While bumping down a gravel track in India’s Sariska Tiger Reserve last year, tour guide and naturalist Niranjan Singh Rajput stumbled across a writhing ball of stripes and fur. Initially, the experienced guide thought he was looking at one of the reserve’s 14 tigers, but it turned out to be something far more unusual: a pair of striped hyenas in the throes of a territorial battle.

(Protip: The best stuff happens after Rajput’s cameo at 00:56)

“This is a real knock-down, drag-out fight, probably between territorial males,” explains Dr Richard D. Estes, a biologist specialising in mammal behaviour. “Muzzle-wrestling is the modus operandi.” 

Striped hyenas (Hyaena hyaena) are dog-like omnivores that roam north and east Africa, the Middle East, central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The scraggly species sports black stripes that cut through a shaggy beige or grey coat accented with an impressive crest of hair – which stands erect when the animal feels threatened. 

This particular tussle meets all the criteria of a turf war. When striped hyenas fight, they usually attack each other’s cheeks, neck and rump, sometimes dropping to their knees to protect their vulnerable front limbs. Like many other territorial animals, the species uses scent-marking to claim its domain – and in typical hyena style, it’s pretty vile. The hyenas smear grass stalks with a pungent paste secreted from an anal pouch, letting the neighbours know when they’re home.

If a rival hyena ignores the malodorous goop and crosses enemy lines, dramatic fights can break out, and much neck-nipping and face-wrangling ensues. The very bold stripe pattern visible on both individuals in this footage might be another clue that this is a territorial dispute. “It suggests an excess of testosterone,” says Dr Estes, explaining that the striping is exaggerated when males are feeling particularly macho.

The social lives of striped hyenas are still a bit of a mystery, but some experts speculate that they have a similar family life to the less striking brown hyena. Much like their unkempt cousins from the south, striped hyenas are solitary foragers, but they do seem to enjoy a bit of company on occasion. There are records of the species associating with family groups, and subadults have been recorded taking food to younger siblings at a central den. It’s still unclear, however, if the species prefers communal living on a full-time basis.

These pointy-eared bone crushers are usually seen alone, and they rarely emerge outside of their nightly foraging hours, making Rajput’s sighting all the more special. Much of what we know about the species comes from the well-studied African populations, so sightings like this one can play a part in helping experts figure out if the ecology of Asia’s hyenas differs from that of their cousins on the desert plains of north and east Africa.



Header image: Jenis Patel