Talking Humanities (UK – University of London)

7 January 2020


Hyenas get a bad press. But they’ve found a champion in Professor Keith Somerville, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and fellow of the Zoological Society of London, who is on a mission to clean up their image.

Watching the BBC’s blue-chip natural history programme Seven Worlds One Planet on 8 December, was a breath of fresh air in the murky atmosphere that surrounds the four species of hyenas. The programme, which showed a brown hyena living in an abandoned diamond mine in Namibia, was accurate, empathetic and fascinating, presenting the animal as a conscientious parent that had brought up nine generations of cubs. Superb filming and a lack of sensationalism gave an insight into the strenuous foraging for food and the huge distances travelled by hyenas in an arid area. It will have endeared a frequently maligned species to millions of viewers.

This portrayal is in stark contrast to the usual depiction in wildlife documentaries, media reporting and movies. Just think of the skulking, evil, cowardly and contemptuous characterisation of Shenzi, Banzai and Ed in the cartoon version of 1994 version of the Lion King and the more recent reimagining and renaming in the 2019 edition of the film.

Loosely based on spotted hyenas of sub-Saharan Africa, they are out and out villains, totally evil, cowardly and aggressive. They are the allies of the evil uncle of the future lion king, Scar, and said to have wiped out all life in the land in which they live.

Anti-crime adverts in the UK present hyenas as evil thieves, and in the BBC’s 2018 Dynasties series they are a gang of thugs threatening the survival of the lion pride. But is this what hyenas are in reality? And how has this demonic and contemptuous image developed?


The real hyenas

There are now four species of hyenas left out of the more than 100 that have been identified from fossils dating back millions of years in some cases. The best known – and the villains in the Lion King and Dynasties – is the spotted hyena (Crocuta Crocuta) which is found in Africa from the Sahel south in areas of savanna, open woodland and even forest (except for the dense rainforest of West and Central Africa. The IUCN Red List of Species estimate there are between 27,000 and 47,000 remaining and they are not believed to be vulnerable, even though habitat loss and conflict with humans and their livestock takes a toll. They are hunters, but also scavenge for food.

Figure 2 Young spotted hyena, Damaraland, Namibia, © Keith Somerville

The brown hyena (Parahyaena brunnea) seen in the BBC documentary lives in desert and semi-desert regions of southern Africa. They are chiefly scavengers of carcasses from lion, cheetah and leopard kills but also kill small mammals like springhares, aardvarks as well as reptiles and insects; they also eat tsamma melons and other wild-growing fruit and vegetable matter. There are approximately 10,000 in the wild and are labelled as ‘near threatened’.

The striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) is also labelled ‘near threatened. Found across the Middle East, parts of central Asia and into Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and west into North Africa and East Africa, it was vilified in the recent Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle movies. For some reason the filmmakers converted Tabaqiu the Jackal (of Kipling’s Jungle Book) into a snivelling, dirty and fly-ridden striped hyena who trails around as the servant of the tiger Shere Khan. The striped hyena is mainly a scavenger but like the brown hyena hunts small mammals and eats vegetables, often raiding melon crops. There are believed to be 5-10,000 remaining.

The fourth species is the aardwolf (Proteles cristata) of eastern and southern Africa. It lives almost entirely on Trinervitermes termites and have fragmented populations in areas where the insect is common. They may eat small mammals, reptiles, insects and birds’ eggs. The IUCN does not give any reliable estimate of numbers, but they are recorded as of ‘least concern’.

But why are hyenas so despised and persecuted? The reasons are complex and vary to an extent from region to region where they occur. One simple reason for the spotted hyena is its range of vocalisation (howls, whoops, snarls and an almost insane giggling). Many people in their current and historical range, which spread up into North Africa and West Asia, believed hyenas could imitate human voices to lure them from safety into attacks by hyena packs that in some parts of East Africa can be as large as 100 animals. They were blamed, and still are with some justification, for attacks on livestock and even people. When I lived in Malawi in 1981-2, there were fairly regular press reports of hyenas attacking humans at night in the open.

Scavenging by three of the species (aardwolves excepted) gained them the reputation of being dirty eaters of carrion, human waste and simply rubbish. They were also hated for eating the corpses of dead humans, which does occur in cultures where the dead are left out in the open or buried in shallow graves. However, in these cultures, it is expected that hyenas will clean up the corpses, but it still gets them a bad name. In the Middle East, striped hyenas have been recorded digging up graves.  The link with grave-robbing or eating human remains has added to the horror with which they are viewed.

In some parts of the spotted and striped hyenas’ ranges, body parts of the animals may be used in charms, fetishes or traditional medicines. In southern Africa, in particular, hyenas were associated with witchcraft and were said to be the familiars of witches and the steeds for them and for the fabled ape-like monster, the tokoloshe.

The reality of hyenas

They are not dirty, skulking creatures but nature’s recyclers – cleaning up infected carcasses and waste – and are accomplished and skilled hunters. Scientists like Hans Kruuk, Laurence Frank and Kay Holekamp have recorded them killing more of their own food than do lions. Often when lions and hyenas compete over a carcass, it is not hyenas scavenging, but the lions trying to steal a kill. Hyenas are fascinating, intelligent, complex and communal animals worthy of study and respect.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent where he teaches at the Centre for Journalism. His book, Humans and Lions. Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence, was published in July 2019, and he is now working on one entitled Humans and Hyenas. Monsters of Misunderstood.