Imagine a pig with an elongated snout. Now add a pair of rabbit-like ears, slap on a kangaroo tail, and balance the whole lot on four stumpy legs and you've basically got an aardvark – a creature so strange it looks like a child's drawing come to life. These unusual insect-eaters prefer to do their dining under the cover of darkness, so whilst you'd certainly know it if you saw one, you'd be hard-pressed to actually find an aardvark shuffling across the African plains. On a recent late-afternoon foray in South Africa's Greater Mabula Private Game Reserve some of the staff were fortunate enough to catch up with an aardvark that was out for an earlier-than-usual forage. Things got really interesting, however, when a hungry brown hyena turned up on the same plain ...

The group were on route to admire an ancient wild fig tree when they received word of an aardvark in the area, and redirected their course to an open plain where the animal was foraging. "As we were admiring the aardvark, our guide – Andrew – noticed a brown hyena approaching," the team explained to Latest Sightings. Brown hyenas – smaller, shaggier versions of their more well-known spotted cousins – are fairly common predators at Mabula, although they, too, are typically only seen at night. After sussing out the situation, the hyena began to move in for the pursuit. "At first, we thought that the brown hyena had spotted something else that it had begun to chase – perhaps an antelope or smaller animal like a scrub hare that we couldn’t see. It was only once the aardvark began running that we realised that the brown hyena was actually targeting the aardvark!"

Brown hyenas are opportunistic predators with a well-developed hunting instinct, explains Dr Ingrid Wiesel of Namibia's Brown Hyena Research Project. "They often chase potential prey, but their success rate seems to be low," she told us via email. Although scat (poop) analysis does indicate that aardvarks form part of the brown hyenas' diet, it's unclear how often these animals are targeted given how rare it is to witness brown hyenas on the hunt.

The aardvark, in this case, was surprisingly quick to react. Despite its stout appearance, it was able to nimbly zig-zag across an open plain – its narrow escape culminating in a spectacular head-first dive into a nearby burrow. "The hyena tried to bite into the skull, a method that they also use with seal pups along the Namibian coast," explains Dr Wiesel. Hyenas have an impressive bite force and can swiftly dispatch their prey with a crushing bite to the head. Although an aardvark may seem too hefty a meal for a hyena, the predators are capable of tackling medium-sized prey when the opportunity presents itself.

"The feelings of pure astonishment, amazement, and disbelief were overwhelming!" the Mabula team said, recalling the moment the pursuit played out." We had never imagined that an aardvark was able to run so quickly and to see it escape into its burrow was a moment of absolute awe." There was one last surge of drama to complete the already astonishing sighting: a herd of wildebeest watching the action from the sidelines took exception to the hyena's presence and ushered it off the plain. 

"This sighting of the interaction between the brown hyena and the aardvark was exceptionally rare. On the Greater Mabula Private Game Reserve, we are fortunate enough to spot brown hyena and aardvark on a regular basis, but never had we witnessed the two species interacting before! It’s amazing to now be able to firmly say that aardvark is one of the potential prey species of the brown hyenas in this area."

Header image: Louise Joubert