Hyenas are icons of resilience. These shaggy coated survivors have built a reputation for tolerating injuries and persisting in an often-ruthless landscape. But when two dogged diehards go head to head the results can be dramatic (and a little hard to watch – be warned):

This heart-wrenching footage was captured by Vicky Stephenson, a field guide and camp manager at Ingwelala in South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park. "Strange hyena calls" echoing from a riverbed first alerted Stephenson to the unusual sighting. When she arrived the hirsute predators were already in the throes of a territorial battle.

"We were all shocked as it was the first time any of us had seen such a vicious fight between hyenas," Stephenson told Latest Sightings. "It was brutal to watch as the hyena being attacked was already badly injured and looked terrified, exhausted and in pain." Despite the savagery of the scene, Stephenson felt compelled to continue watching as she had never witnessed this kind of behaviour from hyenas before. Although a harsh reminder of the ruthlessness of the animal kingdom, the sighting offered intriguing insights into hyena clan life and social hierarchies.

The battle raged on and off for about two hours before Stephenson opted to leave the imperilled hyena in peace. “We saw the attacker and two others heading down the road towards the injured hyena, and at that stage, we knew that the hyena would not survive the last fight.” Their prediction was later confirmed by others present at the sighting.

Curious about the startling behaviour, Stephenson reached out to a hyena expert. “She explained that the four hyenas involved were all males. The young hyena (she could tell by the teeth) being attacked had probably recently left his clan to find another clan to join, as males will do to ensure genetic variation. The three males of this territory weren’t happy about it, which is something that happens from time to time.”

Scuffles for food or minor disagreements are fairly commonplace in hyena society, but a lengthy, brutal battle like this is rarely witnessed and portrays the hardships that may be in store for young hyenas looking to establish a territory of their own. “Even though it’s never pleasant watching any animal in pain, it is nature, which always has a purpose,” says Stephenson.

Top header image: orkomedix, Flickr