African Journal of Ecology


A confirmed sighting of brown hyaena, Parahyaena brunnea (Thunburg, 1820) in an extirpated area of the Western Cape, South Africa

Amanda HallHarriet ThatcherFirst published: 12 July 2021


The brown hyaena (Parahyaena brunnea) (Thunberg, 1820) is a medium-sized carnivore and one of the three hyaenid species to historically occur in the Western Cape, South Africa (Hofer & Mills, 1998). It is endemic to southern Africa, occurring in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe (Boshoff et al., 2016; Yarnell et al., 2016). Within South Africa, highest population densities remain in the North-West (Thorn et al., 2011), Limpopo, Gauteng, Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga provinces, with the smallest numbers residing in the Western Cape (Friedmann & Daly, 2004; Richmond-Coggan, 2014).

Brown hyaenas were once distributed throughout the Western Cape, which is part of the former Cape Province (Figure 1) (Stuart et al., 1985). The decline in species distribution coincided with the European settlement in the 18th century and originated within the Table Bay area (Stuart et al., 1985; Yarnell et al., 2016). By 1985, brown hyaenas were present in 25% of their original range within the Western Cape (Boshoff & Kerley, 2001; Stuart et al., 1985). By 1989, brown hyaenas were no longer considered present in the southern part of the Cape Province (Yarnell et al., 2016) and were only found in the Cape Province, north of the Orange River (Stuart et al., 1985) (Figure 1). Based on the extirpation estimates, the species was no longer found in the greater Mossel Bay area of the Western Cape by 1900 (Stuart et al., 1985).

FIGURE 1Open in figure viewerPowerPointWestern Cape Province with municipal references, approximate sightings, and reserves with confirmed Brown Hyaena. Insert map shows South African provincial and national borders, Cape Province and the location of the Orange River

The historical extent of brown hyaena distribution in the Western Cape is poorly documented with few literary records (Boshoff & Kerley, 2001; Boshoff et al., 2016; Hofer & Mills, 1998; Skead et al., 2011; Stuart et al., 1985). Ambiguous records exist due to lack of differentiation between the three possible Hyaenidae species: brown hyaena (Hyaena brunnea), spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) and Aardwolf (Proteles cristata) (East & Hofer, 1998). Records are also limited by the brown hyaenas quiet, secretive nature, low-density populations and the large range of dispersing individuals (Boshoff et al., 2016; Skead et al., 2011; Stuart et al., 1985). These factors suggest that brown hyaenas may have been more widespread than historically documented (Boshoff et al., 2016) creating an inaccurate historical record of the species within the Western Cape.

The recent distribution of brown hyaenas in the Western Cape is limited, possibly due to the lack of records and systematic surveys (Yarnell et al., 2016). The nearest documented population to the sightings in this record are at Sanbona Game Reserve and Anysberg Nature Reserve, approximately 130 kilometres north-west of the present sightings (Figure 1). This population is comprised of naturally occurring and introduced brown hyaenas that move in and out of the reserves (pers. comm., Sanbona Game Reserve Wildlife Ecologist, P. Swanpoel, 2020; Yarnell et al., 2016). Sightings of brown hyaena have also been made in Gansbaai and Bredasdorp (Figure 1) (Hofer & Mills, 1998) suggesting potential recolonisation in an extirpated area (Yarnell et al., 2016). However, it is possible that the species was simply not observed. Local community farmers in the greater Mossel Bay area have also provided two additional images of brown hyaena to the Gondwana Game Reserve Wildlife Manager over the past 4 years (pers. comm., Gondwana Game Reserve Wildlife Manager, J. Berry, 2020). One instance outside of Albertinia, approximately 35 kilometres south-west of our report and one north of Herbertsdale, 30 kilometres north-west of our report (Figure 1). Based on these reports, it is likely that additional unreported individuals are present. Here, we report a confirmed sighting of brown hyaena outside of Mossel Bay, Western Cape and discuss how this improves our understanding of brown hyaena species distribution and conservation.


Gondwana Game Reserve (GGR) (−34.090471S, 21.910975E) is separated from neighbouring farms by a 2.4-metre electric game fence. Lions (Panthera leo) have been introduced while caracal (Caracal caracal) and black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) naturally occur. Leopard (Panthera pardus) tracks have previously been documented on the reserve, but no trail camera or direction observations have been noted.

Twenty-three trail cameras of various makes were deployed on GGR between 2017 and 2019 for opportunistic wildlife detection and were analysed without fixed schedule (Figure 2).

FIGURE 2Open in figure viewerPowerPointLocation of all 23 trail camera traps on Gondwana Game Reserve, squares represent trail cameras with brown hyaena sightings and circles represent trail cameras without brown hyaena sightings


Between 9 July and 7 August 2020 (29 nights) brown hyaena images were captured at three different trail camera locations for a total of 9 instances (Table 1 and Figure 2). Each image showed a single brown hyaena. Due to poor visual of leg stripes, it is unknown if it is the same individual (Figure 3).TABLE 1. Trail camera trap locations and recorded brown hyaena sightings within Gondwana Game Reserve (1 July and 10 August 2020)

Trail Camera IDGPS LocationDate of SightingTime of Sighting
Trail Camera 1−34.04834S 21.92430E16 July 202000:29
Trail Camera 2−34. 03754S 21.88217E9 July 202023:24
14 July 202022:54
24 July 202020:40
28 July 20202:38
6 August 202021:39
Trail Camera 7−34. 02573S 21.85292E24 July 20203:46
24 July 202019:29
30 July 202019:42
FIGURE 3Open in figure viewerPowerPointA brown hyaena travelling East at 2:38 on 28 July 2020. Captured by Trail Camera 2 on Gondwana Game Reserve

The individual occurred independently as brown hyaenas were not introduced to GGR but it remains unknown if the individual is transient or resident. The unreported sightings outside of Herbertsdale and Albertinia as well as the sightings within this report support the potential regular or semiregular presence of brown hyaena in the region. It remains possible that the reported individual originates from the reintroduced Sanbona/Anysberg population or as part of an undocumented clan surviving in the area. Without additional data, the lack of clarity in historical distribution knowledge leaves room for interpretation of brown hyaena presence in the Mossel Bay area.

These sightings represent the first official report of brown hyaena in the Mossel Bay area. Brown hyaena plays an important role in ecosystem functioning (Yarnell et al., 2016) and can be economically valuable for tourism (Bowler, 1991; Kruuk, 1998). Further understanding of species distribution is instrumental for both population and ecosystem-level conservation management. The occurrence of brown hyaena where they had been thought to be extirpated expands our knowledge of their distribution and supports the utilisation of trail camera bycatch as a population study method (Williams et al., 2021). However, the limited sightings and information on brown hyaena in the area raise many further questions about the species distribution and history. We suggest increased reporting of opportunistic sightings and further research to improve the knowledge on the distribution of species in the Western Cape.


The authors would like to thank Mark Rutherford for allowing us to conduct our research within Gondwana Game Reserve and Jono Berry for providing data from Gondwana’s Trail Cameras. We would also like to thank Nkonzo Wildlife Research for their support and financial funding during this project and Arno Smit for his notes on the draft. Permissions and approval for trail camera deployment were provided by reserve management.

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