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Striped hyena have a bad rep. To some they are ugly scavengers. To others these incredible animals are a myth, a snarling monster in a Disney movie, a grave robber, or a laughing carnivore.

Popular culture has told us to dislike striped hyena. But look a little closer because these animals are one of the world’s most useful species. And read on as we explore the mystery and reality behind the misunderstood legend.

1. One of three hyena species

Spotted hyena are widespread across sub-Saharan Africa. They are larger and the most commonly encountered hyena on an African safari. It is this species that has the distinctive laughing call.

Spotted hyena in the Luangwa valley

Brown hyena are incredibly rare, with just a few isolated populations across southern Africa. Spotting one of these would be the top of almost any safari connoisseur’s list.

Brown hyena in the Kalahari desert in South Africa

Striped hyena are the smallest of the hyena species and are very different from their cousins. So let’s rewind to see where these animals came from.

Sudanese striped hyena in Samburu Kenya

2. Striped hyena are mentioned in the bible

These incredible animals used to be widespread, especially across the Middle East. They are mentioned in early Hebrew versions of the bible, referred to as zevoa or tzebua. Literally translated this means “howling creature.”

Even in the bible these animals didn’t receive any credit. They are considered powerful yet cowardly in Ecclesiasticus 13:18. Or see the original version of Jeremiah 12:9 – “Is my heritage to me like a hyena’s lair? Go assemble all the wild beasts, bring them to devour.”

3. They are not grave robbers

Part of their early legend was linked to cult and magic. This continues today.

Many cultures believe that striped hyenas rob graves, scavenging on dead carcasses deep in the night. This, of course, is little more than a fanciful tale.

It is true that striped hyenas scavenged on human corpses during times of war. This is illustrated in Turkey, where stones were placed on top of war graves to prevent hyenas from digging out bodies. The behaviour was also widely reported during war in Lebanon.

However, this was during wartime, when a lot of people died and many weren’t buried properly. It is natural for an expert scavenger to find a mass grave and feed from the corpses. It is not true that these animals visit village cemeteries to dig out victims.

4. They don’t transport witches

Hyaena hyaena playing

In certain Arab cultures it’s believed that striped hyena can cast spells on people, before eating them alive in a cave.

In many parts of northern India, striped hyena are known as the horse of witches. Folklore suggests that witches ride on the back of striped hyena. When the carnivore scavenges a human carcass, the witch devours the soul of the deceased.

5. They are not vampires

Even worse, old Persian folklore considered these animals to be vampires. After mesmerising their victims using a pungent smelling liquid (see number 18), the hyena would suck blood from their necks.

6. Striped hyena parts are used in traditional medicine

Being touched by the devil is pretty powerful stuff, or so certain cultures believe. That’s one reason why striped hyena body parts are commonly used in traditional medicine.

In some beliefs a striped hyena penis can be used as a talisman to boost male fertility. In others, their skulls are ground up and used to heal various ailments. The feet and brains have special powers that only a traditional doctor can know about.

Their skins are also revered and can fetch a lot of money on the black market. For example, the fur is considered an irresistible charm in Iranian folklore, forcing everyone to yield to its owner.

Here are some other examples of striped hyena parts being used in folklore magic:

  • Also in Iran, a hyena bone can be worn on the upper arm as a form of protection.
  • Back in the times of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, wearing a striped hyena anus on the upper arm made a man irresistible to women.
  • Around the Khyber Pass – between Afghanistan and Pakistan – rubbing burned striped hyena fat onto the genitals increases sexual potency.
  • That same fat is eaten in parts of India as a natural medicine against rheumatism.
  • Eating the tongue and drinking the blood can fight tumours in parts of northern India.
  • Keeping a striped hyena penis in vermilion powder helps its male owner have multiple lovers.

7. Hyena meat is considered halal in Islamic culture

Close-up portrait of a striped hyena

Eating hyena has also been considered an aphrodisiac. Even though the animal is completely wild, its meat is seen as halal, or lawful, in Islamic culture.

This has been particularly prominent in areas of Pakistan and Somalia where striped hyena meat has become a pricey delicacy.

8. Less than 10,000 remain in the wild

It really doesn’t look good for the striped hyena. They are almost universally disliked, completely misunderstood, and their body parts can be sold for decent sums of money.

Now they are on the hit list of professional poachers as well as being regularly killed in traps set up by villagers. All that means that less than 10,000 of them remain in the wild. Despite this incredibly low number they are only classified as near threatened on the IUCN red list.

9. Living alone rather than in clans

Spotted hyena can move in clans of over 50, especially on East Africa’s open grasslands. They are social animals and will allow rivals to pass through their territory.

Striped hyena live alone or in pairs. If they do live in clans the maximum number is six. That makes them very difficult to track, so the actual number of animals in the wild remains unknown. There is a good chance that the population is closer to 5000.

10. Striped hyena are widespread across North and East Africa, the Middle East and India

Striped hyena on a colourful Tanzanian stamp (circa 1995)

While living in tiny numbers these incredible carnivores still exist in almost two dozen countries. They are found deep in the Sahara, in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Oman, plus Yemen, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan and India.

Unfortunately, many of these countries have been hostile for humans to live. And ideas of animal conservation slip way down the list during times of war.

Kenya and Tanzania are the best countries for seeing striped hyena on a safari. Here they compete with larger spotted hyena, causing them to exist on the fringes of national parks and wilderness areas.

11. The ultimate scavengers

Despite popular stereotypes, spotted hyena hunt most of their food. They are large carnivorous predators.

Striped hyena are much smaller and don’t have the same ability to take down prey. Yet they do have an incredible capacity to find a meal.

They will eat almost anything, especially rotting flesh and the kind of filth that even pigs would avoid. In this regard they are like vultures, eating the meat and flesh that others can’t stomach.

12. The animal kingdom’s most evolved stomach

How is it possible to eat rotting flesh and faeces? A strong stomach is the secret.

Striped hyenas have a high concentration of hydrochloric acid in their stomachs, as shown by a very low pH level (like other scavengers the pH level in their stomachs is less than two, compared with human stomachs that are closer to three).

This acidity destroys bacteria before it reaches the intestines. It’s like a filter that stops all the bad bacteria multiplying.

So rather than getting sick from eating rancid meat, striped hyenas find an everyday meal. Still, even though their diet is free range, it’s hard to imagine that hyena meat is palatable to humans.

Their stomach is matched by a strong jaw and teeth. They will crushes skeletal remains into small pieces and crunch through the toughest skin and bone.

13. The animal that cleans our environment

Why is scavenging always considered a bad thing?

Striped hyenas clean the environment. They eat the flesh and filth that is left behind. This accelerates decay and destroys nasty bacteria that could filter into the soil and water.

So rather than detesting these animals for scavenging, we should be celebrating their role in the cycle of life. Just think: without expert scavengers there would be more rancid bacteria for everything and everyone else to deal with.

14. A luxuriant mane

Striped hyena in golden grass

Soft, dense, beautiful…it’s easy to see why the fur is so desirable. It would be a delight to stroke such a fur, except these are wild animals and they have an incredible defence (see number 18).

Despite their name, striped hyenas don’t always have clearly visible stripes upon their mane, certainly not like defined zebra stripes. The stripes are most conspicuous along their flank and legs. Some striped hyenas are more striped than others.

The coat is a soft grey brown colour, lighter around the legs and darker across the mane. It’s enlivened by a large black neck spot – it’s this distinguishing spot that is best used to identify the species from its cousins.

15. A truly nocturnal animal

After spending the day in their den these animals usually emerge in complete darkness.

They explore wide territories, including coming into contact with villages. But they don’t risk being seen. Typically these hyena will have returned to their den long before sunrise.

16. Remarkable eyesight, but a poor sense of smell

It’s a myth that striped hyena have an excellent sense of smell, although it’s easy to understand why the myth circulated.

Most canines have great olfactory organs. However, hyenas are not canines, nor are they cats. They have their own animal family: hyaenidae.

Rather than smell, the striped hyena relies on its acute eyesight. When the world goes dark these animals can still see very well. They find their food by sight and can pick up on the slightest movements, many miles away.

17. Adults weigh around 35 kg (77 lb)

Striped hyena with cub in the Serengeti

That’s not very big for a carnivore. Large males weigh up to 55 kg but 35 kg is the average.

They are around one metre in length and 70 cm at the shoulder. Add on a 30 cm tail and it’s still a small animal, certainly much smaller than the largest antelope species in Africa.

18. An ingenious defence against predators

This small size makes them potential prey for other carnivores, including clans of spotted hyena.

They will also be attacked by lions and leopards, not just to eat but to remove competition from their territories.

Still, how is this for an ingenious defence?

Striped hyena don’t fight back. Instead, they turn their anus inside out and spray a foul smelling liquid at their attackers!

The hyenas can’t smell it yet their attackers have finely tuned nostrils. Unfortunately, such a defence is no match for human predators with snares and guns.

19. A monogamous relationship

Many of Africa’s carnivores must climb to the top before getting the chance to mate. Even worse, young males are often kicked out so they don’t have chance to develop and compete for the pride’s females.

Striped hyena are much more like ourselves. They develop monogamous relationships and raise their young together.

Everything is shared, from establishing the den to feeding the cubs. The cub stays with its parents until it’s independent and can source all its own food.

Usually the cub wanders off and the monogamous relationship breaks down, leaving all three of the family on their own (again, not dissimilar to human family relationships).

20. Living until the age of 12

In captivity these animals can live until they are more than 20. It’s harder in the wild and anything over ten is considered old.

21. Striped hyena need our help

Striped hyena staring at the camera

While it may be humorous to read of vampires, grave robbers and talisman charms, the reality is bleak for these ancient animals.

They are being hunted and their population has been declining by 10% every 30 years. Habitat destruction is another major problem, especially with new quarries and mines literally wiping out striped hyena dens.

These animals need our support. They need to be visible and understood. So share the word and let’s tell the world about this misunderstood legend.