‘Wolfies ♫ … wolfies ♪’ Brown hyena researcher Emsie Verwey sings out softly as she approaches her Hoanib River study clan’s den.
At this den, a 20-minute walk up into a rocky outcrop just a few kilometres from Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, are three eight-month-old cubs, tussling over zebra remains brought to them earlier by an elder from the clan. Long ears pricked, they briefly stop what they’re doing to acknowledge their sister, then resume their tug-of-war.
Also known as the strandwolf, brown hyenas are the least-studied of the large carnivores. All this changed in Namibia some five years ago when Emsie realised she needed to focus her research on these inscrutable scavengers. She studies the behaviour ecology and population dynamics of three clans around Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp: one based in the Hoanib River, one in the Hoanib Floodplain and one at Möwe Bay.
Emsie has been based at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp since it’s opening in 2014, and our guests are treated to a presentation on her work when she is in camp.
There are four members of the Hyaenidae family – spotted hyena, striped hyena, aardwolf and brown hyena – the latter being endemic to southern Africa, and listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List, with an estimated population size of less than 10 000.
These curious carnivores are solitary scavengers, yet highly social at their dens, with clan sizes in Emsie’s study ranging from six to ten in number, and their home range sizes varying from 500 km2 (the Möwe Clan) to 2 000 km2 (the Hoanib River Clan).
These dens are the meeting points for the clans, whose every member looks after the cubs by bringing them food. They enjoy a varied diet, including rodents, birds, fruit and mammal remains. The coastal brown hyena clan lives mainly off seal remains, while the Floodplain Clan will occasionally come down to the coast (some 30 km) to take seal remains for the den.
More Fascinating Facts
The brown hyena gestation period is three months, with average litter sizes of two to three cubs.
Cubs suckle for nine to 12 months, but eat solid foods from three-months-old.
They remain at their den for 12-15 months, and are considered an adult at 30 months.
Brown hyenas will walk an average of 30 km a night to find food.
Their main form of communication is scent-marking, and they are not as vocal as the spotted hyena.
‘I was very saddened that spotted hyenas were called "revolting scavengers" in the latest Lion King movie – once again giving hyenas as a species a bad reputation’, observes Emsie.
‘Over the past five years I have come to know brown hyenas as highly intelligent, resourceful and diligent. As cleaners, they are vitally important to an ecosystem. I have seen them operate in relentless conditions. To survive as a large scavenger in the desert is no mean feat. Hyenas deserve our respect and acceptance as an important part of the Circle of Life, with a more objective attitude toward them’.
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