By Thorn Mulli
In ancient Egypt, hyenas were domesticated, fattened and eaten. Some cultures, on the other hand, exploited hyena body parts not only for food but also for medicine. In contrast, the hyena today is one the most misunderstood and misrepresented animal. Most people, like the hit animation film ‘The Lion King’ view them negatively for the most part as cowardly, dirty, greedy, opportunistic, stupid and even associating them with witchcraft. This probably due to the fact few people know that there exists four species of hyena each with unique characteristics. Ignorantly, they use an unflattering characteristic of one species to refer to all hyenas.
The stripped hyena is generally a scavenger yet its relative, the spotted hyena, though a scavenger too, hunts and kills 95% of its food. The stripped and brown hyenas run or feign death when confronted by predators like lions but the spotted hyena ferociously fights back. Another difference is that although the other species are primarily solitary, the spotted hyena are organised in territorial clans of related individuals.
While all the males of most hyena species are bigger and dominant than females, the opposite is true for the spotted hyena whose female are bigger, more aggressive, and dominant with external genitalia that resembles that of males. They are even led by a female called a Matriarch.
Interestingly, the offspring of spotted hyena are born with teeth and their eyes open lacking adult markings while the stripped hyena’s offspring are born with their eyes closed, small ears but with adult markings.
With their deadly jaws known to kill dogs with a single bite, tough enough to crack bone coupled with stomach acidic juices able to digest skin, bone and even teeth, all species of hyena except the aardwolf are important for the eco-system as they act as janitors, cleaning up carrion parts other predators cannot dispose off. They are also known to eat a variety of animal products and droppings, vegetables and according to campers; aluminium pots and pans. They also have large hearts that enable them to endure pursuing prey.