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Nature Life: Hyenas and Nature

By Obiabin Onukwugha

Hyenas or hyaenas are feliform carnivoran mammals belonging to the family Hyaenidae. Hyenas are of just four extant species.

Despite their low diversity, hyenas are unique and vital components of most African ecosystems.

Hyenas are behaviourally and morphologically similar to canids in several elements due to convergent evolution.

The spotted hyena is a highly successful animal, being the most common large carnivore in Africa. Its success is due in part to its adaptability and opportunism; it is primarily a hunter but may also scavenge, with the capacity to eat and digest skin, bone and other animal waste.

It is called “Nkịta ọhịa” in Igbo, “Kura” in Hausa and “agbawo”, in Yoruba tribes.

Hyenas only true predators are lions and humans. Spotted hyenas live up to 20 years in the wild, making them some of the longest-living terrestrial carnivores.

Hyenas typically give birth to two to four cubs, of which only 60% survive. The mothers’ lives are also in danger as the birth canal is only an inch in diameter, often making the birthing process fatal.

However, hyenas, surprisingly, are said to be some of the best mothers in the animal kingdom, investing more energy per cub than any other terrestrial carnivore.

Studies have shown that the spotted hyenas can determine the number of other hyenas in a rival clan and decide their best course of action.

Similarly, males looking to join a new clan will always join the clan with the least number of other males after doing a quick census.

Hyenas play significant roles in balancing the ecosystem. As scavengers, hyenas clean the landscape by eating away at carcasses and cleaning the landscape which helps to reduce disease.

They also eat the bones which helps prevent the spread of infections from a bacteria called anthrax and deposit concentrations of calcium back into the environment through digestion.

Hyenas feature prominently in the folklore and mythology of human cultures that live alongside them. Hyenas are commonly viewed as frightening and worthy of contempt.

In some cultures, hyenas are thought to influence people’s spirits, rob graves, and steal livestock and children. Other cultures associate them with witchcraft, using their body parts in traditional medicine.


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