A hyena standing in the long grass

Spotted Hyenas

Crocuta crocuta 

Why are hyenas important?

Spotted hyenas’ scavenging behaviour – eating all parts of an animal, including the bones – makes them especially significant to their habitat. They help clean their ecosystem of carcasses, which reduces the rates of disease, especially highly deadly anthrax.

There is some evidence that hyenas appear resistant to anthrax, canine distemper and rabies. Hyenas are also very successful hunters, which helps keep herbivore populations from growing too big.

Key Spotted Hyena Facts

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Least Concern

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~27,000-47,000*, declining. Last assessed 2014

* According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

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Found across a broad range of habitats including grasslands, savannah, woodland and sub-deserts, but also present in urban and sparsely developed areas

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Sub-Saharan Africa

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Length: 140-180cm long, shoulder height: 80cm, weight: 40-90kg

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Persecution, human-hyena conflict

A portrait of a hyena standing in shrubland

Did you know?!

Although spotted hyenas resemble dogs, they are more closely related to mongoose and meerkats.

How to recognise a spotted hyena

Spotted hyenas have a short torso with lower hind quarters, making their backs slope noticeably downward – this prevents attackers from being able to get a firm grip. Their coat is short, and sandy to grey/brown with black spots. The hair on their neck and back is slightly longer and able to stand on end when the hyena becomes excited.

Spotted hyenas are the largest of the four living hyena species. Male and female spotted hyenas look similar, but females are heavier than the males. Females have external genitals that can be confused with a penis – this unique feature is thought to provide advantages in terms of survival and dominance.

Where do spotted hyenas live?

Spotted hyenas are found in a variety in Sub-Saharan Africa, in habitats including grasslands, savannah, woodland and sub-deserts, but are also found near human settlements. They have even been found in mountainous areas!


An adult and a young hyena in the wild

Hyenas in the wild © George Logan

Hyena behaviour

Spotted hyenas are mostly nocturnal, resting for long period during the day, and hunting at night and travelling long distances to get food and water. They are skilled hunters and can easily take down wildebeest or antelope, but they tend to be associated more with their ability as scavengers.

Spotted hyenas are very vocal and make a variety of different sounds to communicate with each other, most famously their cackling laugh which can be heard by other hyenas from three miles away. Spotted hyenas may vocalise during feeding, or to greet each other, display aggression, communicate between clans, and identify themselves.

Hyenas live in groups called clans, with up to 90 individuals, organised in matriarchal and patriarchal hierarchies, and led by a dominant female. They share a communal den and can have a home range varying from 15 and 400 square miles, although not all clans defend a specific territory. Spotted hyenas sometimes take advantage of the natural migratory pattens of herbivores and following them for prey.

Female spotted hyenas’ reproductive success is determined by their social status, with the dominant females having the most offspring. Females usually give birth to two cubs – when they are two to six weeks old the mother will move them to a communal den with other females and their cubs.


A hyena standing alone in the bush

A hyena in the wild © James Botes, Unsplash

What are the threats to spotted hyenas?

Read more about the threats to the world's spotted hyena population.

Spotted hyena populations in eastern, central and western Africa are believed to be decreasing. Attacks by humans appear to be the key factor in this decline.  

Spotted hyenas come into conflict with humans when they prey on domestic livestock. This hunting of livestock reduces the willingness of communities to live alongside the animals, making them targets for persecution.   

In some areas hyena’s historical association with witchcraft and the supernatural, through legend and folklore, is also a contributing factor to their decline. Populations of spotted hyenas are often shot, speared, trapped or poisoned 

What is Born Free doing to help spotted hyenas?

Born Free works to protect hyenas in the wild by educating local communities who live alongside hyenas to reduce conflict, and rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned or injured hyenas.
A portrait of a hyena looking back over its shoulder

Field Conservation

In Kenya, Born Free’s programmes support communities living alongside wild animals and work to reduce human wildlife conflict. Our Pride of Amboseli team constructs predator-proof bomas, large, strong metal fences which encircle communities and their livestock and protect them from attacks by carnivores such as lions and hyenas. This ensures communities' livestock and livelihoods are protected, reducing retaliatory attacks on the wild animals. Similarly, in Meru National Park, Born Free’s Pride of Meru programme puts into action simple, cost-effective solutions which help prevent communities coming into conflict with wild animals like hyenas.
Close up of a hyena walking towards the right of the camera

Rescue & Care

Born Free’s Ensessa Kotteh wildlife rescue centre in Ethiopia, cares for orphaned hyenas and those rescued from zoos. Ensessa Kotteh only houses wild animals in need – orphaned or confiscated from illegal trade or ownership. Each animal is carefully assessed to see whether full rehabilitation and release back to the wild is feasible. Those that cannot be released are provided with lifetime care. Our education programme at Ensessa Kotteh offers centre-based learning for schools, nature clubs, colleges and universities.