Myths and Facts about Hyenas
By Simon Awad
Sometimes fate just seems to interrupt our lives. Every day makes its own imprint upon the whole of our lifetime … Experiences, passions, and people are consequences of such days. What recently happened to me is related somehow to the ancient stories I used to hear from my grandmother; and someday I may tell my grandchildren the same ones …
I was on my way back home from Jordan in August 2007, after attending a conference. Although I had spent a very delightful and fruitful time there, I was really exhausted and eager to get back home as soon as possible. But due to the “security procedures,” the whole day was messed up and my joy quickly faded as I crossed the border at Karama Bridge and waited for hours, first on the Jordanian side and then on the Israeli side. I noticed elderly people who could barely move and hungry children crying. Eventually, after 14 hours of humiliation, I reached my warm home.
As I was about to go to bed at around midnight, the phone rang. I was worried. Who would call at such a time? When I picked up the phone, I heard the panicked voice of a friend who needed my help. It took me a few minutes to compose myself after I learned that a hyena had just been injured in Al Makhroor area in Beit Jala. My friend told me that the hyena would die if it weren’t treated soon.
I immediately left my house and drove to Beit Jala - a distance of about 20 kilometres. Along the way I let my imagination scan the myths that are related to animals, especially hyenas - myths that provide the reasons to kill them rather than reveal the importance of their role in enriching biodiversity. Where did all these myths originate?
The hyena is known for its aggression, the special magical sparks that come out of its eyes, the drug that it sprays on its prey, its determination to attack and kill human beings as well as animals, its reputation as a grave robber, and above all its hysterical laughs. One of the stories my grandmother used to tell is about a bride who was hypnotized by a hyena after looking directly into its eyes. This drove her to follow the hyena to its cave where she was killed and eaten.
All these weird stories and superstitious fears affect the way that people look at this creature; even when I was a kid, these myths encouraged people to deal violently with hyenas and, as a result, contributed to making the hyena an endangered animal.
When I eventually reached Beit Jala that fateful night, I encountered many people who had gathered to take photos of the hyena or simply to see a real hyena for the first time in their lives. When I arrived, the animal was unfortunately already dead. Shortly afterwards, I heard a group of people, who had seen another hyena, making plans to search for it and kill it! I approached them and introduced myself as a wildlife conservationist. I began a discussion with them about hyenas - the fact that they are really poor animals that need to be protected not killed. Most of their information had been gleaned from silly traditional myths. I was able, however, to influence them and actually prevented them from killing the escaped hyena. I also had the privilege to take the dead hyena to be stuffed and displayed at the Natural History Museum of the Environmental Education Center, where I work. This stuffed specimen will be a tool for visitors to learn about the hyena and discover the erroneous myths regarding animals in general.
After a few months, on New Year’s Eve, the same scene repeated itself. One of the monks at Mar Saba Monastery in Beit Sahour had killed another hyena. I was sad about having to take the second hyena to be stuffed.
Some General Information about Hyenas
Over the course of evolutionary time, the family Hyaenidae has contained roughly 100 different species that occupy a wide array of ecological niches. These days there are just four living species of the carnivore Hyaenidae family: the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), the brown hyaena (Hyaena brunnea), the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), and the aardwolf (Proteles cristata).
The Striped Hyena is the only contemporary hyena in Palestine. The Spotted Hyena is reported to have been found in Pleistocene fossils in Palestine.
Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena)
(Hyaena hyaena)(Hyaena hyaena)
Range and Habitat: Striped Hyenas range throughout North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Turkey, the Middle East, and western India. They inhabit the arid, mountainous areas of their ranges and avoid true deserts. They prefer the acacia bushlands and open, rocky terrain. In Palestine, Striped Hyenas appear to be found in all major habitats.
Physical Appearance: Striped Hyenas are medium-sized dog-like animals ore closely related to cats than to dogs. Their very powerful jaws enable them to crack large bones. Mass: 20 to 50 kg. Height: 65 to 80 cm. The average length of the Striped Hyena (head and body) is 85 to 130 cm, and the tail length, 25 to 40 cm. The shoulders sit higher than the hips, giving its back the low-sloping appearance. The head is rounded with a wide, pointed muzzle. The ears are long and pointed. The tail is bushy, covered in long, course hair. There are four toes on each foot, with short, blunt, non-retractile claws.
The Striped Hyena is greyish-brown to beige in colour, with black stripes across the back and legs. The muzzle, throat, and ears are entirely black. A medium-sized mane covers the neck and shoulders, and long hair covers the body. The mane can stand erect when the animal is frightened.
Males may be slightly larger than females, although there is not a very prominent sexual dimorphism in this species.
Diet: The Striped Hyena mainly scavenges off animals’ kills such as zebras, wildebeests, gazelles, and donkeys, even eating bones from carcasses if the meat has been picked off. It does not kill large or medium-sized animals but prefers very small prey, such as insects, lizards, birds, rodents, and rabbits. It will also readily eat fruit and vegetables. It drinks regularly at water holes but can survive off the moisture in the prey’s body. It has been known to live in areas that are relatively dry. The Striped Hyena often caches its food, like bones, pieces of flesh, or even some meat, in shallow holes dug with its snout. It will also carry any surplus meat found at a scavenger site.
Social Behaviour: Striped Hyenas are nocturnal, nomadic animals that spend their time wandering from water hole to water hole. During the day, they sleep in abandoned burrows or caves and do most of their foraging and wandering at night. Although other hyena species live in huge packs called clans, Striped Hyenas are considered to be relatively solitary, but they associate in small family groups that usually include the mother, father, and the offspring of many generations. The younger adults bring food back to the den to feed the cubs. Within the groups, animals of the same sex tend to avoid one another, whereas animals of opposite sex enjoy each other’s company, mutually grooming and nuzzling. Striped Hyenas occupy a home range that is marked off regularly by “pasting” with the anal glands. Like other hyenas, Striped Hyenas use “latrines,” special areas where faeces are deposited, always a certain distance away from the den area.
Reproduction: Breeding is non-seasonal. Reproductive maturity is at two to three years. Oestrus lasts one day for the females, and the pair mates several times during the course of the day, about once every 15 to 30 minutes. The gestation period for Striped Hyenas is 88 to 92 days, and they give birth to a comparatively large litter of 1 to 5 all-black cubs in a den. They are born with their eyes and ears closed and weigh less then a pound apiece. Their eyes open at 5 to 9 days, and they venture above ground after 10 to 15 days. They drink their mothers’ milk exclusively for four weeks, after which they start to eat scraps of meat offered by their parents or other members of the family. They accompany their mother on foraging expeditions at six months. They are still suckling even after a year, but usually are weaned by four months.
Economic Importance for Humans: Negative. There are not many negative benefits. They rarely attack livestock or people and are not aggressive, often allowing dogs to attack them without attempting to defend themselves.
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive. Striped Hyenas are of some benefit in that they consume unwanted human refuse. In some instances, villages in Africa leave their garbage outside at night for Striped Hyenas to feed on. It is not hunted for food purposes or for its pelt.
Threats: They are killed mainly for destroying crops of melons, dates, grapes, apricots, peaches, and cucumbers, as well as for body parts to be used for medicinal purposes.
We agree with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which has assigned a status of “Lower Risk - Near Threatened” to the Striped Hyena (IUCN, 2000).
Included among the threats to hyenas as well as to other living creatures is the Separation Wall that surrounds Palestinian territory. It is a tragedy and nightmare for most animals in Palestine. As a result of the barrier, the terrestrial movement of animals has become greatly restricted and in some cases prohibited.
Israel’s apartheid tactics are clearly damaging the environment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in addition to having a severe negative impact on the day-to-day life of Palestinian society. Construction activities and the long-term presence of a 25-foot-high impervious barrier have caused a decline in the population of animals and plants and continues to cause habitat loss by affecting the wildlife populations. The natural environmental balance will be shifted accordingly.
Mammals of the Holy Land, Mazin QumsiyehMazin Qumsiyeh
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (www.iucnredlist.org)
Animal Diversity Web, Craig Howard
Simon Awad is Executive Director of the Environmental Education Center/ELCJHL. He is also an environmental activist and a wildlife conservationist. He has authored and co-authored several books regarding the environment and human rights issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Article photos by the Environmental Education Center