07 Aug Free-Roaming, Feminist Female Hyaena Found and Collared
The hyaena, hermaphroditic self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp-follower, stinking, foul, with jaws that crack the bones the lions leave belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain, looking back, mongrel dog-smart in the face.
-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa, 1935
Hyaena have been subjected to many a scandalous truth over the course of time. As Lucy Cooke discusses in her entertaining book, The Unexpected Truth About Animals, spotted hyaenas are “considered nature’s thugs – condemned throughout history and across continents and cultures as dim-witted cowards, skulking in the back alleys of the animal kingdom wanting to mug more noble beasts for their dinner.
These misconstrued ideas were not perpetuated by folklore, but are rather of a scientific origin. The hyaena baffled biologists. Even the father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, could not correctly classify the species, first thinking it was a cat and later classifying it as a dog. He never got it right. The species is in fact a “souped-up” member of the mongoose family and therefore more closely related to a cat.
A more controversial topic for early zoologists, was the basic question of the hyaena’s gender – females sport a sexual structure that resembles a penis.
While one animal encyclopedia explained that the “hyaena in itself possesses both sexes, being male the one year and a female the next”, it was later decided that the hyaena was a hermaphrodite and capable of swinging its sexes according to the season.
Over 65 000 species are indeed cross-sexual. The hyaena, is not.
The clitoris of a female can extend up to 20cm and is shaped and positioned exactly like the penis of a male hyaena, hence the confusion. As the theory goes, this “pseudo-penis” has evolved as a mechansim to reinfoce female dominance within the clan.
In case of most animals, male individuals will fight over territorial space and/or the right to mate with females. However, when it comes to spotted hyaena clans, it is the female that dictates the “who’s” and “when’s” of copulation. Sex is an “undignified affair” that forces the male to take on a submissive squat like position at the female’s rear in an attempt to merge their two genitalia.
As you can imagine, this act would be completely impossible without the full cooperation of the female, allowing her to exert her dominance over the male.
As science progresses, so does our understanding of these loping predators. They are by no means the dim-witted, cowardly, scavengers that the media portrays them to be.
These fierce and ferocious feminists are highly efficient predators and responsible for taking down up to 95% of the food they consume. More impressive however, is their ability to digest food that would otherwise make any other animal sick – even a putrid carcass riddled with anthrax won’t keep a hyaena down. In fact, their ability to consume rotting carcasses promotes nutrient cycling within the ecosystem and prevents the spread of deadly disease.
Although the most common of the four different hyaena species, the Spotted Hyaena has been an uncommon resident at Welgevonden Game Reserve – until now.
Recently, a small group of free roaming hyaena were reported as having established on Welgevonden Game Reserve. Although this was exciting from an ecological perspective, especially as this species is known to be slow to recolonise areas, there was the concern that their presence might jeopardize the success of the Game Introduction Programme. However, Welgevonden’s members agreed that these animals could remain on the Reserve provided that management regulate the population accordingly.
After consultation with Welgevonden’s Scientific Advisory Committee (WSAC) and an assessment of the predator-prey model, it was agreed that the Reserve could happily sustain a population of six individuals. With the clan predicted as being double this number, management had to devise a way of reducing the population size prior to them establishing a fixed social structure as their management would become increasingly difficult afterwards.
It was decided that the surplus hyaena, approximately 4-5 individuals, would be translocated to reserves looking to bolster up their hyaena populations, while the remaining individuals would be closely monitored so as to better understand their population dynamics, maintain the social structure of the clan and make better informed decisions pertaining to their management.
After several late, cold nights and numerous failed attempts, management were finally able to cordon off three of these elusive individuals within the predator boma on the 15th of July.
While the two juveniles were kept in the boma pending their relocation to Khamab Kalahari Reserve, the regularly sighted matriarch was fitted with a Hawk105 (GPS-GSM) collar upon her capture and released back onto the Reserve that very same day so as to return to her den site.
The attending veterinarian, Dr. Peter Caldwell, estimated this large female to be approximately 10 years of age and confirmed that she was lactating. She is clearly a highly successful matriarch as although relatively old, she still retains her dominance within the clan and is capable of producing cubs – quite an achievement considering that one in ten first-time hyaena mothers die while giving birth.
Collaring the matriarch will allow for management to locate den sites, monitor individuals within the clan and determine the average birth rate of the population. With previous sightings of the clan having been scarce and irregular in the past, the improved ability to track and monitor the behaviour of these animals will better our understanding of their movement patterns as well as their interaction with the various biological elements within the enclosed Reserve.
It is exciting to play host to a small population of this interesting species. Although the management of these successful predators in a herbivore-driven ecosystem will prove challenging, we are confident that we are on the right track. I am sure everyone is excited to hear the characteristic howl of the hyaena as an addition to the evening symphony of the bushveld.