to wax lyrical about all they are capable of due to their morphological traits, unified social structure and charismatic behaviours, yet they often get pushed aside in favour of nearly every other predator despite being iconic of African wildlife.
As humans we like to categorise things, put them into boxes so to speak. So, when the spotted hyena was inducted into the hall of fame as one of the “Ugly 5”, this may have been a time to pause and question whether or not this has been beneficial to the hyena, or in actual fact detrimental? Not everybody who visits Africa would think to question this statement and so the legend pervades far and wide. As conservationists we understand more than we ever have, yet how do we get this information out to the general masses and change those perceptions? Often we are told that science and emotion do not belong together, surely this has to be wrong? If we have no connection to what we are trying to conserve how do we maintain interest, not only for ourselves but to share it with others? If we have that emotional connection, moments such as we were fortunate to witness recently in the Kruger National Park will speak louder and further for the animals that don’t always have a positive voice.
Working in Africa together for the volunteering and conservation organisation, African Impact, we’ve spent years teaching and guiding students the finer and wonderous details of wildlife and photography. However, there is nothing like “switching off” and for us this often means packing the car and heading in to the Kruger National Park for a few days. No pressure, just endless roads full of the unexpected yet with no expectations from our side.
Everything was going grand with sightings of lions, leopards and elephants, but one of the recurring highlights was the sheer abundance of hyena cubs. Now, we’ve had our fair share of exceptional hyena sightings over the years, but they’re naturally a species we never tire of seeing so we were beside ourselves when we located multiple den sights each with a litter of cubs no more than four months old.
These youngsters were highly inquisitive and often found playing outside, napping and sniffing the cars that pulled up alongside. They’re fascinating creatures to photograph and even just to watch from a behavioural standpoint as they’re equally brave as they are cute. However, these sightings would pale in comparison to what awaited us on our last morning.
We were casually heading towards a rest camp when we came across the familiar sight of cars parked up alongside something just off the road. We guessed it would be another hyena and weren’t wrong as we slowed down to see a huge female sat next to a small den. A couple of tiny heads poked out with a curious glance and we sat there in amazement. We couldn’t believe our luck as we were losing count of how many cubs we had seen in such a short time frame. The female appeared agitated and uncomfortable, constantly changing positions, what we didn’t initially realise was that she was having contractions and had started to give birth. There was no time to really comprehend the situation as it happened so fast, so we sat, photographed and watched the whole ordeal in a near state of shock. After just a few minutes of our arrival she proceeded to push out her new-born on the sandy roadside about two metres from us.
Animals usually try to give birth in privacy, often hiding away in thickets or in hiding holes; people never see these kinds of events, let alone photograph them. An unusual feature of the hyena is that the females have a pseudo-penis, and is used for all copulation, urination and, shockingly, giving birth – meaning it has to stretch out to allow the foetus to pass through. Quite simply, it wasn’t a pleasant or magical affair but quite stressful and grim to watch. The baby fell to the ground and within moments mum was lapping up the placenta and then chewing through the umbilical cord while a tiny, rather pathetic, gory bundle of matted black fur and dirt laid on the floor. Its tiny paws wailed in the air as mum attempted to clean it, before instead hiding it away in the den out of sight. She then flopped over the den entrance, proud and exhausted and would periodically dip her head under and move her baby about for the odd spot of cleaning. The juveniles, as restless toddlers do, couldn’t keep still and joyously pranced everywhere – often stepping on the baby and clambering over the mother.
It was over within ten minutes and anyone who wasn’t there for that brief period of time had no idea what had just occurred. It was interesting to see other cars slow down but upon seeing a single hyena would immediately drive off. Had they given more of an interest they would have been treated to such a special sight of the new-born. We eventually left the sighting, wanting to give the newly extended family a bit more privacy, and were brimming with happiness and excitement over what we had just witnessed. We never go into Kruger hoping for epic sightings, but one had just fallen onto our laps and in one of the most unexpected ways we could never have imagined.
Most people go to Africa for the bigger and more iconic species that hyenas simply often do not fall into. However, the species has given two of nature’s biggest fans and supporters such a rare and incredible gift that it took days for us to come to terms with just how lucky and privileged we were to simply be in the right place at the right time. It’s a sighting that reinforces redefines our love and dedication to committing our lives to working with such fascinating species. Hyenas may be under appreciated, but they’ve never failed to deliver great experiences and photographic opportunities, and we’ll never stop appreciating them and singing their praises to anybody who will listen.