The brown hyaena is primarily a scavenger of a wide range of vertebrate remains; carrion is supplemented by wild fruit, insects, birds’ eggs and the occasional small animal, which is killed. In the southern Kalahari vertebrate prey killed by brown hyaenas make up only 4.2% of the food items eaten (Mills 1990). These were all small animals such as springhare, springbok lamb, bat-eared fox and korhaan species. Along the Namib Desert coast the brown hyaena feeds predominantly on Cape fur seal pups, of which only 2.9% are killed by the brown hyaena (Goss 1986). It also scavenges other marine organisms washed up on the shore. In agricultural areas of the Transvaal, South Africa, cattle (in the form of carrion) and medium sized and small indigenous animals were most commonly eaten (Skinner 1976). The carniodental adaptations of brown hyaenas allow them to break open the robust bones of vertebrates, including even very large animals, to feed on the marrow inside.
The brown hyaena is a strictly solitary, predominantly nocturnal forager, covering large distances in its search for food. In the southern Kalahari, the brown hyaena spends on average 80% of the hours of darkness active and covers 31.1 km per night, with the maximum recorded distance traveled being 54.4 km (Mills 1990). Its sense of smell is well developed and carrion is mainly detected by smell. Even fairly old and dry carcasses can be detected from 2 km downwind. Hunting is unspecialized and opportunistic, directed at small animals only. Hunts are largely unsuccessful; of 128 hunts observed in the southern Kalahari, only six (4.7%) were successful, with springhare, springbok lamb and bat-eared fox hunted most often (Mills 1990). Brown hyaenas seldom attack domestic livestock.