While anyone who has seen Disney’s The Lion King is familiar with the spotted hyena, they might be unfamiliar with their smaller cousins, the striped hyena. There are a lot of reasons for this. Known for their stripes, long mane, shaggy hair and big ears, striped hyenas are much more solitary and nocturnal than spotted hyenas. They are also significantly less studied and are one of the few large carnivores whose biology remains poorly understood. Striped hyenas are very rare in human care and Safari West is one of only a handful of institutions to house these animals in the United States. Here is some insight into the rare and misunderstood scavenger.
Shaggy, Striped Appearance
The smallest species of hyena, striped hyenas get their name from the black markings on their sides similar to a tiger’s stripes. Perhaps even more remarkable is the shaggy hair that covers almost all of their body. Striped hyenas have the ability to raise this crest of hair to appear much larger than they actually are. This serves as a defense mechanism when they feel threatened. While it is commonly assumed hyenas are related to dogs, their closest relatives are actually mongooses and meerkats.
A Wide Range
Striped hyenas are one of the few mammals found at Safari West whose native range extends outside of Africa. While they overlap with spotted hyenas in eastern Africa, their range extends north through northern Africa, and into the Middle East and India. In fact, they are one of the only carnivores that can be found living alongside lions in one part of their range, and tigers in another. Striped hyenas are no match to the larger and more powerful spotted hyenas and African lions so they tend to avoid the open plains they call home. They will often give up their food to spotted hyenas. Instead, striped hyenas favor woodlands and arid wastelands. Compared to other predators, striped hyenas can easily adapt to harsh conditions such as semideserts.
A Scavenger’s Life
Striped hyenas are primarily scavengers and will often eat mammal carcasses left over by lions, tigers, cheetahs, sloth bears and leopards. They have strong jaws adapted to crushing parts of the body other predators will not eat such as the hooves, horns, teeth and shallow bones. They can even eat entire bones in one bite! Unlike spotted hyenas, striped hyenas will usually hunt by themselves. Consequentially, they have less success taking down their own prey since they hunt alone. Luckily for them, as omnivores, they can also make a meal of fruits and vegetables like melons, cucumbers, and peaches. This has caused problems as they have developed a reputation for stealing these crops from farmers.
Not So Social
It is hard to completely understand the social structure of striped hyenas as they generally only leave their dens at night. For a long time, scientists believed striped hyenas to be strictly solitary since they forage alone. However, recent studies have found that they live in small clans in some areas. Unlike spotted hyenas, striped hyenas are monogamous animals who mate for life. Both males and females will establish the den and raise cubs. The male will even give the female food when she is giving birth to the cubs.
Not Your Typical Laughing Hyena
In contrast to the loud, “laughing” spotted hyenas, striped hyenas are usually mute. The only exception is the occasional chattering or howling sound. The only time striped hyenas will “laugh” is when they feel extremely frightened. In these circumstances, they will make a rapid, high-pitched chattering sound to show alarm. It is not a happy sound for them despite what popular culture might have you believe.
The Stigma of Striped Hyenas
As with all hyena species, mythology and folklore have been unkind to striped hyenas. Middle Eastern literature and folklore often use striped hyenas as symbols of treachery and stupidity. These stories have led to hyenas being feared and stigmatized in popular culture. This stigma extends into their African range as well. In Tanzania, for instance, some cultures claim witches use hyenas as mounts!
Human-wildlife conflict has also been an issue. Although striped hyenas rarely attack humans, they are often implicated in the killing of livestock and stealing crops. This has led to persecution and poisonings by farmers. As a consequence, farmers falsely see striped hyenas as grave robbers.
Scientists estimate only 4,000 to 5,000 striped hyenas remain. They are listed as Near Threatened. Striped hyenas live in endangered isolated populations throughout much of their range. Persecution by humans, shortage of carrion, illegal hunting for their skins and habitat loss all threaten striped hyenas. Fortunately, Safari West is working with conservation partners to help protect the habitats and range of striped hyenas. Among its partners are the Sahara Conservation Fund and Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania (the southern extremity of the striped hyena’s range.)
Why is this relevant to Sonoma County?
While we don’t have any wild striped hyenas in Sonoma County, we do have coyotes. Just as Tanzanians need to learn how to live alongside predators, so do we. We often mistakingly regard coyotes as a nuisance even when there is no evidence of damage or harm. Locals sometimes persecute these coyotes because of this misunderstanding. There are a number of ways you can proactively avoid conflict with coyotes and live harmoniously with them. One is to not let your pets run loose as, whether you know it or not, coyotes are probably around. Also, getting rid of food and water sources from your backyard is a simple but effective way to keep coyotes out of your yard. These simple but important actions enable Californians to live alongside coyotes just as African and Asian cultures can coexist with striped hyenas.
Striped hyenas are among the most mysterious and misunderstood but fascinating and magnificent creatures in the animal kingdom. Reserve a stay with us to meet them face to face at right here at Safari West!