Scavenger Stories: The Brown Hyena
The brown hyena – also known as the ‘strandwolf’ (hyaena brunnea) is the rarest of the hyena species, found across Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. As you move down through Southern Africa, the brown hyena becomes more prevalent – rivalling the spotted hyena in size and bearing a rather more shaggy, dog-like appearance. It is a tantalisingly elusive creature that moves mostly under the cover of darkness and can be found in almost all types of habitats, scavenging and hunting a wide variety of food sources. They have been listed as near threatened since 2005 with an estimated population under 8,000 individuals.
Learn more about these intriguing creatures in our blog post below.
Brown hyenas are prominent in the Kalahari and Namib Deserts, thanks to there being fewer large predators such as lions, hyenas and African wild dogs to compete with. The name ‘strandwolf’ was coined along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia and means ‘beach dog’, referring to the scavenging they do of abandoned seal pups and dead seals along the treacherous shoreline.
The ‘strandwolf’ is distinguishable by its shaggy brown coat, pointed ears and slanting back. Adults have a cream coloured fur ruff around their necks and like the spotted hyena, they have incredibly strong jaws – a week old cub can crack the leg bone of a medium-sized antelope! This allows them to get to the rich marrow inside – important for survival in harsh climates.
Brown hyena are fascinating in the commitment and consistency they have to their daily routines. Although shy and seldom seen, brown hyena are very active animals and we most often happen upon signs of their nighttime activity on early morning game drives.
The sandy roads which criss-cross Madikwe leave tell-tale signs of their territorial patrols and nightly forages for food – especially noticeable following the rains. Amazingly, brown hyenas are able to travel up to 30km a night in search of food!
We are able to tell their tracks apart from their spotted hyena cousins by their long shaggy hair which leaves its own mark. Brown hyena’s have hair covering their feet like furry socks and these can be picked up as fine brush marks around their tracks made in the soft sand.
Long believed to be solitary animals as brown hyena are almost always spotted alone in the veld – these fascinating carnivores have one of the most advanced social systems in the animal kingdom. They will head away from the den to forage alone and are known to cache food from other predators close to carcasses of old kills. It’s not uncommon to see them return to their den site with a stash of food – usually a meaty bone or something similar to tuck away for a rainy day.
Although regarded as one of the larger predators in the carnivore hierarchy of Southern Africa, brown hyena seldom predate on large game and according to one study, kills form under 10% of their total diet. Being incredibly resourceful animals, brown hyenas in desert locations will feed on ostrich eggs or even desert melons to survive.
When it comes to other animals, brown hyena will keep a respectful distance from lion, but have little regard for leopard or cheetah if encountered in the bush. During confrontations, they will lift their long brown mane and fluff out their neck in order to look larger and more intimidating. These characteristics are often damaged or torn off during territorial fights.
Seldom Seen or Heard
Unlike their vocal spotted hyena cousins, you are very unlikely to hear a brown hyena making much noise in the bush. Small squeaks, grunts or growls can be heard when very close to them – and these noises are usually reserved to communicate with related clan members or to warn other rival clan members who have ventured into their territory.
Although vocalisations aren’t their thing, the advanced social structure of brown hyenas entails an elaborate system of olfactory communication – i.e. scent marking. Brown hyenas scent mark with a greasy, smelly anal-sac secretion as well as the use of dung middens, to indicate territoriality of an area. Would you believe individuals will stop every 300-400m to paste this secretion onto grass stems or bushes on foraging or territorial missions.
Brown hyena have been listed as near threatened since 2005 with an estimated population of 5,070 – 8,000. Population estimates are difficult to accurately establish as brown hyena remain one of the least studied carnivores in Africa. Their social organisation and relatedness adds to the difficulty.
While spotting a brown hyena might require a stroke of luck, they are seen now and again on game drive from Madikwe Hills and a chance encounter is an unforgettable experience. Hosting three of Africa’s four hyena species (the fourth being the striped hyena – found in East Africa), Madikwe Game Reserve stands as a testament to South Africa’s commitment to biodiversity and conservation. The dry season from May to August is considered the best time to see hyena in Madikwe, as the sparse vegetation increases visibility.
Book your stay
Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa’s North-West Province is an excellent destination to search for brown hyena in the wild. Twice daily game drives with expert guides who know the terrain intimately offer the best chance of seeing brown hyena on safari. Be sure to communicate your wishlists with our guiding team and they will do everything in their power to help you tick off your bucket list sightings.
We look forward to welcoming you to Madikwe Hills!