HYENAS: man-made predators

The past three decades have seen hyenas transforming from scavengers into predators, a change which has impacted enormously on predator populations in Africa’s major game regions.

The past three decades have seen hyenas transforming from scavengers into predators, a change which has impacted enormously on predator populations in Africa’s major game regions. According to Steve Pope of Chipembere Safaris in Zimbabwe, this can be attributed to human intervention. Roelof Bezuidenhout highlights some interesting points he makes in an article published in the African Indaba online newsletter.

SINCE THE 1970s THERE HAVE been some dramatic animal population fluctuations in world-renowned game regions, including predator population crashes, brief explosions of prey numbers and the unnatural establishment of hyena packs, where the latter have changed their habit from scavenging to predation and thereby profoundly affected predator and prey populations.” This is ¬according to Steve Pope of Chipembere Safaris. ”The events are a direct result of human influence through culling, poaching, hunting and food made available to animals from camps,” he claims.

Pope’s views seem to be in line with ecologists who continually warn ¬farmers and game ranchers not to “feed” their black-backed jackals by leaving carrion in the veld. The more food they get, the better they breed. For example, Pope mentions that the hyena population in the Wankie National Park in Zimbabwe has increased significantly due to massive culling of impala, wildebeest and elephant. The hyenas have become completely fearless of humans, and even of lions.
Events in the Zambezi Valley in ¬Zimbabwe provide further evidence that human influence has led to an increase in hyena numbers. “In 1984, when 4 000 elephants were culled, a meat contractor, having processed what he could from the average 14,7 shot every day, left hundreds of kilograms as an unnatural, abundant food supply for the hyenas. This supply was augmented by canoe safaris leaving litter, by hyenas thieving meat from unwary campers, and by the feeding of hyenas for photographic purposes,” Pope explains. The sight of predators feeding or hunting is after all what attracts the tourists.
Pope concedes that lions had also benefited from the elephant cull. But he points out that, given their social behaviour, ¬abundant food equals cub survival while poor food supply equals cub mortality. So, when hyenas aggressively deprive lions of their kills, lion cub deaths increase and the population crashes.
“By 1990 the hyenas were so numerous that they had become self-subsisting. Adopting the tactics of African wild dogs, they could now hunt for themselves and could drive a pride of lion off a fresh kill. Hyena cubs, raised in dens, were protected from lions, whereas the greater number of hyenas made it more difficult for lionesses to protect and feed their cubs,” he says.
The concept of hyena has undergone a radical change. Pope mentions that a documentary made in the Savuti region of Botswana shows spotted hyenas attacking a large pride of lions and depriving them of their kill. The filmmakers were, in effect, claiming that lions and hyenas are eternal enemies, and that the hyenas are super predators. What has happened to the notion that hyenas are in fact scavengers? There was a time when no hyena would dare approach until the lion had satisfied its hunger and left the kill.

Another film shows a hunting party shooting a zebra and removing the skin for trophy, leaving the entire carcass for scavengers. It then blames the decline in zebra numbers from 48 000 to 7 000 between 1981 and 1991 on poachers. It seems far more likely that hyena packs, established on hunted and abandoned zebra carcasses, are responsible.
“How long is it going to be before logic prevails and effective conservation of Africa’s true predators begins?” Pope asks. He believes that it will not be enough to merely stop feeding hyenas by controlling culling, poaching and hunting, or by getting safari camps to stop feeding them leftovers. Pope maintains that hyena numbers need to be reduced because populations of prey species and other ¬predators have been under increasing threat. They will recover within time – but only if hyenas are returned to their original scavenging role through controlled hunting or culling.
Source: African Indaba online ¬Newsletter 8. “Hyena: Scavenger or Predator? The Human Influence on Hyena and Lion” by Steve Pope. |fw

Hyenas are the original carrion feeders – they are well built for the job and highly efficient. Documentaries now ¬portray them as predators rather than scavengers.

Due to the dramatic increase in hyena numbers over the past three decades, lion populations are under major threat, and their safety and food supplies have been jeopardised.