Text and images by Christof Schoeman
Hyenas and lions have always been age old foes!
Although they are enemies, their lives are closely intertwined on the savannah. Hyenas are scavengers – and opportunistic hunters – and they like to eat very similar prey species to lions. Clans of hyenas often encounter lions on a fresh kill, and we often encounter epic battles when the big cats try to overwhelm the smaller but more numerous hyenas.
There is no doubt about it: a single hyena attempting to chase off a lion from a kill would end badly for the hyena. But when large clans of hungry hyenas get together, they can be a formidable force against lions.
We have had the privilege of witnessing many of these raw and primal clashes in the Manyeleti. The eerie woops of the hyenas mingled with the growls and roars of the lions echoing in the night can be a frightening, yet magical thing to see and hear.
One of our rangers, Christof Schoeman, has put together a collection of some of the most amazing clashes we have seen.
This image was taken a while back when the Red Road male lion attempted to a hunt the Zebra in the background. Before he launched his attack, there were many hyenas in the area. It shows how opportunistic these scavengers are. They will persistently follow the predators to see if they can get a piece of the cake. The young lion ended up turning back towards his pride with his tail between his legs.
This image was taken on a morning drive where a female giraffe was fighting off hyenas from her calves carcass. The hyenas kept on persisting until the Giraffe finally gave up. Because of the excitement and vocalisations from the hyenas, a close by pride of lions (Birmingham Pride) was attracted by the skirmish. In the end, the hyenas held their ground and pushed of the lionesses and the giraffe from the carcass, displaying strength in numbers.
When hyenas start to arrive at a carcass where predators are feeding, they watch carefully for any sign of vulnerability and weaknesses. They will keep their distance until more hyenas arrive. As the numbers grow, their confidence grows. In this sighting, a huge lioness was still feeding on the remains of a buff. Her pride left to the nearest waterhole and took a nap there. The hyenas completely underestimated the lone lioness and two of the scavengers became to bold and pushed their luck, because of this, one of them were mauled but survived to tell the tale.
Seeking out weaknesses. In this sighting, Manorhouse Pan, a lone and injured Mbiri lioness, is watched by a clan of hyenas. During the night, we heard the noises uttered from the skirmish. Clear sounds of a lioness fighting for her life echoed through the night. The next morning we found her in the same area badly bashed up with a deep gash beneath her upper tail. She was fortunate to survive the night.
On game drive, we instinctively keep a watchful eye on the tree tops for any sign of vultures. Its general knowledge that when two or more different species of vultures sits on a tree, you can be guaranteed to find some sort of carcass below. The scavengers will follow the predators on a daily basis, either from the sky or on the ground. Lions or leopard are usually being watched. Lions will also follow the distant cries of hyena and vultures descending onto a carcass.
Amazingly, the red road lioness lost her patience and charged after one of the hyenas that came to close. The charge, chase and mauling took only five seconds, but felt like an eternity. The fight attracted more hyenas, and of course another lioness not far off. The lioness eventually left the carcass due to a full belly, and also because of the irritation built up by the noisy presence of the hyenas. The constant whoops and wild cackling for which they earned the common name of ‘laughing’ will drive of predators. This is especially true when hyenas are bunched up and stick together as a unit or when encircling the predator. This constant noise that comes from all directions, will make the predator feel overwhelmed and most of the time, they will abandon the carcass.
More than a year ago, we found one of the older Mbiri males up at sky beds dam in very bad shape by himself. It’s amazing to note that lions in these circumstances will become scavengers themselves when they know that hunting a big and strong bovine is out of the equation.
Due to injuries and a lack of energy, they are left with no other option then to switch from the role as predator to scavenger, and this they will do in a heartbeat. Young nomads like this male will remain silent when moving through territories of other male lions in order to remain undetected. If discovered, it may lead to certain death. I’ve noted that the 10 year old Giraffe males that’s in bad shape and not able to hunt like in their younger days, will remain still in areas where lionesses have cubs without pride males. The moment they hear the distress calls of an animal that’s being killed or the frantic calls of hyenas.
They will follow up. When they arrive in that area, they mimic the behaviour of the hyenas and scan the situation quietly from a distance- merely to see if there are any signs of pride males. If not, they will vocalise and scare of the lionesses, cubs, and surrounding scavengers with a powerful roar and move in to take over the carcass , scavenging the kill. These older and experienced males know that the hunting success rate of lionesses with cubs are much higher than their own hunting abilities and they take full advantage of this.
Back to the sighting. This boy saw an opportunity to steal a wildebeest kill that the hyenas had made! This could’ve been a wildebeest with a broken leg, and hyenas were lucky enough to be the first to arrive on the scene. They, in turn, then switched from primary scavengers to becoming predators themselves and killed the wildebeest collectively. Per coincidence, this 4 year old male lion was close by. Out of desperation he moved in. Firstly, he watched from a distance and noticed that there were only hyenas on the carcass, about 12 of them.
Hyenas in general are extremely scared of male lions and not so much lionesses. He finally decided to move in and take over the carcass. At first glance, the hyenas ran off merely because of the intimidation factor and the Mbiri male moved in without a hassle and started feeding. Not long after, the hyenas returned. They moved in ever so slightly to investigate the situation and saw that there was in fact only one male lion – which was his first sign of weakness. They moved closer and intensified their whoops and cackling, but the nomad wasn’t fazed by it. He was driven by hunger.