Readers’ wildlife photos

January 2, 2020 • 8:00 am

Today we have a series of hyenas from Ralph Burgess, whose notes are indented. The photos were taken in Kruger National Park in South Africa.

In September you posted some of my pictures of spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) cubs that are being raised in a culvert that several females in a hyena clan have used for many years.   The mother leaves them safe in a narrow culvert under a road when she goes off to hunt.  The youngest pair were only a few weeks old in September.  They are inquisitive and seemingly fearless (at least of humans), but when I went back in November they had both survived and were clearly thriving.

Their black coats at birth have started to give way to a paler coat with spots, and their heads are much paler than their bodies.  Here’s one play-fighting with an older sibling, the picture is a little confusing until you work out that the light colored head is attached to the dark colored body.
At about 3 months they are still solely dependent on milk. They don’t wean until a year old.
Hyena social structure is based on competition and dominance.  It’s fascinating to watch a group when they are active – you see constant squabbling, fearsome mock attacks, ear-biting etc., but at the same time it’s clearly a strongly cohesive clan.
This sequence shows the “negotiations” involved in getting to a point where momma can get some love from an older pair of cubs:




Remarkably, I discovered that black-backed jackals (Canis mesomelas) are now raising a litter in the adjacent culvert, no more than 100 feet away.  I can’t fathom why the jackals see this as a safe place, as even a juvenile hyena would make mincemeat of an adult jackal, and predators often instinctively kill one another’s young.  It’s an appealing notion that maybe there’s some kind of truce motivated by mutual benefit in vigilance to warn the young to hide if other predators are nearby, but who knows.  I saw little of the jackals: they seemed much more reluctant to come out, and I only glimpsed a pair of adults nearby once.
Black-backed jackals are beautiful animals. Here’s an unrelated adult:
And they share with hyenas an unwarranted negative reputation.  They are certainly opportunistic and wily, but also bold and intrepid given their small size.  Here’s one (successfully at about the fifth attempt) stealing meat from a zebra kill while several lion are still eating!

19 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. Hyenas and hippos were always my favorite animals to watch while I was living and working in Africa. I never tire of looking at them.

  2. This is some great stuff, Ralph. I enjoyed reading your description of the two families there. Could it be there’s ample prey for both the jackal and hyena families, hence their co-habitation in the area?

  3. Thank you for the great photos. I especially like that potential of further action in that last photo. Must have been something to watch.

  4. Having never left this continent I have relied on pictures from many venues. These and the descriptions are superb. I think I could actually identify a hyena and/or a jackal without having a written sign before me. Thank you. How did you get so close to an eating lion?

  5. I echo the comment of boudiccadylis above and extend it to all the photos in this post. Where were you situated so that you could take these photos of the hyenas’ domestic activities and the cute jackal pups? Seems like you were pretty close to the action, or did you have a long-range lens? Candid admission, I know nothing about photography.

    1. Kruger has a network of roads, the major ones tarred, many just dirt roads but most in pretty good condition, not requiring 4WD. It’s generally just down to luck if something is visible from the road. Kruger is unique in that you can self-drive, rather than just being in a guided safari vehicle. So you have a lot of freedom to spend as long as you want watching and waiting. But you can’t get out of your car, and you can’t drive off the road.

      In most parts of the park, the animals are used to cars, and usually just ignore them – they have learned that cars are not a threat, and just treat them as an unimportant part of the environment. They react very differently to humans on foot, generally running away.

      These hyenas are using a culvert under one of the roads as a den for their pups. That’s what makes it such a great opportunity to observe them – it’s close to the road, and they have grown up with the presence of cars driving by on the road.

      But even with animals close to the road, it’s still a bit awkward to take good photos – you’re leaning out of the car window, so even when you get a good sighting you must either be lucky with where the animal is or hope to have time to maneuver the car around. I was using a 400mm lens. I’m a novice, but the technology today with image stabilization etc. helps you get great results even if you’re not a skilled photographer.

      1. Thanks for explaining. There’s an intimacy to your photos that draws the observer into the scenes. If you’re shooting from your car and attribute most of these great shots to luck maneuvering your car around, you’re a lucky guy!

  6. Great set of pictures of a fascinating and beautiful species that is often maligned and is unfairly disliked by many.

  7. Nice photoset. Knowing where a den site is can be a real boon to wildlife photography.

    cubs that are being raised in a culvert that several females in a hyena clan have used for many years. The mother leaves them safe in a narrow culvert under a road when she goes off to hunt.

    I’m not so sure that “safe” is a good way to describe such a site though. I’d be pretty surprised if whoever built the road ordered in the lining pipes and their building into the sub-structure of the road without having a good reason that could be expressed in dollar and rand. The climate may, on average, be dry, but that does not preclude occasional rainstorms … at which point culverts and other drainage channels become pretty important. Having two culverts within a “hundred feet” (30-odd metres) of each other just reinforces the point.
    Unless, of course, “culvert” means something in EN_ZA other than “drainage passage under a roadway” which it means in EN_UK.
    Occasional flooding doesn’t mean the sites are useless. If it increases the mean survival rate by a half a pup per year, but fewer than three pups are lost to flooding every six years, the site is worthwhile (compared to others. But it’s a “nice calculus”, in one of the less well-known meanings of “nice” (, meanings 6, 7, and nicely, 8).

    1. Yes, they certainly do flood with water, and fairly frequently in the wet season. But these culverts are not in the bed of a drainage, they seem to direct water from a channel down one side of the road into a flattish open area on the other side. The hyenas have been using it for many years, so I think they must be aware of the risk and have a plan, perhaps a backup den nearby that they move the cubs to. If they were caught out in a sudden downpour, I think the cubs would be unlikely to drown, they’d be washed out of the pipe onto flattish ground, not washed away down a stream.

  8. Thanks for the lovely pictures. I spent several years studying hyenas for my dissertation. Hyena cubs live in communal dens from the time they are about 1 month old until “graduation” at 12-18 months (some nurse until almost 18 months, which is a huge energetic strain on the mothers). They are born all black (called a lanugo coat) and begin molting into blondness at about 1 month old, starting with the eyebrows and working toward the tail.
    The series of negotiations photos is likely a high-ranking adult female resting by the den (the communal den is the social hot spot for the clan) with some lower-ranking subadults visiting. In this case, the subadult looks subordinate, because he/she has ears back and is licking the dominant (who is acting nonchalant).
    I really like the action shot on the road. There you can see a group of hyenas, led by a big cub, approaching a subordinate. The subordinate is easy to identify, based on crouched posture, ears back, tail low and wagging. All of the others (including the cub leading the charge) have erect ears, and erect, bristly tails. That cub is dominant to the bigger subordinate, because hyenas “inherit” their mothers’ social ranks (kind of like British royalty).

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