Hyenas dapple the plains of Africa, rowdy and brazen hunters that you’ll struggle to miss on a safari. Their piercing laughter drifts across the camp and their mischievous nature means they’ll often come right up to the safari vehicle. We doubt that you’ll find them pretty. But hyenas always create a lot of excitement.
The Predator That Always Adds Drama to the Plains
Hyenas had their character immortalised in the Lion King. Shenzi, the name of the female leader voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, translates as ‘uncivilised’ in the local Swahili language. Which is fairly accurate. It’s certainly unlikely that you’ll find hyenas attractive or charming. Scampering around with fur that’s often coated in mud, we’d forgive you for saying these animals are a little ugly. But they add a wonderful dose of drama and tension to the landscape. It’s never ever quiet when hyenas are around.
Hyenas fight with bachelor lion prides, large cackles raiding for fresh kills. Lone hyenas send out resonant battle cries, attracting the rest of the cackle to an opportunity for food. Hyenas fight between themselves, yapping and laughing in displays of power. Spot one and you can be confident that more are nearby. Spot a whole cackle and you’ll feel the atmosphere suddenly change.
The Famous Scavenger Is Actually a Ferocious Predator
Hyenas are the famous scavengers. But they kill most of their meals and their bite is the most powerful of all the predators. We’ll always remember returning to a Serengeti camp in the last light of the day. A young wildebeest was stranded on a muddy bank, unable to free itself and left behind by the herd. The next morning there’s was hardly anything left, just six hyenas finishing the scraps. The haunting crunch of teeth snapping through bone will live with us for eternity.
These aren’t scavengers but opportunists. Most predators hide away and raid with precision. In contrast, hyenas cover large distances every day, preying on the weakest and easiest. Old zebra that struggle to keep pace, wildebeest exhausted from their journey, injured springbok and kudu that are sniffed out with impressive precision... they’re not picky about the type of meat. They might not have stealth but they have incredible stamina. These are the only cats that can keep pace with the great wildebeest migration and you’ll see dozens of them on any game drive in and around the Serengeti and Masai Mara.
The Best Places to See Hyenas on Safari in Africa
While genetically closer to felines, hyenas behave like canines, living in large groups with complex social structures. You’ll find them in virtually all national parks and reserves, with the large open savannahs and grasslands bringing abundant sightings. They can usually be seen on most safaris, especially during the middle part of the day, when you’ll see them scampering about when the other predators are resting in the shade.
Spotted hyenas are common across the continent, while the slightly more alluring striped hyenas occupy East Africa’s plains. A much rarer sight is the brown hyena. The remaining few are located around Botswana’s Kalahari and we love how this subspecies defies the notion that hyenas aren’t photogenic.
Hyenas compete with other predators for food sources, but don’t have the same big-name appeal of lions, leopards and cheetahs. For this reason, you’re unlikely to see hyenas in fenced private reserves, which will prefer to keep a population of the prettier hunters.
Show-Stopping Hyena Moments On Your Safari
On a savannah you might spot six hyenas circling a lion pride’s kill, daringly getting closer and closer. From the camp you listen to evocative calls between individuals. On a game drive you pass ten hyenas rolling in the mud then barking back at a rumbustious hippo. There’s something ingenious about these audacious predators and after a few days on safari you’ll definitely grow to love them.