Dear EarthTalk: What is the status of the hyena in the wild? Though unloved by many, the hyena has always struck me as one of God's survivors.
—Jim Reddoch, Portland, Tex.
Among the most intelligent animals on Earth, three species of hyenas still roam in wilder parts of Africa and Asia. Of them, the striped hyena and the brown hyena are most at risk. Both are considered “Near Threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains a “Red List” of at-risk and extinct species around the world. The spotted hyena is doing well enough to be considered of “Least Concern” by IUCN, but its population is also declining, primarily due to habitat loss.
In general, hyenas are large, strong, flesh-eating animals that hunt a wide range of prey but mostly feed on carrion (the kills of other predators). They most closely resemble dogs but are in fact more closely related to cats. When full-grown, hyenas range from about 3 1/2 to 5 1/2 feet long and weigh between 75 and 175 pounds. Considered as smart as some primates, hyenas work in teams to hunt zebras and wildebeests. They communicate through a series of yells and growls, and their cries resemble human laughter.
The striped hyena roams a very large, patchy range stretching from northern Africa through the Middle East to India. Biologists estimate that only 5,000 to 14,000 individuals exist today in the wild. According to the IUCN, major reasons for the animals’ decline include persecution (especially poisoning) by humans, decreasing sources of carrion due to declines in the populations of other large carnivores (wolves, cheetahs, leopards, lions and tigers) and their prey, and changes in livestock practices. “Humans are consistently indicated as the major source of mortality…largely because the [hyena] is loathed as a grave robber, and because of incidents of damage to agriculture…and livestock,” reports the IUCN. Also taking a toll is illegal hunting for striped hyena skins and body parts for use in traditional medicine.
Meanwhile, only 5,000 to 8,000 Brown hyenas today roam parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The brown hyena is relatively safe in protected areas, but clashes with humans elsewhere have taken their toll. The IUCN reports that negative attitudes toward brown hyenas prevail across South Africa and elsewhere, with many ranchers and farmers shooting, poisoning, trapping and hunting them with dogs. The UK-based Predator Conservation Trust has established the Brown Hyena Research Project to help form strategies to promote the long-term survival of the species and its southern Africa habitat.
As many as 47,000 spotted hyenas live in sub-Saharan Africa. They suffer similar forms of persecution as other hyenas but have fared better due to their ability to adapt to life in proximity to humans.
The IUCN’s Hyena Specialist Group focuses on developing hyena conservation strategies worldwide through integrated research and public education to change attitudes toward these much maligned animals. Conservationists underscore the importance of preserving hyenas because, if for no other reason, we can learn much from them. For one, hyenas possess unique immune systems that allow them to withstand diseases that kill other animals. “Only if hyenas are available to study will we be able to unravel the mysteries of their immune responses,” reports IUCN.
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