Hyena Research

Victoria Falls

Hyena Research in Victoria Falls

The Zambezi Hyena Project was initiated in August 2015 by the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) in partnership with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) and Lion Encounter (LE). Since then, a number of milestones have been attained and new research questions have arisen pertaining to the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) population in Zambezi National Park (ZNP) and surround.

As one of the apex predators, hyenas have an important ecological role for maintaining prey populations and controlling the disease. As predators, they are often involved in incidences of human-wildlife conflict. Understanding the ecology and behaviour of the spotted hyena is of great conservation importance to provide evidence-based management guidelines for conservation practitioners, researchers and reserve managers and mitigation of conflict with humans.

This project aims to assess the population ecology of the spotted hyenas and also their relationship with their key competitors such as lions. The survey also aims to identify key habitat elements which are the den sites and establish a description of the hyenas in terms of their mortality and survival as well as establish their key food sources.

Hyena is chiefly nocturnal, therefore studying them entails a great deal of challenging night work. monitoring a small number of collared individuals, coupled with the use of camera traps is yielding valuable information on the population size, movements and home ranges of the hyena within the park and surrounding areas. Scat analysis is providing further information on the diets and prey preferences. Increasing the number of monitored individuals will produce more comprehensive data and improve our emerging understanding of the population and its dynamics.

Findings to date:

Miss Shirley Tseisi, a BSc (Hon) Forest Resources and Wildlife Management student from the National University of Science and Technology completed a thesis entitled “Factors influencing the spatial distribution of spotted hyaenas (Crocuta crocuta) in the Zambezi National Park,” based on work done whilst on attachment with the organisation in 2016/2017. 

The results obtained indicated that spotted hyaenas were not selective of any habitat type within the park and their distribution did not differ according to season or prey distribution. However, spotted hyaenas did show high preference for areas with low vegetation densities over those with high vegetation densities during the wet season but not during the dry season.

This may be because vegetation density is low in the dry season when tree types such as Teak, Acacia and Terminalia shed their leaves and visibility is good. Spotted hyaenas display efficient and flexible hunting strategies, they do not require cover to sneak up on their prey. They can detect their prey from a distance by sight and due to their hunting techniques are able to take down prey after chasing it over long distances. They may also use vulture presence to detect carrion or due to their high auditory ability to detect kills by hearing other carnivores making a kill up 10km away. Spotted hyaenas distribution is not influenced by prey species distribution as they are not only hunters but also scavenge.

Miss Sandra Masike, a BSc (Hon) Biological Sciences from the University of Zimbabwe completed her thesis entitled “Prey species preference of spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta): A comparison between different sections of the Zambezi National Park “, based on work done whilst on attachment with the organisation between August 2017 and July 2018. The diet of the spotted hyena was determined from a microscopic examination of hairs isolated from 85 hyena scat samples (34 collected from the Zambezi side of the park and 51 from the Chamabondo side of the park).

A total of 8 and 9 mammal prey species were determined in Chamabondo and Zambezi respectively. The results showed that spotted hyenas in Zambezi National Park have a local prey preference which is probably a factor of a high number of local prey; the frequency of occurrence of species seen in the wild appears to be correlated with the frequency of occurrence of hairs found in hyena scat. Impala had the highest frequency of occurrence seen in the wild and recorded in hyena scat from both study areas.

Eland did not contribute to the diet composition of the spotted hyena in either study area, possibly as a result of their low population’s numbers ni the park. The spotted hyena diet composition differed between the two study areas, with Common Duiker, Sable and Zebra being only found in scat collected in Chamabondo whereas Bushbuck, Giraffe, Kudu and Waterbuck were only found in scat collected on the Zambezi side of the park. Interestingly 17 of the scat samples contained no visible hairs.

These were collected in areas near to residential areas suggesting that hyenas found there feed on food sources from areas such as the town dumpsite or sites where waste is dumped illegally.

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