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Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) have an undeservedly bad reputation as lazy scavengers that steal from lions. Even some historical wildlife documentaries have depicted them as nothing more than sinister creatures whose sole purpose is to make life more difficult for other species of African wildlife. While hyenas are powerful and intimidating, nothing could be further from the truth!

In reality, hyenas are amazing animals, a social species of Feliforms with a complex societal hierarchy that scientists are still discovering more about. Moreover, they are proficient hunters, so much so that their kills are often stolen by scavenging lions, not the other way around.

Spotted hyenas live in complex social groupings called clans, which can be comprised of up to 90 unrelated individuals. Clans are made up of different matrilineal kin groups. These matrilines form the stable core of clans. This level of sociality among unrelated individuals is very unique among carnivores.

The impressive cognitive ability of spotted hyenas is demonstrated through many different complex social behaviors, including the ability to distinguish between kin, fellow clan members, and non-clan individuals; recognition of their own rank positions and that of other clan mates within the clan dominance hierarchy; application of this knowledge of social rank in activities such as feeding, mate selection, and social companion choice; and expression of reconciliation behaviors. Another unique trait of the spotted hyena is that females are socially dominant over males and are also bigger and more aggressive.

Female hyena Carola, the dominant female of a large clan.
Förderkreis für Ugandas Tierwelt (German for 'Friends of Uganda Wildlife') provided camera traps for the hyena den.

The Kasenyi plains in northern Queen Elizabeth National Park is home to a number of hyena clans that are mostly active at night (nocturnal). With an impressive range of vocalizations, they are often more heard than seen.

The Uganda Carnivore Program dutifully monitors its resident hyena population, learning more about their behavior, their movements, their social interactions, and how to help villagers keep their livestock safe from the possible threat of a hyena attack. With the permission of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, we also bring visiting tourists on night game drives to seek out hyenas in the hopes of seeing them during the hours when they’re most active.

Hyenas face the same threats as lions, including conflict with humans, especially after livestock depredation, loss of habitat, decrease in their natural prey base, and poaching for use in traditional medicine and witchcraft. So when we work with local communities, we include solutions to address hyena conservation challenges. ​

Radio-collaring a clan member.
Hyenas are primarily nocturnal.
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