Hyenas are not the best-loved animals in Africa. They are scavengers of the first order and their dining habits together with their skulking and craven manner rarely endear them to visitors. They are, however, very interesting and very successful animals. They have also generated more than their share of hard-to-believe stories (such as eating the tires off airplanes left overnight on a landing strip or chewing the taillights off vehicles because they are attracted by the red color).

To look at them, one would guess that they are closely related to dogs (see, e.g. the hyena in the road). In fact, they are more closely related to civets and mongooses and not a member of the dog family at all.

Hyenas have a very tight social structure. It is a matriarchal society and it has been said that even the lowest female ranks higher than the highest male. The females have such high levels of testosterone that they develop a false phallus.

September 2000 Update: Photos have been added from Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. We came upon several hyenas harassing a couple of lions who had made a kill and were feeding. The lions were full enough and the hyenas were annoying enough that the lions finally backed away and left the rest of the kill for the scavengers. White-backed vultures, also sensing an opportunity moved in, but the hyenas quickly drove them away. But ill-mannered creatures that they are, the hyenas started fighting with one another for the choicest morsels. One finally made off with a sizable chunk of whatever the lions had killed and settled down to eat. We could its strong jaws crunching through the bones as we sat in a nearby vehicle.