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7 Weeks in Kruger: The Hyenas of Letaba

Letaba Rest Camp overlooks the Letaba River and is situated in the very heart of Kruger National Park. A perennial water way, the river is an important geographical and ecological feature that supports and underpins the local wildlife.

This year the rains have still not arrived. These delays follow poor rainfall throughout 2018 and means the river has nearly stopped flowing. The absence of water has brought greater densities of wildlife to the limited remaining pools - and that means predators follow.

In particular, I was treated to a number of spotted hyena sightings in the areas around the camp. Hyena have an unfortunate reputation for being cowardly and uncouth scavengers (a situation not helped at all by the Lion King movie!) but that significantly underplays this incredible species.

They will certainly scavenge and fight other carnivores to steal their kills (just as lions will) but they are sophisticated hunters in their own right, adopting a range of different chasing, flanking and hounding tactics depending on the prey being targeted and the numbers of hyena available to join the hunt. They consequently have a success rate that is amongst the highest of the African predators.

The spotted hyena is also a very intelligent animal, with problem-solving abilities and complex social structures matching those of chimpanzees.

It is these social structures that brings me to some wonderful sightings around Letaba this week…!

Hyenas Part 1

I encountered this female just before sunset less than 1km from the camp on the H9 road.

As a nocturnal animal, she remained hidden in a den throughout the day and was waking up and getting ready to set out for hunting and scavenging overnight. The den was in a man-made drainage culvert under the road - a common place for solo or small clans of hyena to make their home.

She stood up and approached the entrance to the culvert and, after some encouragement, this cute little pup was coaxed out and emerged into the open!

What followed was a wonderful show of how complex yet strangely familiar the behaviours and routines of the spotted hyena are to us humans.

Hyena cuddles followed by suckling...

Hyena cleaning and grooming... and as with all animals, the youngster hating it...!

Hyena playtime, where he was up, scurrying around and learning about the world by checking out plants, rocks and, of course, the guy with a camera...

And finally one last cuddle as mum decided where to hunt. Suddenly she was up and off into the bush. He spent a few seconds looking out after her before scurrying back into the safety of the den for the night...

What was also amazing was the mother’s willingness to leave the pup with me sat just a couple of metres away, which shows that humans and vehicles in the park are really not considered a threat by the predators.

Hyenas Part 2

The following morning I encountered a clan of four hyenas, consisting of a huge female, smaller male (female spotted hyena are dominant over the males and typically larger) and two pups. The pups were older than the one I had encountered just the evening before and it was brilliant to see how the age gap meant different behaviours had been learned.

The pups were much braver, travelling further from the parents, and were at times extremely naughty, running off or stealing food from mum when it was clear that she didn’t intend for them to eat it. She repeatedly gave them nips on the bum or ear which resulted in a yelp from the pup and good behaviour for all of ten seconds…!

The pups finally started playing with some sticks and left mum to wander away with her dinner and eat in peace...

The hyenas of Letaba were wonderful sightings and some of the images have come out really well too! Any comments or thoughts are most welcome below or on social media.

The hyenas were not all I saw in this area of Kruger National Park though - check back in for the next post with a huge male lion, rare antelope and some beautiful birds...

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Follow our amazing journey through Kruger National Park and building a start-up App called KrugerExplorer on the website, blog and social media...

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