A visit to the Kruger National Park in South Africa is such a rewarding experience for avid animal and bird lovers like ourselves. We have just returned from a holiday in that part of the world and have literally hundreds of photographs to add to our collection. Kruger is renowned for being home to the Big 5 – namely lions, elephants, buffalos, rhinos and leopards – and the challenge is to see all these in one day. No mean feat when leopard numbers are low (only about 1000 were recorded in 2008) and the Park covers 20 000 square kilometers – the size of Wales! Some folks have been going to the Park for years and still haven’t notched up the Big 5 in one day.
While it is thrilling to be able to see the Big 5, it is also great to come across animals that are not so common or, during the daytime, to see nocturnal animals that haven’t settled down to sleep off the night’s excesses. Imagine our delight when, at first light, we came across a pair of spotted hyenas lying by the roadside. We approached them very slowly, worried that they would scurry off into the bush, but they were very accommodating and remained exactly where we found them, enabling us to get some great photos of them.
Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) are carnivores and belong to the family Hyaenidae. They tend to have bad press as they are mostly seen as cowardly scavengers in competition for prey that lion and other predators bring down. However, they are skilled hunters in their own right and feed mainly on ungulates and weaker animals that are easy to catch.
They have strong stocky forequarters, whilst their hindquarters are shorter and sloped downwards, making it difficult for other animals to catch them from behind. Their ungainly shape can be seen in the photo below – this was the second sighting we had of a hyena. It had hidden the remains of a carcass in the water and had come back to retrieve its meal. Prey is usually eaten alive and hyenas have voracious appetites – consuming about 14,5 kgs of meat at each meal.
Our third sighting was also early in the morning, when we came across a mother hyena suckling two young cubs in a den next to the road. She seemed unconcerned by the human paparazzi that were clicking away at the scene before them.
The gestation period is about 110 days and cubs (usually two, but sometimes three) are born throughout the year. Hyenas rarely dig their own dens, preferring to use deserted warthog or jackal lairs. Males don’t take part in the rearing of the youngsters, thus hyenas are mainly found in matriarchal clans, often sharing their dens.
They may not be as exciting as the Big 5, but we enjoyed our encounters with these awkward-looking creatures and now know a lot more about them than we did before.