The hyaena is a shaggy, untidy and opportunistic carnivore with a distinctive, sloping back. It is a member of the dog family, weighing around 60kg (males can be heavier) and standing at about 80cm at the shoulder.
Almost all hyaenas in Kruger are the spotted hyaena. They are found throughout Kruger and the best places to see them are south-west Okavango, Savuti and Linyanti. The brown hyaena found in southern Africa's more arid environments.
The spotted hyaena hunts and scavenges by night and is closely connected in African folklore with the supernatural world. Anyone who has heard the sound of hyaenas in full cry around midnight would understand the animal's association with the dark arts.
As a general rule, hyaenas hunt more when they are the dominant carnivores in any particular habitat and tend towards scavenging when there are lots of other predators around. They are chancers of note, often taking great risks to snatch meat away from lions, and often being mauled to death in the process.
Unlike the honest, authoritarian roar of the lion which resonates with purity and strength, the "laughing" hyaena's utterances are hysterical and mocking, an eerie human-like giggling shriek that would not be out of place in a mental asylum. It's body parts command a premium price on the local muthi market, particularly the tail, ears, whiskers, lips and genitals.
Although hyaenas sometimes hunt alone, they mostly hunt in packs. They have an almost uncanny ability to seek out the most vulnerable animal in a herd and isolate it from the others. Hyaenas are designed for the long haul and, as Kruger mammal expert Heike Schutze says, "they are high-stamina hunters relentless in the pursuit of their prey once they have tasted blood".
Hyaenas are mostly social, living in clans of between 10 and 40 animals, led by a dominant female. Social structures can be quite loose, however, with clan members shifting allegiances, breaking up and reforming. They are territorial, marking their hunting ground through communal defecation. Their territories vary in size depending on the amount of prey in the vicinity as well as the number of competing clans. The territory itself is not vigorously defended, but hyaena clans will respond aggressively to other predators moving into their area.
Hyaenas are capable of short charges of up to 50km/h and can maintain a steady, fast pace in pursuing prey over several kilometres. Their prey usually succumbs to exhaustion and is pulled down and disembowelled by the pack. In packs, hyaena go for big game - wildebeest, zebra and kudu and, very occasionally, buffalo. When they hunt alone, they go for smaller animals such as baboons, guinea fowls, ostriches, snakes and tortoises.
There is no love lost between lions and hyaenas. Each will attack and kill the other's cubs, or elderly or sick individuals. Hyaenas seem far less intimidated by lionesses than by lions, and are occasionally bold enough to try to bully lionesses off a kill if there are no males around.
Hyaenas are known for their cunning. They reputedly watch the skies for circling vultures to help them locate kills.
They follow the path of least resistance in getting food and, as a result, have become quite ingenious - they've been seen trying to scoop out fish at drying water holes during times of drought.
Spotted hyaenas have the reputation of being scavengers, but studies have shown that, in Kruger, they tend to hunt more than they steal. Indeed, they are the second major group of predators in the Park after lion, probably accounting for more animal kills than leopard and cheetah combined.
Hyaenas have tremendously powerful jaws, capable of crushing the thigh bone of a buffalo in one movement. If they are hungry, they will gorge themselves, eating up to a third of their own weight (15kg) at a single sitting!
Read more about Kruger's Big Predators