A recent study about hyenas co-existing with humans offers a small insight into the question of “why can’t we all get along?”
Gidey Yirgaa, a professor at Mekelle University in Ethiopia and the study’s lead author, argues that the findings reveal a “remarkable case of co-existence between spotted hyena and local communities.” He and an international team of researchers studied a large population of spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), who are common large carnivores in sub-Saharan Africa. In many parts of Ethiopia, the hyenas are the most important large scavengers and hunters.
The researchers found that, in the Wukro district in northern Ethiopia (where the human population density is 98 persons per square kilometer), the hyena density is 52 hyenas per 100 square kilometer or a total population of 535 hyenas in the district. The researchers measured the density of the hyenas by playing two different kinds of sounds (gnu-hyena distress sounds and sounds of spotted hyena only) through a megaphone at randomly selected locations.
This area of Ethiopia has little natural prey due to agriculture, which has “degraded and fragmented” the habitat. The hyenas’ diet was found to consist almost entirely of “anthropogenic food,” based on analysis of their droppings. 99 percent of the hyenas’ diet was found to consist of domestic animals, especially cattle, donkeys, goats and sheep.
From this, the researchers concluded that hyenas in significant numbers are living in proximity to human communities in Africa “without coming into conflict.” The reason the hyenas can coexist is that the cost of livestock predation to the local residents is “relatively low.” Indeed, the hyenas’ scavenging serves a purpose that is “mutually beneficial” and provides them with food at a “marginal and tolerable” cost to humans: the hyenas benefit from the waste humans dispose of while human communities are provided with a “waste-clearing service.”
Thus, the hyenas’ scavenging serves a purpose and, contrary to what might be thought, “large carnivores could coexist with people at remarkably low costs,” says Yirgaa.
The Value of Scientific Inquiry
The study in the journal Mammalian Biology is a reminder of the value of scientific investigation. In popular culture — movies such as The Lion King and the earlier The Jungle Book, as well as the Rudyard Kipling books — hyenas are portrayed as ever-hovering-nearby scavengers always on the scent for some other animal’s discarded prey.
While it would be stretching things to say the study by Yirgaa and his colleagues revitalizes the image of hyenas, their study does show how scientific inquiry can produce results that often confound our preconceived notions.
Sadly, Co-existence Does Not Always Seem Possible
Conflicts with humans over habitats is an often cited reason for wildlife, including an endangered species like lions, being killed. As human communities infringe on the habitats for wildlife, decisions (certainly not easy ones) must be made to translocate the animals or even to euthanize them.
A New York Times article described just such a dilemma regarding a lioness with three cubs in the suburbs of Nairobi. The animals were tranquilized (by twelve rangers and three veterinarians from the Kenya Wildlife Service) and removed to Meru National Park, about 200 miles northeast of Nairobi, where the fate of the lioness and her cubs is uncertain. Lions are highly territorial and it is likely that the existing lion population in the park will force the newcomers to the boundaries where they will end up feeding on livestock and in conflict with humans.
Hyenas and humans living side by side in Ethiopia suggests that, yes, coexistence with some species is possible and that scientific study can help us to discover something very different from what fiction and the movies tell us.
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Photo by Gusjer