Brown Hyenas are found in a wide selection of habitats, occurring from moist mountain grasslands to desert coastlines (earning them their old Afrikaans name “Strandwolf”, translating as “Beach Wolf”). They’re often found near rocky hills, these providing shelter in the form of dense vegetation and caves, but where this isn’t available they will use burrows dug by themselves or other animals as dens. Brown Hyenas feed mainly on carrion, ostrich eggs and wild fruits, with prey they catch themselves making up only a very small percentage of their total dietary intake. They are not dependent on surface water but will drink where and when it is available.
Territorial family groups, known as clans, are the principal social grouping in Brown Hyena society. These number up to 18 individuals, though around 7 is more usual. Adult males are nomadic and move from one clan to the next, mating with receptive females. Territories are marked with dung and scent glands and neighbouring clans will get involved in serious fights over territory. Brown Hyenas are mostly nocturnal and most active just after sunset and just before sunrise. They may cover enormous distances on their nightly excursions in search of food.
Female Brown Hyenas give birth to 1-5 tiny cubs at any time, approximately 3 months after mating. Females look after the cubs by themselves for the first 2 to 3 months after birth, before introducing them to the rest of the clan. While they start eating solid food from 3 months old, the cubs are only weaned at about a year of age. At about 15 months old the cubs are big enough to fend for themselves. Fully grown Brown Hyenas weigh around 45kg and stand about 80cm high at the shoulder, males being only slightly larger than females. Brown Hyenas have a life expectancy of up to 25 years in the wild, though larger predators are a considerable threat.
Much rarer and less well known than the larger Spotted Hyena, the Brown Hyena is also the hyena species with the most limited distribution. The IUCN estimates that there’s a total of between 4,300 and 10,100 adult Brown Hyenas left in the wild (half of which in Botswana), and evaluates its conservation status as being near threatened. The biggest threats to their continued survival is persecution by livestock farmers and habitat loss. While they occur at low densities almost all over South Africa, with a population estimated at probably no higher than 2,200 within our borders, the best places to go looking for Brown Hyenas in South Africa in our experience is the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and Pilanesberg National Park. Apart from South Africa and Botswana, Brown Hyenas are also found in Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, while it is doubtful any remain in Lesotho, eSwatini (Swaziland) and Mozambique.