Brown hyena release at Fig Tree Plains

by Jonathan Swart

Another ordinary day in the office turned into a day filled with excitement as Welgevonden prepared to release a young brown hyena into the Reserve. The animal had been caught in a cage trap on a farm between Thabazimbi and Lephalale. The owner had set the trap to catch a stray domestic dog that was attacking his livestock.
To his surprise he discovered a brown hyena in the trap – despite it being the 1st April this was not an April Fool’s prank!

Brown hyenas are often persecuted by livestock farmers, but luckily for this animal the trap belonged to a conservation minded farmer. In fear of the hyena attacking his livestock he did not want to release the hyena on his farm. A friend advised him to contacted the Nature Conservation Division of the Tshwane University of Technology who in turn contacted Welgevonden Game Reserve to find out whether Welgevonden would consider releasing a brown hyena onto the property. It was felt that this hyena deserved a second chance and Welgevonden contacted the farmer to arrange for the relocation.

Time was important as the hyena had already been in the cage trap for a day and although it had eaten the meat and drank water provided for it there was concern for its welfare. Firstly, the local Nature Conservation officials were contacted for a transport permit to move the hyena the 130 km from the farm to Welgevonden. The permit process usually takes a few days but the officials gave us written permission to move the animal while the permit was being processed. At the same time the farmer build a transport crate out of steel and conveyor belt strong enough to withstand the extraordinary bite strength of the brown hyena’s jaws and prevent the animal from injuring itself.

Early the following morning the farmer and his captive arrived at Welgevonden Main Gate. The convoy immediately drove to the release site on Fig Tree Plains and with the help of several eager helpers the crate was offloaded and cameras readied to photograph the escape.

The door was opened with everyone waiting in anticipation for the hyena to come bursting out… but nothing happened. After a while we ventured a little closer to look inside the crate and the hyena was sitting there possibly just a little apprehensive to take that first step back into freedom. The rear of the crate was lifted in an effort to encourage the hyena to leave… still nothing. The crate was lowered; after all it was solidly built and had a hyena inside; everyone waited awhile… again nothing. A second lift was proposed and executed – higher this time, but the hyena appeared glued to the inside of the crate.

Then, as the muscle power waned the crate was again placed on the ground and boom the hyena came bolting out with zest trying to get as far away from us as possible. The path carried the hyena carried the animal in the direction of a startled herd of impala which scattered before the hyena turned towards the hills and disappeared out of view.

There was sufficient time to view the hyena after it left the crate to be reassured that no harm had come to it as a result of the capture and release.

It is difficult to predict what will happen to the young hyena as it explores its new environment, but being a young animal, probably without a territory, we are hoping that after exploring it will make Welgevonden its new home. Everyone who witnessed the release will agree that this was a gallant effort in the true spirit of conservation and everyone involved, particularly the farmer who had the compassion and foresight to give this hyena that second chance deserves an accolade.