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How to identify spotted hyenas

Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) is one of the key species that we monitor at LEO Africa. As an apex predator, they have a great impact on the eco-system and they play a really important role in nature.

 

A common belief is that hyenas are only scavengers. This is inaccurate as they can be successful hunters working together to take down prey. Their most important role though is to act as “bush cleaners” scavenging on carcasses and cleaning  them, preventing the spread of diseases. Their strong jaws are designed to chew and grind down bones and the carcasses are often carried to the well hidden den sites to feed the youngsters.

 

Spotted hyena social groups are called clans. Within them is a matriarchal social structure in which there is a dominant alpha female who leads the clan. She will mate with the alpha male and the other hyenas will help raise the youngsters. Females are larger than males and display a dominant behaviour. The sexual identification of hyenas is very difficult as females have a fake “penis”. The behaviour and size of the animal is a good reference to try and understand the sex of the animal.

 

At the moment, on the Park, we have identified two different clans of hyenas; the most known is composed by 18 individuals. Since April 2016 we have recorded that the alpha female has had cubs three times. Cubs are born black but within a few months their coat changes. It gets fluffy and the spots appear. In the first year the identification is pretty difficult because the spots are difficult to see, due to the long coat. Later on, the fur gets shorter and the spots are clearer to see.

 

In order to identify the hyenas, we need to take photos of their flanks (sides) and any special features (for example ear notches or injuries). Both flanks are needed to have a full Identification kit.

The photos are taken both in the field by volunteers whilst on monitoring drives and captured on camera traps which we have placed in the Park and are checked on a regular basis. All the information gathered is then inserted in a monthly report and sent to the Park Management so they can have an accurate estimation of the population and growth rate.

Preparing ID kits is a long and on-going process, as it takes time to collect data and photographic mater and animals might change their characteristics between identification. Unlike humans, nature is not in a hurry!

 

Volunteers have a key role in photographing the animals and are taught how to take ID photos and what to look for in any monitored species. The material collected is added to the computer for the LEO staff members, who will use it to update the data sheets and ID kits.

 

Getting to know the individuals and watching their social interactions in the wild is really special and identifying them correctly is a great reward!

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