There is something infinitely creepy about hyenas.
I don’t know whether it is their sloping walk or the way their mouths drop open but there is something of the childs nightmare about them. They may not be looking for trouble but they look as if they are.
In the Mara there are huge clans of these beasts and they are at their most active when we were there – while the herds of the migration were in the area. Individuals travel for miles in search for food – they spread out from clan burrows communicating with each other with that otherworldly yowl they have.
To hear that in the black of night when you are in a small tent is chilling. They are calling to each other – probably for backup against lions. And the first night we were under canvas there was quite a commotion going on out there on the plains – hyenas, lions and the braying of zebras reached us across the night.
So when we entered the Talek Gate to the reserve you could feel a sense of drama that had occurred the previous night. The herd animals you passed were jittery. In the plains around the Talek gate the wildebeest herds had been present and so had the lions. And where you find lion kills you find the scavengers.
Our first hyena was a female lying by the side of the road on her back. She was built as solid as a tank and was much bigger then I expected. Those shoulders were very muscular and beady eyes watched while a wet nose sniffed the air. As we progressed into the plains we left any other vehicles behind and began to discover what the commotion was the previous night. The kills started to be spotted . The leftover kills were an attraction of hyenas who used to amble off the track as the van approached. Most of them would have been females as the clans are matriarchal. Its not much of a life if you are a hyena and a male – you are are at the bottom of the pecking order. The reason that the females look so muscular is that they are pumped up with testosterone.
The first wildebeest corpses began to be apparent. We saw the culprits of the carnage asleep in a nearby copse and I swear the lioness had the fattest belly I had seen on a lion. She was lying on her back with her paws in the air – in a post-glutton stupor. There were two lions – a male and a female and neither paid us much attention. Watching from a nearby acacia tree were a number of vultures and a lone eagle.
The number of wildebeest must have been huge going by the number of corpses – the lions must have killed more then they could eat. We found three kills within a few yards of each other. The first was occupied by three hyenas who gorged inside the carcass watched by nervous vultures. As we drove up they stopped their eating and watched us, necks craning to see better.Then they would reach down and tear into the flesh. Even from our distance we could hear those teeth rip the flesh.
Over the track was another gnu corpse. This one was nearly intact and we wondered if the lions had just been on a killing spree – killing more then they could handle. It attracted over forty vultures and marabou storks who were making a racket. As we watched they were gorging inside the carcass, fighting for position and snapping at each other.
There was one more corpse not far away and this had one lone hyena cracking the ribs. Vultures crowded him but he just carried on with his head in a wildebeests stomach. Our guide thought he would have a little fun with the scavenger birds and slammed the van door hard – they all whooshed into the air in a panic and would not venture near the corpse until we were on our way.
On our last day we were reluctantly leaving the reserve we saw evidence that even hyenas have their "cute" side. Near ‘Fig Tree Lodge’ we stumbled on a hyena creche. One muscular adult watched over what were hyena puppies. They were adorable – as much as hyenas can be adorable – with fluffy coats, pointy ears and their eyes had a youthful curiosity that was endearing. The adult hyena called to them to leave us alone with a "wwhhhoopp". But one young male ignored her and sat on its haunches, tongue hanging out with inquisitive eyes watching our every move.
It looked like it wanted to be petted – of course if I had tried I’d have lost all my fingers.