Life on the savannah ain't easy. In a ruthless landscape where it pays to be resilient, few animals show more mettle than Africa’s spotted hyenas. The carnivores are well cast for the part of dogged diehard: shaggy coat, awkward gait, lingering smell of death, iconic cackle, toothy snarl ... you’d be hard-pressed to find an animal that exudes more rugged survivability. And that reputation is backed up by records of unbelievable persistence and tolerance for injury.

On a recent game drive in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, tourist Nelson Cruz captured footage of a hyena resolutely going about its business despite having just lost a large a portion of one of its hind legs to an agitated lioness. Just moments before, the hirsute predator had staged an ill-fated attempt to snatch the lioness’s cub. “The mother of the cubs was not having any of it and charged the hyena,” Cruz told Latest Sightings, who uploaded the footage last month. [The lioness] managed to actually bite his entire foot off!”

Crippled from the clash but still surprisingly agile, the hyena moved to the water’s edge to drink before clambering back to the tarmac, where it stumbled straight into an ambush. A lioness, perfectly concealed in the tawny grass beside the road, watched as its crippled foe approached. By the time the hyena caught sight of the cat, it was too late.

The lioness surged from its grassy hideout, triggering an eruption of howls and squeals from the injured hyena. Almost playfully, the lioness herded her adversary back to the water’s edge where she eventually dispatched of it. “Later on, we watched how the whole lion pride crossed the road to get to the river, where the hyena was killed, so they could finish off the feast,” Cruz recalls.

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It’s the sort of brutal ending one might expect from a clash between age-old rivals, but it’s also a reminder of just how tough hyenas can be in the face of grisly circumstances. Had this crippled carnivore evaded the ambush, it may very well have adjusted to three-legged life. “Over the years, we have seen spotted hyenas survive horrific injuries, including losing a foot to a snare, losing a leg after being hit by a car, having a snare cut through to the trachea, and of course being mauled by lions,” Dr Stephanie Dloniak, biologist and chair of the IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group, told us via email.

Spotted hyenas are conditioned for hardship from birth. Within minutes of entering the world, cubs begin tussling for dominance. Unlike many other predators, the animals are born with eyes open and a full set of teeth (which is instantly put to the test in bouts of attempted fratricide). Clan hierarchies are governed by dominant females and it is usually the “fairer-sexed” cubs that assert their authority over their male siblings. It’s not uncommon for cubs to die during these aggressive brawls.

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Hyenas are masterful scavengers and will readily eat rotten meat. Image: Mike Dexter/Barcroft

Most hyenas (especially those lowly males) enter adulthood as battle-scarred survivors of a harsh matriarchal social system ruled by violence and in-fighting – that’s if they make it at all (about one in four newborns are killed by their own kin, and many more lose their lives to other predators). Young adults inherit their clan rank from their mothers, and lower-ranking individuals will inevitably face tougher challenges as they grapple for food and fend off attacks from those who outrank them.

So communal living does not necessarily make life any easier for a hyena harbouring an injury. “The society is competitive and adult hyenas do not provision each other with food," Dloniak explains. "However, the ability of a hyena to survive an injury does depend on its social rank within its clan. Higher-ranked hyenas grow faster, have higher levels of growth factors during development, and have higher ‘bacterial-killing capacity’ than lower ranked hyenas.”

It pays, then, for an injured individual to rub shoulders with the upper echelons of hyena society. Members that associate with higher-ranking individuals in the clan may have increased access to food and resources. In the case of brown hyenas – the spotted hyena's smaller, shaggier cousin – group living may be a life-saver. “Injured brown hyenas can profit from food that is brought back to the den and therefore have a higher chance of survival than being on their own,” explains Dr Ingrid Wiesel who runs Namibia’s Brown Hyena Research Project. “I once observed a blind brown hyena following a clan member to and from the seal colony to ‘steal’ leftover food,” she adds.

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Mastery in the art of scavenging is another strongpoint in the hyenas' impressive survival strategy. Although they are capable of chasing down their own prey, hyenas will regularly plunder kills from other predators. Kleptoparasitism (and the ability to stomach just about anything that vaguely resembles food) helps the hyenas secure a top rung on the predatory ladder.

Wildlife filmmaker and barefooted bushveld-stalwart Kim Wolhuter has witnessed firsthand the tenacity of these carnivorous survivors. While filming in Mashatu Game Reserve a few years ago, Wolhuter captured remarkable footage of an earless hyena walking competently on its front legs, while its injured back limbs dangled neatly behind. Wolhuter, who has a reputation for his close kinship with predators, began to piece together the astounding tale of the “bipedal” carnivore.

Although Mahono will rest on her back legs, when she needs to move quickly, this bipedal method seems most effective.

It is believed that she was once the matriarch of her clan before a violent coup left her close to death. After witnessing other members of the clan savagely tear at her hind legs and rip off both of her ears, local guides were convinced that the hyena would succumb to its injuries. Incredibly, she survived the mauling, and was nicknamed "Mahono" (which loosely translates to “she with no ears” in a local dialect).

Stripped of her matriarchal command, Mahono was forced to grovel for scraps at meal times. Despite her grim circumstances, Mahono successfully raised a cub more than two years after being struck down in her prime, beating seemingly insurmountable odds. “As the lowest-ranking member, she's made it for the last nine years on her own,” Wolhuter told us. “Since I shot that video, her back left paw has rotted off. The stump is clean and she at times rests on it. Her back right paw was badly bitten between the digits and is very painful to use.”

An ambassador of spotted hyena resilience, Mahono may be an exceptional case, but she is not the only disabled hyena on record. A three-legged cub has been observed in South Africa's Pondoro Game Lodge playfully hobbling with his den mates, while researchers over in Kenya watched a determined hyena bounce back to raise cubs after suffering two broken back legs. Dr Wiesel has also documented three-legged brown hyenas eking out an existence along Namibia’s famously harsh coastline. Hyena survival, it seems, is not directly dependent on a full leg count.

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In addition to an astonishing ability to live with crippling injuries, spotted hyenas rarely succumb to diseases. Well-developed immune defences that are likely the result of years of munching on rotting carrion give hyenas an added edge over their more disease-prone adversaries. “In order to reap the benefits of scavenging, a hyena must be able to withstand exposure to pathogens at carcasses,” says Dloniak. “Wild hyenas in fact show much higher levels of natural antibodies than do captive hyenas, suggesting a stronger immune response as a result of exposure in their environment.” Social rank is also an important factor in immune-defence development: individuals with a higher standing in the clan are likely to have an increased tolerance to disease.

Of course, hyena hardiness cannot defend against well-timed swipes from stronger predators, and many of the sloped-back scavengers succumb to the might of their feline adversaries. Hyenas that walk away from these brutal clashes are testament to the injury-adapting, disease-resisting, death-defying power of one of Africa's most impressive super survivors.



Top header image: Temple Travels