A hyena on a hunting venture.
Greedy. Hyenas will devour everything of their prey – bones, hooves, hair, virtually leaving no trace of their kill.
Though highly considered scavengers due to their feeding habits, hyenas kill 95 per cent of the animals they eat. Noel Arinteireho, a veterinary doctor, explains that given chance, hyenas can eat humans.
They can peel away keratin from horns of antelopes to get at the bone underneath, and they can feed on a big carcass for weeks. Hyenas have the ability to digest almost anything. They consume animals of various types and sizes, carrion, bones, vegetable matter and other animals’ droppings.
Hyenas are of three types; the spotted, striped and brown hyenas. Uganda is mainly home to the spotted hyena, though the striped type once lived here but became extinct.
Nicholas Muhindo, a zookeeper at Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (Uwec), Entebbe, says one can differentiate them by their physical appearance.
“Just like the names go, spotted hyenas have black spots over a light brown fur-coating, while striped hyenas have black striping over their brownish or greyish fur. The brown hyenas are almost plain brown, with a few horizontal stripes on the legs,” he explains.
There are two spotted hyenas at Uwec, namely, Ralph and Rafiki. But there are more in the national parks around the country.
Muhindo explains that hyenas are sneaky, since they are opportunistic feeders and not super hunters like the leopards and lions.
“They invade their target as a clan. Ecologically, their sneaky characters ensure maximum resource utilization thus a sustainable use of prey animals. However, hyenas can make good hunters and have occasionally been sighted in Queen Elizabeth National Park hunting Uganda Kobs and even daring buffalos and zebras of Lake Mburo National Park,” the zoo keeper explains.
Hyenas are matriarchal with an alpha or dominant female assuming clan leadership. Muhindo explains that other females come next, then males and cubs as lower clan members. Hyenas can live up to 25 years.
“Normally, the dominant rank is passed on through a matrilineal system. The alpha female and her lineage have major access to resources, especially food, before other members,” he adds.
Arinteireho explains that males typically disperse from their natal clans when they are between two and six years old.
The vet observes that competition among males for access to mates can be intense and can result in high variance in male reproductive success, particularly in polygamous species. Sexual selection favours male traits that are attractive to females and that increases competitive ability.
Considering the female’s social dominance over males and her bizarrely masculinized genitalia, sexual coercion is impossible in hyena society. If the female is not keen to mate with a particular male, then he’s just plain out of luck.
Animal researcher Kay Holekamp, writes in The New York Times that ordinarily, adult female hyenas may be followed around by males, but they never follow males. Female spotted hyenas show no visible signs of being in oestrus (heat).
One unique feature female hyenas have is the tube-like pseudo penis of 6-7 inches long. Zoologists explain that this is an over-sized clitoris shaped and positioned like the male’s penis and even fully erectile, but functionally similar to a vagina. The female hyena urinates, copulates, and gives birth all through her pseudo-penis.
This makes hyena genital identification quite complex even for scientific researchers and zookeepers that closely work with these animals. The indistinguishable genital organs has always been the reason of their consideration as hermaphrodites.
The oestrus period lasts roughly three days in female spotted hyenas since they mate multiple times.
The vet adds that female hyenas give birth exactly 110 days after the oestrous period.
Muhindo says hyenas normally have a litter of at least two cubs per birth.
“Quite a number of factors will always determine the number of births a hyena will have in a lifetime. Factors like breeding partner availability, habitat, food availability, environmental issues and other captive conditions are essential,” he observes. During parenting, females nurse the young ones. The young ones live in dens or communal areas.
Whereas there is a debate on whether hyenas are dogs or cats, Muhindo says they are closer to the cats than to the dogs since they belong to the feliformia sub-order, to which the cats belong.