Brown hyaena (Hyaena brunnea)

Also known as: brown hyena
Synonyms: Parahyaena brunnea
GenusHyaena (1)
SizeHead-body length: 110 - 125 cm (2)
Tail length: 25 - 30 cm (2)
Weight40 - 55 kg (2)
Top facts

The brown hyaena is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

This scruffy looking scavenger is distinguished from the other three hyaena species by its long shaggy coat and pointed ears (3). The brown hyaena (Hyaena brunnea) has a dark brown or slate coloured coat with a short brown tail, and striped brown and white legs (2) (3) (4). Cream-coloured fur around the neck forms a distinct mane in adults (2), which, along with the hair on its back, stands erect in aggressive or defensive situations (4) (5). Sometimes, the mane may not be present, as due to fighting it has been replaced by scar tissue (4). Like all hyaenas, the brown hyaena possesses incredibly strong teeth and jaws, enabling it to crush bones and release the nutritious marrow within (6).

The brown hyaena occurs in the South West Arid Zone of Africa, which includes Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe (1) (6).

The brown hyaena inhabits desert areas, semi-desert, open scrub and open woodland savanna (5). It can survive close to urban areas and needs some type of cover in which to rest during the day, such as rocky areas and bush cover (7).

The nocturnal brown hyaena roams vast distances on its own each night, around 20 to 35 kilometres, searching for carrion on which to feed (2). With its exceptional sense of smell the brown hyaena can locate carcasses several kilometres away, and without the need to cooperate with any other hyaenas, it does not have to share its find unless it brings the food back to the den (6). Along the Namibian shore, beachcombing for dead fur seals, whales and ocean debris is common (2). The brown hyaena is a poor hunter, but will often make feeble, frequently unsuccessful, attempts to catch any small animal it encounters (3). It also feeds on invertebrates, eggs and fruit (2), and shrewdly stores any excess food for later use (3).

Despite being solitary when foraging, brown hyaenas usually live in extended family groups of four to six individuals, called clans. A clan defends a territory and all members assist in raising the cubs (3). Territories are marked by ‘pasting’ and defecating; behaviours which also form a clever communication system. Pasting is the act of the hyaena depositing secretions from its large anal gland onto grass stalks. The white blob and thin black smear of paste that is left behind contains information about the hyaena - its identity and the time since the hyaena passed by. This, along with frequently defecating in latrines, ensures that the hyaenas of an area have a good idea of what the other clan members are up to (6).

Males in a clan do not usually mate with the clan females, as most of them are related to the females and this would cause inbreeding. Instead, females usually mate with nomadic males that wander between territories visiting receptive females (3). The gestation period of the brown hyaena is three months, after which up to three blind and deaf young are born. For the first few months after birthing, the female and her young seclude themselves. After this period, they rejoin the clan where, in an example of their extraordinary social system, a lactating female may occasionally suckle other cubs than her own, but showing a clear preference toward her own cubs, and all members of the clan help feed the cubs by bringing food back to the den (2) (4) (6).

Like the other hyaena species, the brown hyaena is often the victim of misconceptions, myths and general bad press (5). There is a continuing, but false, belief that brown hyaenas threaten domestic livestock (finding a scavenging hyaena at the carcass of livestock is clearly not evidence that it was the killer), and commercial farmers in many parts of its range have killed harmless individuals (7). In reality, brown hyaenas rarely kill livestock, and on those occasions, it is believed that killings are often carried out by a particular individual (7). In addition to the threat of persecution, brown hyaena are used occasionally in traditional medicine and rituals (7). As a result of this poisoning, trapping and hunting, the overall range of the species is possibly declining (2), and it is now rare, possibly extinct, in the south of its range (6).

Despite being persecuted, the future of the brown hyaena is a little brighter. Farmers in southern Africa are slowly changing their attitudes towards the hyaena (5), and education campaigns and the removal of problem individuals will help support brown hyaena conservation (7). The brown hyaena also occurs in several National Parks such as Namib-Naukluft Park, Etosha National Park and Sperrgebiet National Park in Namibia, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana and the Kalahari Gemsbok and Gemsbok National Park in South Africa (7). The maintenance of these protected areas, in combination with efforts to eliminate any human ignorance and intolerance, will hopefully ensure a more optimistic future for this fascinating and intelligent animal.

For further information on the brown hyaena and its conservation:

Authenticated (16/01/08) by Dr Ingrid Wiesel, Brown Hyena Research Project.

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
  2. Kingdon, J. (1997) The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press Limited, London.
  3. Stuart, C. and Stuart, T. (1997) Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa. Struik Publishers, London.
  4. Wiesel, I. (2008) Pers. comm.
  5. Mills, M.G.L. and Bearder, S.K. (2006) Hyena Family. In: Macdonald, D.W. (Ed) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. Mills, G. and Hes, L. (1997) The Complete Book of Southern African Mammals. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  7. IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group (December, 2007)