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The horses of witches

A small sliver of moon peeps through the dense leaf cover. Somewhere a shadow moves, stops, moves again and then emits a haunting whooooooop. Alone in the night amongst the mopane trees, the waterbuck bull freezes in his tracks when he smells the rancid scent of the ghostly beast. Is it really danger or is it mockery? Better to move to open space where the moonlight protects the prey against the predator. Whooooooop! It becomes too much for the curved-horned antelope and it trots off to the open pan where water is a safe haven. The horse of witches has once again instilled a ghostly fear in the creatures of the wilderness….

Spotted hyenas, Crocuta crocuta, are surrounded by myths and legends amongst both Western and African people. The hemi-penis of females catalysed the belief that they are hermaphrodites or bisexual, but that is not the case. Their haunting calls and wicked laughter instilled a universal fear in mankind with the belief that they are the horses of witches.

Fear and myths have unfortunately led to their demise. Outside of the large conservation areas of South Africa spotted hyenas are rare or totally absent. It is thus a privilege to come across them on game ranches where some people tolerate their existence.

Afrikaans speakers often refer to the spotted hyena as spikkelwolf or tierwolf. Wolf is derived from the first European’s incorrect identification of hyenas as wolves. Spikkel describes the spots of the animal and tier shows how colloquial language can take long roads to come to conclusions: European people arriving in South Africa incorrectly called the leopard tier, a name still used today for the leopard. Thence came the spotted hyena: dotted with spots like a leopard, and thus the name tierwolf.

Hyenas are not related to dogs and therefore the wolf connotation only exists in local language. They are closer to cats and mongooses than to dog-like creatures such as wolves and jackals.

In Africa and the Middle East the spotted hyena has three cousins namely the striped hyena, Hyena hyena, the aardwolf, Proteles cristatus, and the brown hyena, Parahyena brunnea. All have sloping bodies but different appearances and different behaviours and habits. The spotted hyena is the most active hunter and when packs go on a hunt, they can bring large animals like kudu down. They are scavengers as well and finish off the bones of carcasses with very powerful jaws. A single crunch will break the thigh bone of a giraffe into splinters that are swallowed as prime nutrition.

Spotted hyenas live in clans that are dominated by an alpha female. Clans have a network of dens where pups are born and weaned. Tragically pups have a low survival rate and fall prey to lions and leopards. However, should a single lion or leopard be trapped by a strong clan, the scavengers will inflict serious damage to the prime predators. Clans can also displace lions, leopards and especially cheetahs from their kills and consume the prey rapidly. Bones and carcass remains are often carried back to dens where pups play and chew on the bones. This is usually telltale signs of an active den with adults and probably pups. Pups are very active in the early morning, playing around the den, scrumming for dominance. This is where they may become vulnerable to passing lions and leopards.

Spotted hyenas are an asset to wildlife ranches. They contribute to healthy game herds by sorting out weakened animals and in times of drought and hardship they cull drought-stricken animals. Remains of slaughtered game can also be offered to spotted hyenas that will clean up and help to manage intestines and skeletons. Night time presents a special aura if the howls of jackals are supplemented by the calls of spotted hyenas.

I have had the grand opportunity to follow spotted hyenas on foot while hunting impala. If you remain obscured and quietly follow them, they appear to be at ease with your presence. It is interesting to note that spotted hyenas are generally quiet in areas where they are persecuted, while being their vocal self in safe areas.

The horses of witches are just like all other wild animals, nothing sinister, nothing magical, just animals that need a habitat and ecosystem to support them in their own existence.

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