The Lion King. It was a great movie, or so I am told! Without ever actually having watched the whole thing, after six years in the bush, I have become so familiar with the characters that even I have started referring to Pumbaas instead of warthogs; and when a guest asks ‘what bird is that?’ and points at a hornbill, I almost instinctively say ‘oh, that’s Zazu’ before quickly correcting myself! Embarrassing, yes, but I am sure that I am not the only guide that has fallen into this trap! Still, I’d rather be caught calling a southern yellow-billed hornbill a ‘Zazu’ than a ‘flying banana’!

The legacy that The Lion King has left us with in terms of renaming half the animals on the continent is something I can live with, but the negative perceptions that this animated movie projected onto hyenas is something that I often struggle to overcome. Portrayed as cowardly, sneaky and somewhat idiotic animals, Shenzi, Banzai and Ed, didn’t do much to elevate the reputation of their real-life relatives. This is a huge pity, as hyenas are some of the most incredible and interesting animals in the African bush. After spending much time with them in the bush, I have nothing but admiration for the species, and have seen behaviour that even textbooks contradict – such as when a female hyena dragged half an impala carcass almost 2km back to the den site to feed a cub that wasn’t even her own; she even kept the clan’s matriarch away until the cub had eaten! “But”, I hear you say, “They are cowards!” Well, I can tell you that there are not many cowards I know that would walk up to a young male lion and bite his tail while he’s trying to eat a buffalo, nor indeed do I know any cowards that would be totally unphased by a viciously snarling leopard whose kill it has just expropriated (and I should know, as I'm a coward that usually does dances with such aggrieved leopards). Some might point a finger at me for liking an animal that steals another’s hard-earned meal, but the majority of studies show that hyenas hunt as much of their own food as do lions (observations in Zambia being the only exception I have heard of), and some researchers have shown that lions steal more from hyenas than the vice versa! And please do not tell me that they are ugly; hyena cubs have got to be amongst the cutest and most entertaining of all the babies in the bush – I must admit, I do get a touch envious at all the hair that those cubs possess (and yes, they are cubs and not pups as they are more closely related to cats than they are to dogs, but the mongoose-family are actually their closest relatives – wow, I’m just so full of facts today!).

Truth be told though, I don’t think that hyenas can place the entirety of the blame on The Lion King alone, as natural selection played a leading role in allocating some rather bizarre anatomical and behavioural traits to Crocuta crocuta (so awesome are hyenas that they had to name them twice) that conjured up a fair amount of dislike for them even before Elton John and Tim Rice penned a Circle of Life (and on that note, never before have I seen any antelope getting that excited over the birth of a lion cub before; I would imagine their reactions to be more along the lines of “oh no! Another animal that wants to eat us”).

Okay, so little baby hyenas have a slight tendency to kill their sisters within a few hours of being born, and yes, you can’t tell if it is actually a sister, as hyena girl’s bits look identical to hyena boy bits. Also, they sniff one another’s said bits as part of a greeting ceremony, but credit where credit is due – at least hyenas move some 20m away from the den when nature calls for them to do a number two; that has got to count for something, surely?

Despite these oddities and their tendency to steal doormats, television remote controls, doormats, shoes, doormats and the occasional box of rusks out of game drive cooler boxes (did I mention doormats?), or maybe because of these traits, hyenas remain one of my favourite animals, but I am starting to think that this is more to do with the fact that they are still the only animals around that ever laugh at my lame jokes?


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