Night of the hyenas

Not so high on the popularity charts

It is a common sight in Kenya to see hyenas steal food from the bigger cats. Whenever there is a kill, you are sure to find these scavengers slowly fill up the fringes. Sometimes, they even take over as the dominant group, as I recently witnessed at Mara, where they staked their claims on a hippo killed by the lions. Their sly look, droopy back and awkward gait do not earn them any brownie points. However, they form a vital part in the cleaning up of our ecosystem.

I have learnt quite a few interesting facts about these cunning creatures during my stay in Kenya. They are not related to dogs although they seem to be. These hyenas not only scavenge, but they also skillfully hunt in packs. They can devour a whole zebra in under 30 minutes. Hyena poop is milky white due to the high presence of calcium from eating up all the bones. Female hyenas are more muscular and dominating. Interestingly, she has only 2 nipples – as a result, only the strongest 2 of her litter survive, leaving the weaker ones to starve to death! How cleverly nature keeps a balance….

I have only seen spotted hyenas so far and I only refer to these when I write. For more hyena “wild” facts, click on this link.

The Ark (picture from the lodge website)

During our recent visit to Aberdare National Park, we stayed at The Ark. Most of my acquaintances who have been here, usually spend their time chilling out in the viewing deck with a drink or two, watching buffaloes and elephants (and sometimes a leopard or a rhino if they are lucky) at the salt lick and watering hole. When we reached there, we were also greeted by a similar placid sight – buffaloes, elephants, wart hogs and bush bucks jostling for a good lick of salt. And there were some herons, egrets, cranes, geese and ducks. We were not expecting anything scintillating but as we walked towards the lodge on a canopy bridge, cutting through the lush green forest, we mentally prepared ourselves for an adventure of sorts.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The mating ducks

There are 3 viewing decks at the Ark but due to the cold, we chose to lounge in the one completely enclosed by glass panes but keeping an eye on the waterhole, hoping for a stray leopard. There wasn’t much action happening at that time, except for a pair of yellow billed ducks, engrossed in a deeply elaborate mating ritual.

After dinner, I asked the resident ranger if hyenas ever come visiting there and he said “Oh yes, they were here just now!” As I was ruing the fact that I had missed them by a whisker, I saw a big one sauntering in from the forest. It was 8:20 pm.

The first hyena

Slowly, their numbers started to increase, alerting me to something sinister waiting to happen. The scene looked pretty peaceful till then – a herd of buffaloes grazing by the waterhole, with some ducks and geese skimming over the water. There was also a lone elephant and some genet cats scrounging for food. And the funny looking giant forest hog, which I saw for the first time.

And THEN we spotted the buffalo calf and the slow build-up of hyena activity around it. And their bloodthirsty intentions became quite clear. It was a spine chilling drama waiting to unfold…

Can you spot the calf in the middle?
The mother trying to escape with the calf
The mother and calf looking for sanctuary in the water while the father tries to ward off the predators on the land

The number of hyenas had now grown up to 25! With the aid of some impeccable invisible communication, they had all positioned themselves around the floodlit waterhole, completely surrounding the calf. Some lazily sitting, some strolling, some drifting and a couple even mating in a bush! But they were all patiently waiting for their dinner.

Suddenly, a pack of 5-6 became aggressive and started to attack the calf. From all sides. For hours, the parents and other herd members charged at them in turns, trying to ward them off but keeping the calf well covered. Sometimes they even scampered away to the jungle, but were driven back to the salt lick from the other side by this relentless pack. They even tried to take refuge in the water but even there, the hyenas would not leave them alone. As I zoomed in on the calf, I noticed that its tail was bleeding. And there were scratch marks on its hind legs. The hyenas had tasted blood! The glass deck was full of visitors now, unsure of whether to stay on (and witness the gory end) or leave.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For some strange reason, the other herd members gave up defending the calf after a while. It was now left only to the mother and father. At  12:30 am, we decided to retire to our rooms as we realized this was going to be a painful wait. In any case, we could all guess how this story was going to end. In my restlessness, I had come out once again to the deck only to see a white tipped mongoose scurrying about and a deathly calm around the floodlit salt lick/waterhole.

white tipped mongoose

Just as we were dreaming that the calf got saved, we were woken up by the loud and continuous, painful grunts of a buffalo. The death cry pierced through the still of the night and we rushed out only to find the waterhole completely deserted. The ranger pointed out to the direction of the forest where the action was supposedly happening and after 10 odd minutes, the groaning stopped. At 2:20 am, it was all over.

Unlike the big cats, hyenas do not suffocate their prey – they eat it alive! One of the most painful deaths one can imagine. It shook us to the core trying to imagine what was happening beyond our line of vision. But that’s how it happens in the jungle. nature at its primitive or pristine best. There are no lions in Aberdare National Park and so the resident hyenas need to hunt in order to get their food. I have seen lion and cheetah hunts before but this one was particularly unsettling.

The next morning, there was the usual activity of the buffaloes and other animals at the waterhole. But the youngest member was conspicuous by its absence…