There are four hyena species: the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) has the widest distribution and lives in North and East Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, the aardwolf (Proteles cristata) is an insectivorous mammal, native to East and Southern Africa and rarely seen.
The Brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) is found in Namibia, Botswana, western and southern Zimbabwe, southern Mozambique and South Africa. It is currently the rarest species of hyena.
The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) also known as the laughing hyena is found in Sub-Saharan Africa. They were extremely abundant in the Kenya bush, more so than the smaller striped variety. The latter we only encountered rarely but we got to “know” their spotted cousins quite well!
Hyenas in general have a bad reputation as the villains of the bush, considered as mean and dirty scavengers and even their sexuality has been doubted accusing them of being hermaphrodites! Hyenas are scavengers and as such the play an essential role consuming dead animals, particularly with their ability of cracking hard bones. They are also superb hunters and often lions feed from animals killed by spotted hyenas!
A hyena performing its carrion-eater role.
I have watched them hunting wildebeest and Thomson’s gazelles in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and admire their ability to select the prey and run after it through the vast herds without losing it and taking turns to chase their selected prey until they tire it, immobilize it and kill it. No kill, except perhaps a cheetah kill, is carried out in a “clinical” way and, admittedly hyenas tend to tear their victims apart, a gruesome sight but part of nature.
They are highly intelligent, social animals that can be dangerous to humans as they can weigh up to 90 kg and are armed with large teeth capable of crushing bones. Their jaws have a bite force of 1100 psi, stronger than both lion (650 psi) and tiger (1050 psi) . In all our years camping, we have always treated them with great respect and, although we hear them almost every night and have had them real close, we have never had a problem with them.
Camping anywhere in Kenya you were likely to hear the unmistakable whoop call of hyenas after dark. They walk through the bush and they pass near camps in search of food and they also “check” dustbins, not only at campsites but also in human dwellings. As an aside, the best known example of hyenas coming close to humans takes place at Harar in Ethiopia (See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2079781.stm) and more recently, spotted hyenas are getting closer to Addis Ababa suburbs (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26294631) the same way that foxes inhabit London (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/shortcuts/2013/feb/11/urban-foxes-fact-fiction).
Although we have heard their laugh, the most heard is the whoop call repeated a few times while moving about in the dark at a prudent distance from your camp. They rarely enter the circle of light of a campsite while you are there but they can come close once you get inside your tent and switch the lights off.
As I mentioned earlier I used to camp at Intona and it was there that I had hyenas every night and learnt to be careful with them. I immediately learnt not to leave anything edible (including my shoes) outside for the night as there were several animals keeping an eye on me!
The first time I camped there, sometime after I went to bed I could hear something sniffing all around the tent and realized that I was being checked for edible stuff! I calmed down when I realized that it was only a white tailed mongoose. However, the following morning both my butter and sufferier (saucepan in Ki-Swahili) were gone! Although I never found the former, careful search revealed a discarded alluminium bubblegum ball lying on the grass some distance away from the camp, a show of the hyenas’ jaw power! I learnt not to leave my utensils outside!
Care to keep edible stuff inside the car helped to keep a truce between us and our night visitors, including the hyenas. However, mistakes from our part had bad consequences. This is what happened while camping at the Sand River campsite in the Maasai Mara when, in the middle of the night we heard loud noises and noted that our cool box (left out by mistake) was being carried away!
With Mark, one of my herdsmen, we ran some distance searching with torches and found an untouched frozen chicken, still wrapped from the supermarket, lying on the sandy river bed! We followed the noise and the trail of bacon rashes, milk cartons and soda and beer bottles until we caught a glimpse of the offending hyena that was carrying the rather large cool box in its mouth!
Fortunately, when we shone our torches at it, the box was dropped and the intruder took off! The chewed cool box, minus one handle (used to carry it by the intruder), was still useful for that trip after a good wash but the deep teeth holes it had were too many and it was discarded after returning to Nairobi.
Sometimes hyenas call your attention when busy doing their own business, not necessarily associated with your presence. I recall a couple of incidents while camping at the Mara Buffalo Camp in the Maasai Mara.
One night, after dinner Mabel and I were getting ready to retire to our tent when we started hearing hyenas laughing and a loud squealing coming from the Mara river area, some distance from our camp. We assumed that a warthog was caught and it was responsible for such a loud noise so we jumped in the car and went to investigate.
When we approached the source of the crying we realized that whatever it was, was on the other side of the river so we decided that it was not worth pursuing our investigation. We were turning around to get back when we heard the loud trumpeting of an elephant approaching. Soon, a very agitated cow elephant made an appearance running up and down on our side of the riverbank without paying any attention to us.
We shone the torches to the area where the trouble was and through the bushes saw a small elephant being kept at bay by several hyenas. Clearly the situation of the youngster was getting more desperate by the minute and so was our anxiety growing! Eventually, the female elephant found a suitable place, jumped into the water and crossed the river. It surprised the hyenas that it chased all over the place and reunited with its calf. The hyenas stayed around for a while still laughing loudly but the elephants were soon gone and so did we after such a good ending for an exciting evening entertainment!
The next incident, I am afraid, does not have a good ending. We were arriving from Nairobi following a road near the Mara river towards our usual camp site next to the Mara Buffalo Camp when we noticed a sitting giraffe. Unusually it was still seated when we approached it and it did not get up. Clearly it was sick or wounded and not in good shape. Aware of the predator numbers that were in the area we decided that we would come back later in the afternoon to investigate.
We heard them before we saw them. A pack of about 30 hyenas were laughing while feasting on the freshly killed giraffe. It was a true pandemonium as the hyenas -probably from several clans- competed for a place at the large carcass that was literally swarming with hyenas. Mesmerized we watched until the day light allowed and then with the car lights until a good amount of the giraffe had gone and returned to camp feeling sorry for the unfortunate victim.
The following morning, just before departing for Intona ranch, we returned to the place and only found a few scattered broken bones and a few vultures searching for some remains that the hyenas had left behind.
 A surprise to me was to learn that this species also occures in the Mana Pools National Park area, reported by Seymour-Smith, J.L. and Loveridge, A. J. (2015). Mana Pools National Park Predator Survey. Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.