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Honeyguide Newsletters: Winter 2000/2001

About Africa

Reflecting on the joys of the day and anticipating the adventures of tomorrow.

The Honeyguide: Winter 2000/2001
The Spotted Hyena - Freaky Facts & Folklore

There are several species in the hyena family. Yet, the largest, most familiar and strangest species is the spotted hyena. The hyena's nocturnal 'laughter,' slopping gait and bizarre anatomy have also made it the center of local folklore and superstitions.

The hyena is the unknowing victim of widespread misconceptions. A common portrait of the creature is of a lurking, mischievous, giggling and dirty-scavenging dog. First of all, the hyena is more closely related to cats than dogs, with their closest relative being the mongoose. The laughter sound made by hyenas is not an exclamation of humor or mischief. It is actually a sound of fear made when the hyena is being chased. Yes, like many sub-Saharan carnivores, the hyena does scavenge, but it kills it's own prey more than it scavenges. In fact, lions scavenge more than hyenas! Yet, the hyena is a far more efficient scavenger. The hyena digests almost all parts of its prey, including bones, horns, hooves and teeth, within 24 hours. The bones in their diet give their droppings a chalky white color.

Perhaps, the most remarkable aspects of this species can be found in the female. The female spotted hyena is dominant to, and much larger than, the male. Females are dominant at kills and lead pack hunts, boundary patrols and battles. There is not much sisterly-love in a clan, for females viciously fight each other for higher rank. In fact, sister cubs frequently kill each other. The offspring of high-ranking females get special perks: they are the first cubs to eat at kills, they are feared by adult males and cubs of lower-ranking females, and they are the last to be kicked out of the den. Furthermore, the large, elongated genitalia of a female spotted hyena is visually almost identical to the male. This gives rise to difficult labor and a high newborn death rate. Due to the similarity in male and female genitalia, many local and old European stories and beliefs state that the spotted hyena is homosexual.

Many cultures throughout Tanzania believe some witches can turn themselves into hyenas. The Wambugwe, who live in the savannahs of Tanzania, believe "every witch possesses one or more hyenas which are branded (invisibly to normal eyes) with his mark, and to which he refers as his 'night cattle.' Some people say that all hyenas are owned by witches -- that there are no free or wild hyenas... At regular intervals, all witches of the land ride their hyenas to a prearranged place in the forest for a saturnalian gathering, where they boast of their evil deeds and perform obscene rites." (Robert F. Gray, in Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa.) Supposedly the hyenas live and bear their young in the houses of witches, and the owner milks them once a day. It is dangerous to kill a hyena, for if its owner finds out he will kill the hunter with witchcraft. The spotted hyena is to East Africa what the black cat is in many North American and European countries.

About The Honeyguide

The Honeyguide - a monthly email newsletter - is named after the Greater Honey Guide, a bird that has developed the remarkable habit of leading tribespeople to wild bees' nests, with the promise of honeycomb and grubs once the humans have opened the nest and taken the honey. The complementary relationship shared by bird and human represents the newsletter's goal - to periodically lead readers to new and timely bits of information about East African wildlife, culture, and travel.

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