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Hyenas and Humans: We Can Get Along Together

Hyenas and Humans: We Can Get Along Together

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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72 comments

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8:58AM PDT on May 28, 2013

dear Chris R, can u give me a number of the hunters who have been killing those hyenas over years after years and push them aside with no option of food as they also have been killing them too?as they r cleaning their homes- forests in the name of *civilization"?can u give me a number of hyenas who have been killed by humans for no reason but just the pleasure of haunting? as u know human don't eat them and can u give me a statistics where your *numbers* will show how much humans have been killed by hyenas for food and how much hyenas have been killed by human for mere pleasure? if u can provide those numbers i'll really appreciate it!

8:44AM PDT on May 28, 2013

sorry to say and pls dont mind but ur info r giving wrong impressions here and it may encourage people to kill the hyenas rather than saving them. thank u .

8:40AM PDT on May 28, 2013

ohh but can u give me number of people who have been killing hyenas for years after years, push them aside with no local food as they have killed/took them also? can u give me a number of how much hyenas have been killed since we can count numbers? i'll really appreciate it if u can!

2:35PM PST on Nov 29, 2012

Striped hyenas have preyed on humans. In the 1880s, a hyena was reported to have attacked humans, especially sleeping children, over a three-year period in the Iğdır Province, with 25 children and 3 adults being wounded in one year. The attacks provoked local authorities into announcing a reward of 100 rubles for every hyena killed. Further attacks were reported later in some parts of Transcaucasia, particularly in 1908. Instances are known in Azerbaijan of striped hyenas killing children sleeping in courtyards during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1942, a sleeping guard was mauled in his hut by a hyena in Golyndzhakh. Cases of children being taken by hyenas by night are known in southeast Turkmenia's Bathyz Nature Reserve. A further attack on a child was reported around Saraghs in 1948. Several attacks have occurred in India; in 1962, nine children were thought to have been taken by hyenas in the town of Bhagalpur in the Bihar State in a six week period and 19 children up to the age of four were killed by hyenas in Karnataka, Bihar in 1974. A consensus on wild animal attacks during a five-year period in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh showed that hyenas had attacked three people.

2:34PM PST on Nov 29, 2012

In modern times, according to the SGDRN (Sociedade para a Gestão e Desenvolvimento da Reserva do Niassa Moçambique), attacks on humans by spotted hyenas are likely to be underreported. According to hyena expert Dr. Hans Kruuk, man-eating spotted hyenas tend to be very large specimens: A pair of man-eating hyenas, responsible for killing 27 people in Mlanje, Malawi in 1962, were weighed at 72 kg (159 lb) and 77 kg (170 lb) after being shot.
In 1903, Hector Duff wrote of how spotted hyenas in the Mzimba district of Angoniland would wait at dawn outside people's huts and attack them when they opened their doors. Victims of spotted hyenas tend to be women, children and sick or infirm men: Theodore Roosevelt wrote on how in 1908-1909 in Uganda, spotted hyenas regularly killed sufferers of African sleeping sickness as they slept outside in camps. Spotted hyenas are widely feared in Malawi, where they have been known to occasionally attack people at night, particularly during the hot season when people sleep outside. Hyena attacks were widely reported in Malawi's Phalombe plain, to the north of Michesi Mountain. Five deaths were recorded in 1956, five in 1957 and six in 1958. This pattern continued until 1961 when eight people were killed. Attacks occurred most commonly in September, when people slept outdoors, and bush fires made the hunting of wild game difficult for the hyenas. An anecdotal news report from the World Wide Fund for Nature 2004 indicates that 35 peo

2:33PM PST on Nov 29, 2012

Among hyenas, only the spotted and striped hyena have been known to become man-eaters. Hyenas are known to have preyed on humans in prehistory: Human hair has been found in fossilised hyena dung dating back 195,000 to 257,000 years.[44] Some paleontologists believe that competition and predation by cave hyenas in Siberia was a significant factor in delaying human colonization of Alaska. Hyenas may have occasionally stolen human kills, or entered campsites to drag off the young and weak, much like modern spotted hyenas in Africa. The oldest Alaskan human remains coincide with roughly the same time cave hyenas became extinct, leading certain paleontologists to infer that hyena predation was what prevented humans from crossing the Bering strait earlier.[45] Hyenas readily scavenge from human corpses; in Ethiopia, hyenas were reported to feed extensively on the corpses of victims of the 1960 attempted coup[46] and the Red Terror.[47] Hyenas habituated to scavenging on human corpses may develop bold behaviours towards living people; hyena attacks on people in southern Sudan increased during the Second Sudanese Civil War, when human corpses were readily available to them.[48]

Although spotted hyenas do prey on humans in modern times, such incidences are rare. However, according to the SGDRN (Sociedade para a Gestão e Desenvolvimento da Reserva do Niassa Moçambique), attacks on humans by spotted hyenas are likely to be underreported.[49] According to hyena expert D

11:02AM PST on Nov 21, 2012

Animals have figured it out but us humans can't seem to grasp the concept and I fear we never will. How sad...........................

6:20AM PST on Nov 12, 2012

interesting article, thanks for sharing :)

7:33PM PST on Nov 9, 2012

humans & animals can coexist if humans even try.....unfortunately humans kill, torture, antagonize, intrude, etc animals for no apparent reason. (Hunting is no apparent reason)

7:23PM PST on Nov 9, 2012

Good article with a real message. Our OPINIONS are not necessarily the truth about any situation. Those native peoples who have not been compromised by the industrial world have always been able to live with the creatures around them. We were just too arrogant and ignorant to have learned from these people, and instead, murdered them;

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