Hyenas have a bad rap—but they’re Africa’s most successful predator

The most successful hunter in all of Africa is intelligent and loving, forming intricate social bonds that rival those of primates. Cubs of the alpha female inherit the rank immediately below hers, similar to a monarchy.

The king of the jungle, you might say? Nope. We’re talking about the hyena.

Long misunderstood as dim-witted, gluttonous scavengers with a demonic laugh, the hyena has a “serious PR crisis on its paws,” says Arjun Dheer, a Ph.D. student at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, who studies spotted hyenas in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater.

“The visceral reaction any time I tell someone I’m working with hyenas is, Ew gross, why?”

That’s because centuries of literature and traditional folklore—often featuring stories of witchcraft, grave-digging, and sexual deviance—have cemented a “deep-rooted disgust for the hyena in the human psyche,” he says.

Aristotle described the hyena as “exceedingly fond of putrefied flesh.” Hemingway labeled the animal a “hermaphroditic self-eating devourer of the dead.” And Roosevelt called it a “singular mixture of abject cowardice and the utmost ferocity,” according to a 1995 study on the hyena’s status throughout history. Pliny the Elder, an ancient Roman author, wrote that hyenas can magically freeze other animals in place.

With such an unsavoury history, it’s no surprise pop culture depictions of hyenas have followed suit. The all-new movie, The Lion King, which Disney releases July 19, again portrays a trio of spotted hyenas as evil sidekicks of the villain Scar. (The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners.)

Though spotted hyenas of East and southern Africa are the most commonly maligned, the four species are often lumped together as one. The brown hyena, the rarest species, is native to southern Africa; aardwolves are monogamous insect-eaters found in East and southern Africa; and striped hyenas, the smallest and least-studied species, live in fragmented populations across Asia and northern Africa.

Mostly, it’s fear and lack of understanding of these hyenas, coupled with their unusual appearance and scavenging tendencies, that have spawned so many negative stereotypes, says Dheer.

But, he says, it’s time to set the record straight.

Myth: Hyenas are stupid.

The Lion King’s hyena trio, Shenzi, Banzai and Ed lurk in the shadows of the elephant graveyard. Ed is dim-witted, with unfocused eyes and a floppy tongue, and he gnaws on his own flesh. Under Scar’s leadership, the hyenas contribute to the collapse of the entire Pride Rock ecosystem.

In reality, these apex predators are critical to controlling prey populations and preventing the spread of disease, particularly by eating every last bit of an animal, Dheer says.

Spotted and brown hyenas live in tight-knit clans that are led by an alpha—often a female—and include lower-ranking females, males, and young. Clan size depends mostly on prey availability, ranging from 10 members in some desert-dwelling clans to around 120 animals at the resource-rich Ngorongoro and Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, Dheer says.

Such large and complicated groups make spotted hyenas “the most socially complex carnivores in the world,” Dheer adds. (Watch wild dogs and hyenas face off after a kill.)

“You couldn’t maintain all these social bonds if you weren’t intelligent,” adds Ingrid Wiesel, founder of the Brown Hyena Research Project, who studies brown hyenas in coastal Namibia.

For instance, after she captured and radio-collared a brown hyena at her study site, it took her another six years to catch another.

“They outsmart you every time,” she says.

Read more about the myths and misconceptions around the hyena here: National Geographic