On the Kapama Reserve there are a few different hyena dens, and in the evenings you can often hear their distant whooping laughs. Since I was a little girl I have found this sound eerie, and it still sends shivers down my spine.
I have always had a love-hate relationship with these animals. Although they are fascinating, they are also often the cause of injury to other predators. Recently a hyena attacked a cheetah we had released onto the reserve, and we had to take the animal back into the care of HESC’s veterinary hospital. But of course, this is Nature’s way.
Recently, I had a very special encounter with a hyena on my way home in the evening. I very rarely come across a hyena on its own, but in this instance I observed a more playful side of this often vilified creature. Being summer, the African sun can be scorching, even in the evenings. A hyena had decided to cool off in my grandfather’s old water trough outside of my home on the reserve. He stole a drink and then decided this was not enough, and he needed a full bath. He splashed around, biting at the water and just generally having a ‘whale’ of a time.
Eventually he got out, shook off the excess water, and wandered off nonchalantly back into the bush. This was not a moment too soon for an anxious giraffe in the vicinity, who relaxed noticeably upon seeing the back of the hyena. Her tiny calf was now safe, especially at this risky time of day when the sun goes down.
I knew I had watched a cheeky male at play. It is hard to tell the difference between male and female hyenas. Many people are under the impression that hyenas are hermaphrodites, due to certain physical and behavioural characteristics, but this is incorrect. The female’s genitalia resemble the male’s, but the reason for this is not known (It is thought that the external genitalia might be a show of equal strength if a female has to protect her pack, which happens often). It is still only the female hyena that can birth pups and take care of the young.
As adults, male spotted hyenas have distinct testes in their scrotal sacs which can be seen when he flicks his tail. By comparison, the pseudo-scrotum of the female contains only fat and connective tissue, such that its lobes are very small in comparison to the male’s testicles.
I enjoyed seeing the hyena in a different light, as it reminded me that all animals are beautiful and interesting in their own way, and can show us their true personality if we just take the time to watch.