The spotted hyaena is still widely regarded as a scavenger that picks up leftovers at the kills of other carnivores (cheetah, leopard, lion) or feeds on carrion. However, this is not correct: all studies demonstrate that the spotted hyaena is an efficient predator in its own right. Although spotted hyenas will scavenge opportunistically, they kill as much as 95% of the food they eat (Cooper et al. 1999). The spotted hyaena is impressively versatile in its choice of prey, as its food varies greatly between ecosystems. In addition, it has developed a wide diversity of hunting techniques.
The spotted hyaena primarily kills and scavenges mammalian herbivores. These include small, medium and large-sized antelope, Cape buffalo, and other herbivores such as zebra, warthog, and the young of giraffe, hippopotamus and rhinoceros. It can be very opportunistic and has been recorded eating almost any mammal, bird, fish or reptile, irrespective of size or species (see Brown and Root 1971, Pienaar 1969, Kruuk 1972a, Eloff 1975, Kingdon 1977, Kruuk 1980, Tilson et al. 1980, Steizner and Strier 1981, Hitchins and Anderson 1983, Mills 1984, 1990, Henschel and Skinner 1990a, Sillero-Zubiri and Gottelli 1992a, Salnicki et al. 2001). It may also pick up carrion and human-associated organic material, including cooked porridge, offal, garbage, a variety of vegetable matter, and buffalo and wildebeest dung. The spotted hyaena has a reputation for killing and scavenging domestic stock, mostly cattle, sheep and goats, but also poultry, cats, dogs, horses, donkeys, and camels (see below). These predatory activities have actually been observed.
The spotted hyaena detects live prey by sight, hearing, and smell. It detects carrion by smell, the noise of other predators feeding on the carcass, or during daytime, by watching vultures descending on a carcass. Its hearing is acute enough to pick up noises emanating from predators killing prey or feeding on carcasses over distances of up to 10 km (Mills 1990).
Typically the spotted hyaena hunts solitarily or in small groups of two to five, although larger parties have been observed (Kruuk 1972a). During a hunt, individuals often run at moderate speeds through a herd of ungulates apparently looking at herd members before deciding which individual to attack. The spotted hyaena chases its prey over long distances, often several kilometers, at speeds of up to 60 km/h (Kruuk 1972a. Mills 1990). The maximum distance recorded was 24 km in pursuit of an eland in the Kalahari (Mills 1990). It has also been observed to run down flamingoes in shallow soda lakes (Brown and Root 1971) and to drown lechwe in flood plains by swimming after the fleeing prey (Child and Robbel 1975). Ambush attacks on resting wildebeest in the Serengeti (H. Hofer and M.L. East unpublished data) or solitary, standing topi in the Masai Mara in Kenya may also occur (Rainy and Rainy 1989).
The spotted hyaena travels long distances in search of prey. In the Kalahari, the average distance travelled between significant food items varied between 42 and 80 km (Eloff 1964, Mills 1990). In the Namib Desert, the maximum distance between the core area of a clan’s range and distant carcasses was 30 km (Tilson and Henschel 1986). In Chobe hyaenas walked up to 28 km between a clan range and a permanent source of water. In the Serengeti, all clan members frequently leave their territory during periods when migratory herds are absent from the clan territory, and go on foraging (commuting) trips to the nearest concentrations of migratory wildebeest, zebra and Thomson’s gazelles (Hofer and East 1993a,b,c). These trips last on average three days for lactating females, who need to return to the clan territory to nurse their young, and nine to ten days for non-lactating females and males. Lactating females commute between clan territory and migratory herds 40 to 50 times per year; other adults undertake fewer trips. As the average one-way distance between clan territory and the nearest migratory herds is 40 km, lactating females commute at least 2,880-3,680 km per year (Hofer and East 1993C). This is three times the annual distance covered by the migratory herds (Sinclair and Norton Griffiths 1979).