South Africa's Brown Hyaenas
The brown hyaena (Hyaena brunnea) shares features in common with the three other members of this family, including long forelegs and shorter hind legs that create the characteristic sloping back. It can be identified by its long dark coat and pointed ears.
This species inhabits the South West Arid Zone of Africa, with the largest populations in the southern Kalahari and coastal areas of southwest Africa. It is listed as Rare in the Red Data Book of South Africa and classified as Lower Risk: Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species because of its low population size (less than 8,000 individuals) and the deliberate persecution it faces as a result of the widespread but largely mistaken belief that this species kills domestic livestock. Trapping, poisoning and hunting are all threats for this reason.
Hyaenas are generally much-maligned animals and the subject of folklore and superstition. However, the hyaena is an intelligent animal, largely a nocturnal scavenger of carrion, but also eats insects, eggs and fruit and occasionally kills small animals. Its very strong jaws and teeth enable it to crush the bones of most vertebrates to access nutritious bone marrow.
In South Africa, the larger spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) has been introduced to many protected areas. This species out-competes the brown hyaena, which is thought to be declining in most protected sites as a result. Many brown hyaena populations in South Africa occur outside protected areas, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that unprotected areas are essential for its future survival.
Lead scientist Dr. Dawn Scott has been coordinating the Earthwatch project South Africa's Brown Hyaenas since 2006 in the North West Province with in-country support and collaboration from North West Parks Board, Mankwe Game Reserve, the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria and a wide range of landowners. The project aims to shed light on the ecology and status of the species in the country. Previous data collected with the help of Earthwatch volunteers had highlighted that using play-back calls (‘call-ins') alone is not the most effective surveying technique for brown hyaena in areas where the species occurs in low densities. The team has therefore expanded this research objective to compare a range of survey techniques including playback recordings, latrine surveys, spotlighting and camera trapping. The ultimate aim of this work is to develop effective and accurate rapid assessment methods for brown hyaenas that can be used by other researchers.
The project also aims to assess and compare brown hyaena presence, abundance, density, diet and habitat use within areas of different levels of protection and land use, investigating habitat use and ranging behaviour. In April 2007 a male brown hyaena was tagged with a Global Positioning System (GPS) collar donated by WWF that automatically recorded the animal's location via satellites and transmitted the location via SMS to the researchers. The collar provided almost 1000 location fixes before the hyaena died on 2nd June 2007. Since then other individuals have been tagged.
The project has recently initiated genetic studies to investigate the consequences of isolation of populations of brown hyaena inside and outside of protected areas. The results will hopefully inform the project team if the viability of populations has been affected and if any conservation intervention is necessary to address this.
An important facet of the research project involves work in the local area to promote human-wildlife coexistence via training, educational support and publicity. The project helps to inform landowners of conservation issues and tackles misconceptions about the species. The project team are members of the IUCN hyaena specialist group and the results of this project will be used to inform population estimates and improve understanding of the threats the species faces in South Africa.
Join the expedition
The last few volunteer places are available on a November 2008 team and 2009 teams are recruiting now. Find out more about South Africa's Brown Hyaenas.
Although hyaenas superficially look like dogs, they are more closely related to cats. Their closest living relatives are the mongoose and the fosa, a mongoose-like carnivore found in Madagascar.
- A brown hyaena can smell a carcass from 2km away.
- Brown hyaena live in groups called ‘clans' of up to 13 individuals in some areas.
- Brown hyaenas do not ‘laugh'. This is generally a quiet species, but when territorial fights erupt the losing animal produces loud yelling and growling vocalisations.
There are four living species belonging to the hyaena family; striped hyaena (Hyaena hyaena), spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta), brown hyaena (Hyaena brunnea) and aardwolf (Proteles cristata).
The earliest fossil members of the hyaena family were found in France and date back 18 million years.
For more on hyaenas see:
IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Species Survival Committee Hyaena Specialist Group.