Hyenas, the antithesis of gorgeous, graceful African wildlife, needs a rebrand. Ahead of the publication of his new book, ‘Humans and Hyenas: Monsters or Misunderstood’, Professor Keith Somerville says it is time to replace the myths with a more accurate representation.

In the early morning in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area of northern Tanzania we drove out from our camp and found an adult hyena on its kill. The hyena was covered in mud and the tracks showed that it had killed a yearling wildebeest by a muddy stream flowing into Lake Ndutu. This prey had been hunted and killed by one hyena – not by a large pack or stolen from lions.

The most vilified carnivore

That scene was the opposite of the common representation of hyenas as skulking scavengers harassing other predators or as vicious hunters that roam in huge packs and tear their prey apart before it is dead. When you add the abiding myths that they are the creatures of witches and wizards, grave robbers and even that they are perverse sex-shifting hermaphrodites – you get the lasting image of a filthy, skulking, cowardly but vicious creature that does the bidding of evil sorcerers, hangs around graveyards and is redolent of sexual deviancy. The accusation of sex-shifting or being hermaphrodites comes from the curious genital structure of female spotted hyenas, who appear to have a penis and testicles.

Marcus Baynes-Rock, who has studied the curious relationship between the hyenas of Harar (Ethiopia), the townspeople and tourists, said of hyenas that they are ‘loathed, vilified, feared. Derided, persecuted, and, where people have the wherewithal, eradicated…This is a little unusual for a large carnivore; other species of this order evoke awe, admiration, and adoration.’

Such images, especially of the spotted hyena, are added to by the wide range of hyena vocalisations – from growls and snarls through howls to the loud, repeated whoops and almost insane giggling. Myths from the Middle East and West Asia allege that the hyenas there imitate the voices of people to lure them and dogs to their deaths.

The eminent carnivore scientist Hans Kruuk – who wrote the ground-breaking book on the spotted hyena that showed it hunted more than it scavenged and that it actually killed more of its own prey than lions did – wrote of their vocalisations and how they helped establish the idea of hyenas as creatures owned by witches:

‘Their loud, staccato “giggles” are like those of a mad person, and they are mixed with deep growls and howls, all together the cacophony of a very aggressive orgy…for a frightened human in the dark, many such sounds together are hauntingly human, supernatural, a witches Sabbath.”

Fighting the myths with science

Kruuk’s work began to explode the myths about hyenas being purely scavengers, eaters of carrion and unpleasant but essentially uninteresting animals. This work was continued by carnivore researchers like Laurence Frank, Kay Holekamp, Gus Mills, Glyn Maude and more recently by Mounir Abi-Said, Arjun Dheerand Sarah Edwards. They’ve researched the spotted, brown or striped hyenas and highlighted the social complexity, hunting and foraging skills, great intelligence and adaptability of the species.

I’ve benefitted hugely from their work in writing my historically based examination of human-hyena coexistence and conflict, and the origins and staying power of myths about hyenas.  Humans and Hyenas Monster or Misunderstood, shows how, from the Middle Miocene epoch (15.97 million–11.6 million years ago) through the Pleistocene (2,580,000–11,700 years ago) to the present, hyenas developed alongside the ancestors of modern humans and now coexist, and come into conflict, with modern humans, suffering hatred and persecution.

Palaeontologists have identified more than 60 extinct species of hyena. The most fearsome was the short-faced hyena, Pachycrocuta brevirostris, which was found across Europe, parts of Asia, and Africa. Fossils found in England’s Mendip Hills reveal an animal similar in height to the spotted hyena but more massive and with hugely powerful jaws bones that could crush the leg bones of ancient elephants.

Today, just four species of hyena have survived climate change, the expansion of human society and the development of more sophisticated hunting techniques and both pastoralism and cultivation of crops, which have limited wildlife habitat. All four, spotted (Crocuta Crocuta), brown (Parahyaena brunnea), striped (Hyaena hyaena) and the aardwolf (Proteles cristata), are found in Africa. The striped hyena is also found in Eurasia, through the Middle East and into central and south Asia.

The species have physical similarities but are different in aspects of social behaviour and family/clan structures, diet, hunting and foraging techniques. Spotted hyenas live in matrilineal clans varying in size from three or four related animals to ones that can be as large as 100 and are made up of sub-clans that may spend time apart and only come together occasionally. Aardwolves feed entirely on termites and small insects are solitary, while brown hyenas live in small family groups but interact at carcasses or sites with enough food for several to feed without serious conflict. Striped hyenas can be solitary but may also live in small groups which come together for breeding or at large food sources.

Where did the myths come from?

The myths have developed in many ways. Hermaphrodite and sex-shifting from the curious reproductive anatomy of female spotted hyenas. This misrepresentation was derided by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his writings on the natural world, but the image stuck and has added to ideas of hyenas being evil and linked with the occult. The grave robbing accusation does have a basis in fact. For centuries in many parts of Africa, rural peoples, including the Maasai, disposed of their dead by leaving their bodies out in the bush away from villages. They would be consumed by predators, with spotted hyenas the most noticeable because of the loud vocalisations that accompany hunting, foraging and conflictual sharing of carcasses. This led to the vilification of the hyenas, who were just taking advantage of a food source provided by humans.

This link with death and the afterlife, combined with the eerie vocalisations, led to the myth that hyenas worked for witches and helped them find bodies to be used for occult purposes. But some communities, the Tugen of Kenya for example, instead of hating hyenas because of this, believed that the dead cannot move into the afterlife without the ministrations of hyenas.

In the Middle East and West Asia, research by people like Mounir Abi-Said in Lebanon has revealed that striped hyenas do dig up bodies from shallow or unprotected graves, but that this makes up only a small proportion of their food.  Striped hyenas, and the brown ones of southern Africa too, are chiefly foragers and scavengers, eating a wide range of carrion, refuse from waste sites, fruits and vegetable matter, hunting far more rarely than spotted hyenas and concentrating on small mammals, rodents, reptiles, birds and insects. In some areas, striped hyenas, but also spotted hyenas in arid areas like Tigre in Ethiopia, scavenge the carcasses of dead domestic animals or kill sick, injured or old livestock rather than hunting wild prey. In so doing, they provide an ecological service, and clearing up the remains of sick animals may also benefit people by preventing the transmission of diseases or the nuisance caused by rotting carcasses in and around towns.

It is time that the myths that persist about hyenas, the inaccurate portrayals of them in many wildlife documentaries as the lowlifes or muggers of the natural world (not to mention the negative portrayals in films like The Lion King and Mowgli Legend of the Jungle) was replaced by a more accurate representation, one that recognises their role in the food-chain, their ecological services and their interesting, complex social relations.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation at the University of Kent, and a fellow of the Zoological Society of London. He has written books on the ivory trade in Africa, human-lion conflict and his latest book, Humans and Hyenas: Monsters or Misrepresented, is published on 19  March 2021.

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