Chapter 25 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

A chapter upon Hyenas.

Hyenas are wolves—only wolves of a particular kind. They have the same general habits as wolves, and much of their look. They have heavier heads, broader thicker muzzles, shorter and stouter necks, and altogether a coarser and shaggier coat. One of the most characteristic marks of the hyena is the inequality in the development of its limbs. The hind-legs appear weaker and shorter than the fore ones, so that the rump is far lower than the shoulders; and the line of the back, instead of being horizontal, as in most animals, droops obliquely towards the tail.

The short thick neck and strong jaws are characteristics; the former so much so, that in the days of fabulous natural history the hyena was said to be without cervical vertebrae. Its thick neck and powerful jaw-bones have their uses. It is by virtue of these that the hyena can make a meal upon bones, which would be of no use whatever to the ordinary wolf or other beast of prey. It can break almost the largest and strongest joints, and not only extract their marrow, but crush the bones themselves, and swallow them as food. Here, again, we have proof of Nature’s adaptation. It is just where these large bones are found in greatest plenty that we find the hyena. Nature suffers nothing to be wasted.

Hyenas are the wolves of Africa—that is, they are in Africa the representatives of the large wolf, which does not exist there. It is true the jackal is a wolf in every respect, but only a small one; and there is no true wolf in Africa of the large kind, such as the gaunt robber of the Pyrenees, or his twin brother of America. But the hyena is the wolf of Africa.

And of all wolves he is the ugliest and most brute-like. There is not a graceful or beautiful bit about him. In fact, I was about to pronounce him the ugliest animal in creation, when the baboons came into my mind. They of course exhibit the ne plus ultra of ugliness; and, indeed, the hyenas are not at all unlike them in general aspect, as well as in some of their habits. Some early writers even classed them together.

Now we have been speaking of the hyena, as if there was but one species. For a long time but one was known—the common or “striped hyena” (Hyena vulgaris), and it was about this one that so many false stories have been told. Perhaps no other animal has held so conspicuous a place in the world of mystery and horror. Neither vampire nor dragon have surpassed him. Our ancestors believed that he could fascinate any one with his glance, lure them after him, and then devour them—that he changed his sex every year—that he could transform himself into a comely youth, and thus beguile young maidens off into the woods to be eaten up—that he could imitate the human voice perfectly—that it was his custom to conceal himself near a house, listen until the name of one of the family should be mentioned, then call out as if for assistance, pronouncing the name he had heard, and imitating the cries of one in distress. This would bring out the person called, who of course on reaching the spot would find only a fierce hyena ready to devour him!

Strange as it may seem, all these absurd stories were once very generally believed, and, strange as it may seem in me to say, not one of them but has some foundation. Exaggerated as they are, they all owe their origin to natural facts. At present I shall refer to only two of these. There is a peculiarity about the glance of the hyena that has given birth to the notion of his possessing the power to “charm” or fascinate, although I never heard of his luring any one to destruction by it; there is a peculiarity about the animal’s voice that might well gain him credit for imitating the human voice, for the simple reason that the former bears a very near resemblance to the latter. I do not say that the voice of the hyena is like the ordinary human voice, but there are some voices it does exactly resemble. I am acquainted with several people who have hyena voices. In fact, one of the closest imitations of a human laugh is that of the “spotted hyena.” No one can hear it, hideous as it is, without being amused at its close approximation to the utterance of a human being. There is a dash of the maniac in its tones, and it reminds me of the sharp metallic ring which I have noticed in the voices of negroes. I have already compared it to what I should fancy would be the laugh of a maniac negro.

The striped hyena, although the best known, is in my opinion the least interesting of his kind. He is more widely distributed than any of his congeners. Found in most parts of Africa, he is also an Asiatic animal, is common enough throughout all the southern countries of Asia, and is even found as far north as the Caucasus and the Altai. He is the only species that exists in Asia. All the others are natives of Africa, which is the true home of the hyena.

Naturalists admit but three species of hyena. I have not the slightest doubt that there are twice that number as distinct from each other as these three are. Five, at least, I know, without reckoning as hyenas either the “wild hound” of the Cape, or the little burrowing hyena (Proteles)—both of which we shall no doubt meet with in the course of our hunting adventures.

First, then, we have the “striped” hyena already mentioned. He is usually of an ashy grey colour with a slight yellowish tinge, and a set of irregular striae, or stripes of black or dark brown. These are placed transversely to the length of his body, or rather obliquely, following nearly the direction of the ribs. They are not equally well defined or conspicuous in different individuals of the species. The hair—like that of all hyenas—is long, harsh, and shaggy, but longer over the neck, shoulders, and back, where it forms a mane. This becomes erect when the animal is excited. The same may be observed among dogs.

The common hyena is far from being either strong or brave, when compared with the others of his kind. He is, in fact, the weakest and least ferocious of the family. He is sufficiently voracious, but lives chiefly on carrion, and will not dare attack living creatures of half his own strength. He preys only on the smallest quadrupeds, and with all his voracity he is an arrant poltroon. A child of ten years will easily put him to flight.

A second species is the hyena which so much annoyed the celebrated Bruce while travelling in Abyssinia, and may be appropriately named “Bruce’s hyena.” This is also a striped hyena, and nearly all naturalists have set him down as of the same species with the Hyena vulgaris. Excepting the “stripes,” there is no resemblance whatever between the two species; and even these are differently arranged, while the ground colour also differs.

Bruce’s hyena is nearly twice the size of the common kind—with twice his strength, courage, and ferocity. The former will attack not only large quadrupeds, but man himself,—will enter houses by night, even villages, and carry off domestic animals and children.

Incredible as these statements may appear, about their truth there can be no doubt; such occurrences are by no means rare.

This hyena has the reputation of entering graveyards, and disinterring the dead bodies to feed upon them. Some naturalists have denied this. For what reason? It is well-known that in many parts of Africa, the dead are not interred, but thrown out on the plains. It is equally well-known that the hyenas devour the bodies so exposed. It is known, too, that the hyena is a “terrier”—a burrowing animal. What is there strange or improbable in supposing that it burrows to get at the bodies, its natural food? The wolf does so, the jackal, the coyote,—ay, even the dog! I have seen all of them at it on the battle-field. Why not the hyena?

A third species is very distinct from either of the two described—the “spotted hyena” (Hyena crocuta). This is also sometimes called the “laughing” hyena, from the peculiarity we have had occasion to speak of. This species, in general colour, is not unlike the common kind, except that, instead of stripes, his sides are covered with spots. He is larger than the Hyena vulgaris, and in character resembles Bruce’s, or the Abyssinian hyena. He is a native of the southern half of Africa, where he is known among the Dutch colonists as the “tiger-wolf;” while the common hyena is by them simply called “wolf.”

A fourth species is the “brown hyena” (Hyena villosa). The name “brown” hyena is not a good one, as brown colour is by no means a characteristic of this animal. Hyena villosa, or “hairy hyena,” is better, as the long, straight hair falling down his sides gives him a peculiar aspect, and at once distinguishes him from any of the others. He is equally as large and fierce as any, being of the size of a Saint Bernard mastiff, but it is difficult to imagine how any one could mistake him for either a striped or spotted hyena. His colour is dark brown, or nearly black above, and dirty grey beneath. In fact, in general colour and the arrangement of his hair, he is not unlike a badger or wolverine.

And yet many naturalists describe this as being of the same species as the common hyena—the learned De Blainville among the rest. The most ignorant boor of South Africa—for he is a South African animal—knows better than this. Their very appellation of “straand-wolf” points out his different habits and haunts—for he is a seashore animal, and not even found in such places as are the favourite resorts of the common hyena.

There is still another “brown hyena,” which differs altogether from this one, and is an inhabitant of the Great Desert. He is shorter-haired and of uniform brown colour, but like the rest in habits and general character. No doubt, when the central parts of Africa have been thoroughly explored, several species of hyena will be added to the list of those already known.

The habits of the hyenas are not unlike those of the larger wolves. They dwell in caves, of clefts of rocks. Some of them use the burrows of other animals for their lair, which they can enlarge for themselves—as they are provided with burrowing claws.

They are not tree-climbers, as their claws are not sufficiently retractile for that. It is in their teeth their main dependence lies, and in the great strength of their jaws.

Hyenas are solitary animals, though often troops of them are seen together, attracted by the common prey. A dozen or more will meet over a carcass, but each goes his own way on leaving it. They are extremely voracious; will eat up almost anything—even scraps of leather or old shoes! Bones they break and swallow as though these were pieces of tender flesh. They are bold, particularly with the poor natives, who do not hunt them with a view to extermination. They enter the miserable kraals of the natives, and often carry off their children. It is positively true that hundreds of children have been destroyed by hyenas in Southern Africa!

It is difficult for you to comprehend why this is permitted—why there is not a war of extermination carried on against the hyenas, until these brutes are driven out of the land. You cannot comprehend such a state of things, because you do not take into account the difference between savage and civilised existence. You will suppose that human life in Africa is held of far less value than it is in England; but if you thoroughly understood political science, you would discover that many a law of civilised life calls for its victims in far greater numbers than do the hyenas. The empty review, the idle court fête, the reception of an emperor, all require, as their natural sequence, the sacrifice of many lives!