Hyenas get a bad rep, often portrayed as stupid, cowardly scavengers that heckle and antagonize our heroes. And they're my favorite mammal

There are four living species of hyenas: 

  • Spotted
  • Brown 
  • Striped
  • Aardwolf

They're all part of the Hyaenidae family. There are two other extinct sub-families in the Hyaenidae tree and that's it

Hepestoidea we find the hyena's closest living cousins. Despite the common misconception, it's not felines or canines, it's mongooses

From there, they are part of the infraorder, Viverroidea which adds civets into the mix and then up to the suborder of Feliformia, which now includes cats

That puts cats and hyenas in close a relationship as humans are related to lemurs. We would have to go up another step to the order Carnivora before canines would join the party

It is the 5th smallest biological family in Carnivora. Despite their low diversity, hyenas are unique and vital components of most African ecosystems

This creates a distinctive family of creatures unlike any other that once roamed the world over. Let's get into it

Episode: File 0014: Cackling Megaloparrots

Release Date: January 29th 2021

Researched and presented by Cayla

Recommend 'Reading':

Biology and Morphology

Remember how I just told you that hyenas are not directly related to felines or canines and completely unique snowflakes? 

Good, because now I am going to tell you how they are the same

Hyenas physically look and act similarly to canines with several elements of convergent evolution. Convergent evolution describes the evolution of features that are very similar to other creatures that are not closely related.

A good example of this is bats and dolphins, what do they have in common?

Echolocation. While they evolved completely independently from each other, they experienced the same genetic mutation that resulted in unlocking the echolocation skill

More Convergence:

  • Both canines and hyenas are hunters designed to run and catch prey with their teeth rather than claws. Both eat food quickly or may hide it. They have large, blunt nonretractable claws made for running and sharp turns
  • But their grooming habits, scent marking, parental behavior have a lot more in common with felines. They also have rough tongues just like cats

And just to confuse you more, hyena babies are called cubs

Evolution and Origins

Hyenas today are mostly located throughout Africa, the middle east and India

Hyenas originated in the jungles of Eurasia 22 million years ago, which today would include Europe, Asia and Russia. While most feliform species were still very much into the trees, the first hyenas probably looked very similar to the modern African civet and thrived in grasslands

10-14 million years ago Hyenas would diversify into two distinct types: dog-like and bone-crushing.


The dog-like hyenas thrived for 15 million years with over 30 species and even making it as far as North America

These hyenas were lithe, wolfish animals, one species Ictitherium was very similar to the modern jackal.

The dog-like hyenas were prolific. in some fossil sites the remains of these creatures outnumber those of all other carnivores combined.

But 5-7 million years ago climate change and the arrival of canids into Eurasia did a number on the dog-like hyenas and most died off 1.5 million years ago. Today leaving only the one species: the aardwolf

The aardwolf can most likely attribute its survival due to its insectivorous diet which the canids had no interest in, so they had their termite mounds all to themselves


The bone crushers on the other hand (the other three members of the family) dominated Eurasia and Africa. They survived the changing climates and the canids, though they never made it to North America, they were content with their already existing kingdom

5 million years ago these hyenas became dominant scavengers in Eurasia, primarily feeding on large herbivore carcasses left by saber-toothed cats. One genus Paychcrocuta was a mega-scavenger that could splinter elephant bones and likely weighed over 400 lbs

The Striped Hyena:

Striped hyenas spent most their time in Africa, though there did later spread into Eurasia particularly in France and Germany, also visiting Portugal and Austria. They went and toured Asia when the spotted hyenas of the area went extinct at the end of the ice age.

The striped hyena of this time is suspected to look very similar to the modern version we have today, but a little bigger

Spotted Hyenas

10 million years ago the spotted diverged from the striped and brown hyenas.

Ancestral spotted hyenas are thought to have developed social behaviors in response to increased pressure from rivals for carcasses, thus forcing them to work in teams.

They developed sharp carnassial teeth behind their crushing premolars, that allowed them to add fresh meat to the menu by taking up pack hunting.

Joining the striped, the spotted encroached on Europe and Asia and expanded to include South Africa but fell back to Africa when trees become a hot item 11-14 thousand years ago. Grasslands were their favored terrain and the wolves and humans that came with the woodlands just made for too much competition

The Brown Hyena - AKA Strand Wolf

The rarest of modern hyenas, the brown hyena like its siblings spent some time in Europe while also visiting Spain

So in short, hyenas once ruled the world 

Skills to Pay the Bills

Hyena jaws:

  • The bone crushers have earned their name well, with the spotted hyena leading the pack in jaw strength, having been recorded to kill dogs in a single bite to the neck without breaking skin.
  • The spotted can exert pressure of 1140 lbs per square inch, 40% more than a leopard. Hyenas have been known to crack open giraffe bones measuring nearly 3 inches in diameter.
  • BFQ is a measurement of an animals bite force divided by their weight, the spotted hyenas rank at 125. The highest rated animal on the scale is the Tasmanian devil at 181. While the hyena is below African wild dogs and jaguars, they rate above tigers, cheetahs, lions, grey wolves, cougars and many other predators 
  • While Aardwolfs could do their share of damage, their skulls and teeth simply aren't designed for such destruction, termites rarely need such force


  • Hyenas mark their territories using their anal glands a trait found also in their badger and weasel cousins


  • When attacked by lions or dogs, striped and brown hyenas will feign death, though the spotted hyena will defend itself ferociously like the badasses they are


  • The spotted hyena is very vocal, producing a number of different sounds consisting of whoops, grunts, groans, lows, giggles, yells, growls, laughs and whines. 
  • The striped hyena is comparatively silent, its vocalizations being limited to a chattering laugh and howling

Sustenance Acquisition:

  • The striped hyena is primarily a scavenger, if it sees something it can take down it will, while supplementing its diet with fruit.
  • The spotted hyena though is primarily a pack hunter of medium to large sized ungulates, which it catches by wearing them down in long chases and dismembering them in a canid-like manner.
  • Hyenas are very efficient eaters: splintering bones and digesting them completely. Usually the only thing left after a hyena feast is hooves and horns. They don't just make the most of their meals, they're speedy and can eat at least 32 lbs of meat per meal. Hyenas can take less than 2 minutes to eat a gazelle fawn, while a group of 35 hyenas can completely consume an adult zebra in 36 mins 
  • Aside from their usual fair hyenas will also hunt fish, tortoises, black rhino, hippo calves, pangolins and pythons. There are even 4 records of them taking on an adult hippo. They've been even known to hunt the elusive automobile to consume their leather interiors and rubber tires 
  • While it's thought that hyenas are the ones that steal kills from lions, it's actually the other way around. If a clan doesn't think it can hold its ground against a pride of lions it will back off until they're finished. But if it's a group of lionesses and the hyenas outnumber 4:1 they can easily take them. But at the end of the day in some areas 71% of hyena deaths can be attributed to lions, who will sometimes attack hyenas for no apparent reason 
  • Hyenas will steal kills from cheetahs and leopards. Cheetahs put up little resistance, but leopards, particularly males may stand up to the hyenas. Hyenas are dangerous to the big cats, their bites can cause sepsis and there's even one record of two hyenas killing and eating a young leopard apparently as revenge after the leopard killed a young hyena.
  • The aardwolf is specialized for feeding on termites by licking them up with their long tongue. An aardwolf can eat 300,000 termites on a single outing


  • Hyenas are primarily nocturnal, mostly solitary animals, but sometimes venture from their lairs in the early-morning hours. With the exception of the spotted hyena who aren't scared of anything and usually live in groups called clans
  • Home ranges are defended using vocalizations, scent marking and boundary patrols. Clan boundaries are usually respected; hyenas chasing prey have been observed to stop dead in their tracks once their prey crosses into another clan's range. Hyenas will however ignore clan boundaries in times of food shortage.


  • Spotted hyenas are one of the few mammals other than bats known to survive rabies and have showed little or no disease-induced mortality during outbreaks in similar carnivores.


  • There is strong evidence to suggest convergent evolution of another kind: primate intelligence 
  • A study was done that demonstrated spotted hyenas outperform chimps in cooperative problem solving tests. Hyenas successfully worked together and learned the tricks quickly, despite no prior training. Experienced hyenas even helped less experienced clan-mates to solve the problem. In contrast chimps and other primates required extensive training and cooperation was hit or miss. 
  • Hyenas plan their hunting trips, determine ahead of time what specific species they're going to hunt and making preparations among the group and in their environment
  • Hyenas are also know how to deceive each other. Clans have been see giving alarm calls while feeding when no enemies are present, frightening off other hyenas so they can eat in peace. And mothers will do the same when trying to interrupt an attack on her cubs by another hyena 

Social Behavior and Reproduction

As mentioned before, Aardwolves*, Brown and Striped Hyenas are mostly independent, but spotted have remarkably complex clans, more unified than wolf packs and notedly similar to those of primates like baboons. And these clans aren't small, with records of populations up to 80 members. 

All members of a clan have a rank. Factors like reliability and dominance contributing to their position, but even more so are social bonds within the group, coalitions are even done, though coups are rare 

But the biggest factor is gender. Clans are matriarchal, with females being the dominant caste. The lowest ranking female is still considered above the highest ranking male. Rank is also hereditary, the daughters of high ranking females are subordinate to their mothers and rank above all females under her

This rank isn't just social status, but the higher ranking hyenas seem to have some biological advantages as well. They have longer telomeres, basically the hour glass of living creatures that determines how long your cells can divide before your DNA begins to deteriorate too much to continue, aka age. These hyenas therefore are healthier, live longer and reproduce more. It becomes a question of the chicken before the egg at this point

Clans usually revolve around a communal den. Often with many entrances there is usually at least one main chamber where the cubs and the high ranking females stay, the rest of the clan sleeps out and around the den. It's not uncommon to see over 20 cubs in one den 

*Update! While writing up this article I found this interesting anecdote :

They[Aardwolves] have often been mistaken for solitary animals. In fact, they live as monogamous pairs with their young >> Wikipedia


When I get to the folklore segment of this topic, you're going to notice a common thread: hyenas are perceived as hermaphrodites or asexual, and there's a reason for this

The female genitalia doesn't look like what you'd expect from a mammal. Instead they have a large clitoris shaped and positioned like a penis that is even capable of erection. Thus meaning if you want to identify a hyena by lifting the skirts you're going to have to get up real close. While females are bigger than males in every way, there's one place they aren't: their penises 

Due to this unique design, this makes non-consensual copulation impossible. The female has to voluntarily retract their penis at allow for intercourse

You'd never imagine this was the strategy from observing her behavior, since female spotted hyenas are highly promiscuous. Holekamp reckons the pseudo-penis allows the female to choose not just whom she mates with but, more impressively, who actually fertilizes her precious eggs by acting as a form of built-in birth control. That strangely elongated reproductive tract, with its various twists and turns, slows down sperm as they swim towards their goal. If the hyena changes her mind about a male after mating, she simply flushes out his semen by urinating. 

Interesting fact! It was long assumed that the excess testosterone is what causes female hyenas to have this pseudo-penis. But experiments were done using blockers to prevent the update of testosterone in cubs in utero and the females still developed the penis, we have no idea why. But there is a new theory: hyena cubs are cared for their mom for 3-4 years before they can be independent, their skulls and teeth simply aren't strong enough, so it's theorized that females had to become much bigger to ensure that their cubs had their share at carcasses

Spotted hyenas are promiscuous and don't form enduring pair bonds. During a female's heat, males will be submissive, passive males having much more success. The females prefer younger males, for older females, males they're long-term friends with get  bonus points

Pregnancy and Birth

Gestation is typically 110 days. During the last days of pregnancy, higher ranking females give their developing offspring higher doses of androgen which is thought to be responsible for the extreme masculinization of female hyenas. This makes the cubs of dominant females more aggressive and sexually active 

Hyenas have 2-3 cubs 

Life Cycle

Spotted hyena cubs are born almost fully developed, with their eyes open and erupting incisors and canines, though lacking adult markings. In contrast, striped hyena cubs are born with adult markings, closed eyes and small ears. A hyena's spots will be more defined in youth, fading as they get older 

Cubs nurse for 12-16 months but are capable of eating solid food as early as 3 months. Shortly after birth cubs will attack each other, particularly more in same sex litters. Weaker cubs may perish in these attacks, roughly 25% of all cubs may die in the their first month

Another factor to consider is that female hyenas only have 2 nipples so if they have three cubs it's like the weakest will parish 

Within 10 days of birth they can move with considerable speed. They reach sexual maturity at 3 years and can live up to 25 years 

Child Rearing

Only striped hyena fathers assist with child rearing, while all other species, it is the mother's sole responsibility. Among spotted hyenas though, fathers are known to associate more closely with their daughters than other cubs and their daughters show favor by being less aggressive to their fathers  

Hyenas and Humans

In ordinary circumstances hyenas tend to be timid around humans, but are bolder at night.

Man Eaters

  • Among hyenas, only the spotted and rarely the striped hyenas have been known to become man-eaters.
  • Though all bone crushing hyenas would readily scavenge from a human corpse if they came across one. During Ethiopia's 1960 attempted coup and the Red Terror, hyenas took advantage of the chaos and loss of human life, finding themselves readily available meals. Hyenas that developed this habit lost much of their fear of humans, making them bolder and more aggressive.
  • Man-eating hyenas tend to be monstrous specimens, a pair caught in Malawi in 1962 that killed 27 people weighed in at 159 and 170 lbs. Typically male spotted are 89-121 lbs and females 98-141 lbs
  • Spotted hyenas are widely feared in Malawi, where they have been known to attack people at night, particularly during the hot season (September), when people sleep outdoors and bush fires make the hunting of wild game difficult for the hyenas
  • Modern attacks are rare though it's suspected these attacks are underreported.

Hunting the Hunters

  • Hyenas are used for food and medicinal purposes in Somalia although they are considered haraam (forbidden) in Islam. This practice dates back to the times of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, who believed that different parts of the hyena's body were effective means to ward off evil and to ensure love and fertility


  • Historically hyenas may have occasionally stolen human kills, or entered campsites to drag off the young and weak. We don't know how actively they hunted humans but human hair has been found in fossilized hyena dung as far back as 300,000 years ago
  • It's believed that the Cave Hyenas of Siberia were a significant factor in delaying human colonization of Alaska. The oldest Alaskan human remains coincide with roughly the same time cave hyenas became extinct. 

Living Among the People

  • Many farming communities fear for the safety of their livestock when hyenas are nearby, but it's suspected that many supposed 'attacks' on livestock is more likely hyenas taking advantage of already deceased livestock. Hyenas are easily deterred by thorn fences or homes with domestic dogs. A study in northern Kenya revealed that 90% of livestock predation cases occurred outside of thorn fences. 
  • With the hyena's willingness and ability to eat most anything, it's unsurprising that clans of spotted hyenas have began to frequent metropolitan areas where trash is readily available. The Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa is estimated to have up to 1000 hyena residents that live on rubbish and feral dogs and cats. 

Zoos and Captivity

  • From a captivity perspective, hyenas are easy to keep, the have few health issues and typically live 15-20 years. Despite this hyenas aren't frequently represented at zoos, often holding spots until more prestigious animals can be obtained. Animals considered to be more charismatic are given larger and better quality facilities, while hyenas were often relegated to inferior exhibits.
  • Even places that do carry hyenas know little about them, most haven't even sexed the animals, resulting breeding-pairs that never seem to reproduce. As a result, many captive hyena populations are facing extinction 
  • During the 19th century, hyenas were frequent stars in traveling circuses as oddities. Alfred Brehm, German Zoologist, wrote that the spotted hyena was hard to tame than the striped, though neither were really fit for circus performances. But according to Sir john Barrow they made great hunting companions, saying: 

"As faithful and diligent as any of the common domestic dogs" 

  • In Tanzania, spotted hyena cubs may be taken from a communal den by witchdoctors, in order to increase their social status
  • An April 2004 BBC article described how a shepherd living in the small town in Ethiopia managed to use a male spotted hyena as a livestock guardian dog, suppressing its urge to leave and find a mate by feeding it special herbs
  • Although considered easily tamed, spotted hyenas are exceedingly difficult to house train, and can be very destructive. A captive, otherwise perfectly tame, specimen in the Tower of London managed to tear an 8-foot long plank nailed to its recently repaired enclosure floor with no apparent effort 
  • During the research for the book: The Spotted Hyena: A Study of Predation and Social Behavior, Hans Kruuk kept a tame hyena he named Solomon. Kruuk found Solomon's company so congenial, he would have kept him, but Solomon had an insatiable taste for "cheese in the bar of the tourist lounge and bacon off the Chief Park Warden's breakfast table", and no door could hold him back, so Solomon was obliged to live out his days in the Edinburgh Zoo 

The Hyena Men

A controversial street gang based in Lagos, Nigeria surrounded by myths and fear: They are bank robbers, debt collectors; they have magical powers, they are part animal. All of which makes them notoriously hard to know, though everyone knows of them

The Hyena Men roll into town with their rock pythons, baboons, and hyenas in chains it's hard to not see where all the intimidation and rumors come from

Most of my information is going to come from a documentary called the Mysterious Animal Gangs of Nigeria - The Hyena Men that came out in 2020 made by Andrew Graham-Brown who has an impressive resume of films made for big names like BBC, Discovery Channel and Nat Geo.

In 2007 a series of photos taken by Pieter Hugo  were published, grabbing Andrew's attention and he went on a hunt to find an in to learn more about the polarizing figures. 

A Nigerian journalist helped him make contact with the gang but it took a week to earn their confidence

Once he was in, they took him in like one of their own and took care of him for three months while he filmed with a small hand-held camera. They showed him a world that normally would be completely off limits to outsiders, never mind a white man, as they toured him through the city of Lagos and surrounding Nigeria. 

Who Are the Hyena Men?

The Hyena Men are a traveling troupe of entertainers: who draw people in with exotic performances with their hyenas, snakes and baboons like the circuses of old.

They make money this way along with the sale of voodoo fetishes, charms, concoctions and more. From amulets to protect you from snake bites to herbal remedies to treat your syphilis that all sell well in a country as superstitious as Nigeria

Their relationships with their animals is one of much scrutiny and Andrew saw first hand how they sometimes can be doting and affectionate, and sometimes brutal and cruel.

From an outside western perspective we see these men as cruel, toting around their animals in chains, living in landfills between shows, selling talisman and magical cures

But that's from the perspective of privilege


To understand the situation you need to understand Nigeria. Nigeria didn't obtain a stable democracy until 1999. While from the outside Nigeria looks like a powerhouse with an impressive budding economy, inside is an entirely different story. Even though they now live in a democracy, issues with corruption run deep and it is a country that's still very much trying to find its ground

In 2012 61% of their population lived in abject poverty without access to drinking water, while this has improved to 40% as of May 2020, they still have a long way to go. Despite the millions that pour into the country from lucrative trade agreements with the United States and other powers, very little of it goes beyond the upper class, military and government

The streets are ruled by violent gangs in constant territory disputes. Between 2011 and 2018 Boko Haram a group set on establishing Sharia law killed 37,000 people. In April 2016 more than 500 people over ten villages were killed by Fulani herdsmen, who didn't just take lives but also destroyed schools, health centers, areas of worship as well as police stations. ) and in one state 15,000 children were branded as witches and ended up being abused or abandoned

To say there's civil unrest is an understatement and this is just barely looking at the surface. Nigeria is a country in crisis,  the issues they face are incredibly complex and for many day-to-day life means living hand to mouth with a constant focus on survival. But it is also overflowing with a multitude of diverse and vibrant cultures and tradition

So what does this mean for the hyena men?

These men are far from wealthy, living in landfills during their trips to the city, working hard and hustling to earn $40 in a day. $40 to be split among all the men, to feed and care for their animals and their families back home.

When they're not out touring and performing the hyena men are with their families out of the cities, all of which are involved in some way with their trade

You see, these men didn't just go and capture a bunch of animals to turn a profit. This trade has been passed down in their families for centuries. 

From birth, babies in these families are given herbal mixtures to protect them from the snakes, baboons and hyenas in the troupe. Often taught to handle the dangerous sometimes venomous animals even before they can walk

In homes, the women and retired hyena men teach the children how to connect and work with the animals and how to make the traditional medicines, charms and potions, from herbs, feathers and animal parts

They aren't con artists, they truly believe in the work they're doing and so does most of Nigeria which still has strong beliefs in witchcraft and ritual.

The animals they use are all caught as infants from the wild and raised with the families. They use their charms and potions to protect them when they crawl into hyena dens to capture cubs and 100% believe that they're protected. Even those that have been injured by their animals claim it doesn't hurt and that the animals mean no ill will

They use a combination of incense and herbal remedies to keep the animals calm and provide further protection

While pictures and video show these animals being hauled around by thick chains and muzzled, undisputed depictions of animal cruelty by our standards, the animals are also dearly loved and are considered part of the family. The hyenas and baboons get yearly check ups and vaccinations by a professional vet and the hyena men are licensed to perform with these animals by the federal government.

The hyenas are fed with human grade goat meat, not just the entrails or scraps that would normally get thrown away.

The men also capture animals to sell to zoos and private collectors, a single hyena cub being worth $450 to a zoo and much more to private collectors.

The animals live with them, ride in cars, they're always there. And you would think no one would want to mess with a group of men called the hyena men that have such powerful and dangerous animals at their side, but gang shakedowns are incredibly common. Even driving up to the mountains too look for hyena cubs they get stopped by a gang demanding money to let them pass

To these men, this is all they have ever known. They have no other skills. They grew up with many of the animals they perform with now and in private moments you can see the affection they have for each other. 

But their leader sees storms brewing on the horizon, he knows that a slight shift in government could take everything from them. If they could no longer get licensed to perform, he doesn't know what they'd do, how they would survive or what would happen to their animals

For the animals, this isn't the lives they were destined for, being captured and taken from their homes, to be trained. We from such privileged nations know how bad these kinds of setups can be for the animals, even if they're well loved. Wild animals aren't meant to be held captive and we're still learning the full extent of damage such captivity could do to them

But if we take their animals away, we'd be taking away their culture and not only that, hundreds would starve, men, women and children, never mind how it would impact the communities that work with or are protected by these men. The world the common people of Nigeria live in is a very precariously stacked house of cards. One wrong move and the whole thing could collapse and we know that it is always the people on the bottom that suffer.

And hyena men's skill aren't useless. In a better world they could help with zoos, conservation programs and education. But such things are a luxury, one they can't afford. So they do what they've always done, they do what they must to survive


Hyenas feature prominently in the folklore and mythology of hundreds of cultures that have lived alongside hyenas, their role as bane or blessing varying drastically from group to group

In some cultures, hyenas are thought to influence people's spirits, rob graves, and steal livestock and children

Others associate them with witchcraft, using their body parts in traditional medicine

It is often difficult to know whether spotted hyenas are the specific hyena, particularly in places like West Africa, as both spotted and striped hyenas are often given the same names


The Mbugwe people of Tanzania believe that there is no such thing as a wild hyena, that all hyenas are owned by a witch and that each witch has a least one hyena which they refer to as "night cattle"

  • These pets are branded with an invisible magic mark and the witches use them to make hyena butter that they use for their torches, but also as mounts. The witch rides their hyena (naked mind you) to distant lands to bewitch victims and then return before morning
  • Because of this, killing a hyena is incredibly dangerous as a witch will come seeking retribution. In order to avoid this if a hyena is killed, they will remove its ears, tail and front legs removed and buried as these are the parts that are supposedly branded.

For the Kujamaat if they kill a hyena they must carry the carcass with respect as if it were a human elder to appease the spirits 

Dorze tradition, the highest Demuṣa-priests have the ability to control hyenas, and will send them to punish defaulting debtors 

The Kaguru have a folk tale about a trickster Hare and a Hyena. The Hare and Hyena agree to kill their mothers and sell their flesh in order to survive a famine. While hyena kills his mother, the hare repents and hides his mother until the Hyena dies of hunger. The Kaguru believe that those that transgress social boundaries are considered witches and this tale is to intended to prevent youth from making mistakes

Bad Omens

Many cultures see hyenas as dirty, stupid, greedy hermaphrodites and overall just useless. These views may be associated with ideas of hyenas representing evil, treachery, lawlessness and sexual deviancy.

  • The Beng speaking-people, Côte d'Ivoire: spotted hyenas are sometimes depicted as 'bad Muslims' who challenge the local beliefs in the spirits of nature

In some cultures hyenas have much more power than simply being degenerates. Whether they represent death, the end of things or clever meddlers in the plans of the gods

  • The folklore of the Gogo and Meru tell us that the hyena has an insatiable appetite for human corpses and has played grand tricks to ensure this food source always exists. In Gogo myth the hyena prevents humanity from achieving immortality and the Meru believe that a mole was sent by the god Murungu to tell humans they would be reborn after death but the hyena ensured that message never got delivered
  • The Madi and Nuer believe they once had a direct line to the creator via a cowhide rope in the sky, until a hungry hyena severed it 

Some see the hyena as a cursed animal, in the Mtwara Region of Tanzania if a child is born at night while a hyena is crying, the baby will grow up to be a thief.

  • Some take this more seriously than others. The Beng speaking-people, Côte d'Ivoire believe that if you find a freshly killed hyena with its anus inverted that you must plug it back up or be struck down with contagious perpetual laughter that signals your impending death.
  • Due to the hyena's efficient digestive system, when they defecate, their feces appear dry, white and almost crystalized. Because of this they also believe that if a hyena defecates within the village boundaries it could result in innumerable deaths and they must immediately evacuate the village. There are records of this occurring almost 150 years ago 

Good Omens

Ethiopia by far has the most positive relationship with hyenas: 

  • the Gurage believe their ancestors migrated from Arabia to Ethiopia using hyenas as mounts.
  • In Harar the hyenas are regularly fed by the city's inhabitants who believe the hyenas keep the devils at bay and associate fortune telling with them

The Tabwa see the hyena as a solar animal that brought the sun to warm the earth

The Gelede people of Yoruba use hyena masks in their ceremonies as a finishing act as hyenas represent the end. A hyena showing up at the end of one of these ceremonies is a symbol a successful shows: the jokes cracked by the efe mask have been such that even the laughing hyena has come out of the forest to join the audience!

In Sub-Saharan African "parazoological" thinking, the spotted hyena symbolizes the androgyne, who has a distinct sexuality. According to mythological beliefs, the hyena also has relations with the bisexual moon 

Medicine and Food

Whether thought to be a blessing or curse, one thing that many cultures can agree on is that the hyena has potent magic attached to it, making their body parts highly sought after for traditional medicines and magic.

Some are more harmless than others in Mtwara, Tanzania, it is believe hyena feces will enable a child to walk at an early age so it's common for children to have hyena dung wrapped in their clothes

A handful of cultures associate hyenas with love and fertility, many making love potions and charms using hyena body parts. 

  • The Western Sudan people use the tails to get a desired woman. 
  • In Iran a dried striped hyena skin will force all to succumb to the attraction of its possessor. 
  • In Khyber, tallow made from hyenas are applied to a man's genitalia or taken orally to ensure virility
  • The Greeks and Romans though that if a hyena's anus was worn as an amulet on the upper arm it would make its male possessor irresistible to women.
  • The anus was also used by the Pakhtun for different means, to attract homosexuals or bisexuals. There is an expression 

"to possess the anus of a [striped] hyena" refers to someone this is attractive and has many lovers"

Some use the body parts to ward off evil or to get a good harvest.

Medicinal purposes are a plenty: 

  • In India hyena fat serves a cure for rheumatism. 
  • In Burkina Faso the tail is used for medicine. 
  • Various parts are also used in Malawi and Tanzania for wide variety of medicines
  • In Punjab to cure infertility a woman must entice a striped hyena and ride it naked, at night, facing its tail. She must ride it in a circle seven times after which she dismounts, makes seven salaams to it and feeds it with bread and ghee from a clay pot that is placed on her head scarf that has been spread on the ground. 

Supernatural Beings

Many cultures believe that hyenas are supernatural beings of their own accord. Some just have powers like being able to mesmerize with their eyes and pheromones while others believe that striped hyenas are vampires that attack at night (but only brave people) and drink blood from their necks. And the Greeks believed that the bodies of werewolves, if not destroyed would haunt battlefields as vampiric hyenas that drank the blood of dying soldiers

In the middle east striped hyenas are regarded as physical reincarnations of Jinns

In Ethiopia an albino hyena is called King of Hyenas and would be given great power

But surprisingly the most prolific legend on this topic is: Werehyenas.

  • Many cultures have stories of reclusive tribes with powerful magic users that can transform into hyenas. In some tales if one of these tribe members were to stand among a 1000 people a hyena could pick them out and would eat them. In Mansoa, suspected werehyenas are executed on discovery. 
  • In a Persian medical treatise in 1376 is a cure for the cannibalistic 'kaftar', half-man/half-hyena
  • In Western Sudan werehyenas are depicted as monstrous and destructive beings who turn into hyenas at night and terrorize people, especially lovers. It is supposed that in its human form this person would often be a magically powered healer, blacksmith or woodcutter and could be recognized by a variety of traits like a hairy body, red eyes or a nasally voice.
  • The legend of the werehyenas has its deepest roots in the countries around the horn of Africa: Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan. While for most that live in cities consider the story of the werehyena as tales their parents/grandparents were told when they were children. But for those that live in smaller communities and villages, the myth the werehyena is still very real
  • Villages are suspicious of strangers passing through and swear sometimes they can hear a human voice call your name from the distance. You never know where the werehyena is lurking.
  • Unlike werewolves, you don't need a bite to turn into a werehyena. Most are born with the ability, either humans that can turn into hyenas or hyenas that can turn into humans. Also there is no sway of the moon to control their change
  • Bouda is a term in Ethiopian folklore that is used to refer to werehyenas, but also means the evil eye and conjures images of dark magic. 
  • The legend goes that Eve had 30 children. One day god asked her to show them to him
  • Suspicious, she hides 15 of her children and when he discovered her disobedience he cursed the children to be bouda as punishment. With time this term has become synonymous with the lower uneducated classes, the other and blacksmiths.
  • For a long time all blacksmiths in Ethiopia were thought to be bouda, a belief that still exists today in small communities. Traditionally the profession of blacksmithing was dominated by the Jewish people of Ethiopia. Believed to be descended from the tribe of Dan who fled the civil war in Isreal. The Jewish people weren't allowed to own land or attend most schools. This left them with professions such as blacksmithing, an inherited trade that requires no formal education
  • The Jewish population became associated with the term bouda, muddling the term even further. Most cultures didn't understand what they were, just that they were other and other was something to be feared.
  • Legends said that Jewish werehyenas would rob graves and feast on fresh carcasses and the Moroccan werehyenas are believed to transform every night after sunset and return to human form at dawn.
  • All these myths share a common thread: a fear of the other, and of nature's ability to disrupt life for those who don't respect her power. 

The Kore Cult of Bamana/Mali have a bit of a different take on hyena people. They become hyenas using hyena masks and playing dramatic roles where they perform dirty habits, tricks and general nastiness. This is meant to scare the audience and urge them to avoid such habits

  • the belief that spotted hyenas are hermaphrodites appears as an ideal in-between in the ritual domain. The role of the spotted hyena mask in their rituals is often to turn the neophyte into a complete moral being by integrating his male principles with femininity. 
Hyenas from Disney's Lion King
Hyenas from Disney's Lion King

Western Beliefs and their influences

As for the West, we have a complicated convoluted history with the hyena that can be traced all the back to Aristotle's Historia Animalium which describes them as carrion scavengers, cowardly, dangerous hermaphrodites

Pliny the Elder would support this depiction but added to it saying that hyenas imitate human voices and were highly valued by the Magi. And as Pliny does he also gave a bunch of recipes for how cure diseases, give protection and improve your libido using garden variety hyena parts

Physiologus who took pride in converting pagan tales for the Christian palette continued with the hermaphrodite narrative, comparing the species to: "double-minded men" who are neither "man nor woman, that is, neither faithful nor unfaithful". He further states that "The sons of Israel are like this animal since in the beginning they served the living God but later, given over to pleasure and lust, they adored idols."

Bestiaries in the middle ages, inspired by Physiologus's work elaborated on the animal's necrophagous habits, depicting hyenas feeding on human corpses. These descriptions were accompanied by the drawings clearly made by someone that had never seen a hyena first hand

Sir Walter Raleigh, in an attempt to rationalize how Noah's Ark could have fitted all extant species of animal, wrote that hyenas were hybrids between foxes and wolves which originated after the Great Flood.

Hyenas from Disney's Lion King
Hyenas from Disney's Lion King

Skipping forward and the most recent, impactful media that depicts hyenas is Ernest Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa and the Lion King. In both, hyenas are comically stupid gluttons.

Researchers were so upset at the portrayal of hyenas in the Lion King that they actually protested. One hyena researcher even sued Disney studios for defamation of character, and another - who had organized the animators' visit to the University of California's Field Station for Behavioral Research, where they would observe and sketch captive hyenas suggested boycotting the film 


Our relationship with the hyena has a long way to go, but here are some people to show us how it's done

The Hyena Man

Of no relation to the Hyena Men of Nigeria, we go all the way to the walled city of Harar, Ethiopia where Abbas Yusuf is the living embodiment of tradition, one that has been kept alive for 50 years, passed from father to son.

What started as a way to keep hyenas away from livestock now doubles as a tourist attraction. Every night at dusk Abbas walks up a nearby hill and calls out into the night and not long after comes his friends, a cackle of hyenas. He then feeds them, by hand, like you would a dog. And he's not missing any fingers

Harar has been living peacefully with the hyenas for some time now, when only a couple centuries ago the animals were attacking and sometimes killing townspeople. The defensive wall around the city did little to keep the carnivores out, so the people developed a solution. They cut holes in the walls and started throwing scraps through them. There hasn't been a hyena attack in 200 years

Yusuf and his family have given hyenas a marketing makeover. Hararis walk alongside hyenas. They let them den in the wooded areas outside churches. The hyenas bring in tourists, and they clean up the city by eating trash, excrement or dead animals. So the Hararis appreciate them and tend not to kill them like in other places.

The hyenas these days have two dinner bells: the first at dawn with the crank and grind of a garbage truck, which summons them to the landfill. The other at dusk when Abbas calls them by name

He happily does this for tourists who watch with fascination as the hyenas come right up to him. He woos them with a dialect he's made over the years. Some are more responsive than others, but all of them seem to respect the hand that feeds

They patiently wait as he hands them scraps, even letting tourists do this, the hyenas completely docile and trusting of their human friend.

The relationship is two way, they don't just come to Abbas's home, they invite him to theirs too, leading him back, where he crawls into their den. Even when cubs are present. 


Odi, a spotted hyena was only a couple days old when his mother rejected him, Zoo worker Marcell Tournier and his girlfriend San-Mare Pretorius found themselves in the unusual position of having to raise the cub by hand in their South Africa home

By 20 months he was quite a handful: Mr Tournier said

'He sleeps all day but at four in the afternoon he wakes up and when he's up he's really up. He keeps us busy right through the night.'

But the three have bonded. Marcell said: 

'We interact with him and he sits on our laps. He loves physical contact. Not all hyenas are good-natured but you get one in a million that is.'

One of Odi's favorite activities is getting a bath in his tub outside

But the couple know to never to forget that he is a wild animal. Marcell makes sure Odi considers him to be the alpha male with San-Mare the dominant female of his group.

'We're part of his social structure,' explained Marcell. 

'When I play with him I don't hurt him but I'm always the one doing the rougher playing to let him know who's boss. He's much tougher than me already, but he's also very sensitive and we have to be very sensitive with him. If he's scared of something he comes to me and I'm there to help him.'

The couple are now planning to find a female companion for Odi so that he can start to form bonds with other hyenas and live a more independent life.

Kevin Richardson

You probably know Kevin Richardson as the "Lion Whisperer" the guy that hugs lions. Born in South Africa, Kevin began his career as a behavorialist at 16. He now owns and operates the Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary in Johannesburg. He has become close with the animals in his reserve, having slept next to, fed and lived with lions, cheetahs, leopards and hyenas. In his park is a clan of hyenas he has become close with over the last couple years. Richardson is accepted as part of the group because he makes the right gestures to the let the hyenas know that he is dominant.

The hyenas don't just seem to respect him-they really seem love him. They nip him affectionately, not hard enough to hurt, and are happy to flop on the ground and roll over for a belly rub!

Richardson has garnered international attention because of his close relationship with these animals, and he uses this to spread awareness of animal conservation and as well as a method to learn more about these creatures that few get to spend any time with in the wild, never mind in such a close proximity

The City of Hyenas

Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, Reported to have 1000 hyenas living in the city, rumors of baby snatching and attacks on pets are rampant, but there are also those that praise them

"they eat up dangerous stray dogs and are a free clean-up service"

The rumors, like they so often are, are exaggerated, at least according to one local Yves Marie Stranger in an article he wrote in 2014

"The economic growth in Ethiopia has led to a tremendous increase in the number of domestic animals being slaughtered, with bones - and all sorts of other solid wastes - being dumped on the outskirts of the capital: more food for scavengers. Far from its drought-prone image, booming Ethiopia has the largest cattle numbers in Africa "

He says the outskirts of the city have some of the highest concentrations of hyena in the world. he ran a horse trekking company and tells a story of when they had to put down an old horse in the fields next to the stables. 30 hyenas showed up at dusk. In the morning you couldn't find a single horse hair

"when we walked down to the village through the forest in the evening, and sometimes found ourselves surrounded by hyenas, a quick "shoo!" and these not-so-terrifying beasts would scamper."

Entoto Hills is the resting grounds for most of the hyena clans, where hundreds of shepherd children are out every single day, on their own without even a dog for protection

"The only proven casualty I've heard of in 12 years was a drunken man who was hit by a car - and abandoned unconscious in a pool of blood."

Yves lives near these hills and most nights can hear the hyenas as he lie in bed, chuckling and snorting but it's just part of the background now like the church sermons and traffic

In his experience hyena attacks are extremely rare despite the rumor and there's a considerably more attacks involving dogs

There are concerns though. The capital is working to better control solid wastes and prevent people from slaughtering their own animals. Paradoxically, if this clean-up is too efficient, the sudden disappearance of mass amounts of food that the large population of hyenas has become dependent on could be dangerous

The hills around the capital were eucalyptus farms once are now begin reforested with local indigenous trees, bringing warthogs, servals, leopards and Menelik bushbuck. There has been little thought to how this will impact the hyenas. In a way they're becoming caged in, much preferring open areas and plains to forests.

But in the meantime the locals live peacefully with their colorful neighbors and get a few laughs at the tourists:

A user on letsrun.com tells a story in 2019 when they were in  Addis Ababa and had decided to go running on a popular runners path

"I ran around a small farmhouse compound at the very top of Yeka mountain and saw a small head with round ears look up at me. It looked like a dog at first but on second take I knew it wasn't a dog. It was a Hyena. It didn't seem to give a care in the world that I was there and I turned and ran away, slightly faster than before, it never even rose from a sitting position, and was about 20 yards or so uphill from me. It wasn't very large or didn't seem so. I told a farmer who asked where I was going that I saw a "jib" (Amharic word for Hyena) and he said the same thing "Yes there are Jib!" laughing, saying it's ok."

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