What Kind of Hyena?

Readers, can you tell me what kind of hyena this is? It was our last day in Kruger National Park. We were taking our time driving around on our way to the exit, talking about what new things we’d seen. We never go to Kruger expecting we’ll see all Big Five every time, but we always hope to see something we haven’t seen before. We’re happy if that’s a bird, or a reptile, or just animals doing something we haven’t seen.

hyena Africa travel
dark colored hyena running across a dirt road in Kruger.

This was an incredible trip for that. We saw a black mamba, a puff adder, a serval, bush monkeys, and had our first ever “first spot” on lion, and even one of those lions-in-the-road experiences! We were pretty sure we were done seeing anything new, and content in everything we had enjoyed this trip. That’s when we saw a couple safari vehicles stopped on the side of the road.

This isn’t unusual and we’ve learned that a stopped safari truck doesn’t necessarily mean an unusual sighting. They’re carrying tourists, after all (we try to pretend we aren’t tourists anymore) and tourists are excited to see anything: zebra, giraffe, wildebeest…even warthogs get their share of excitement.

But when safari vehicles suddenly start angling for better views, or turn around and quickly start down a side road, you pay attention and, if you’re ambitious, you follow.

We were in the act of passing the vehicles when they turned around and took a side road. I craned to see what they were watching when I saw something brown and loping through the grass. “What is that!?” I said to Kurt. It was moving quickly in the tall grass, and I started squealing for Kurt to turn around and follow the trucks.

travel Africa hyena
Was it just the sunlight making a spotted hyena appear brown? Or was it a different kind of hyena?

I told Kurt it was like a hyena but not a hyena, and it was brown. “Uh, was it a brown hyena?” His polite mocking was obvious. I didn’t know there were brown hyenas. “What about an aardwolf?” I asked. I remembered seeing a drawing of an aardwolf somewhere in one of our Kruger guides, but didn’t remember seeing a brown hyena drawing.

“What the heck is an aardwolf?” Kurt asked. Truthfully I wouldn’t know an aardwolf from an aardvark, but the name sounded exciting, and I remember it looked something like a hyena.

We had turned onto the dirt road and were now following the trucks closely as the brown, hyena-looking animal was loping along parallel to the road. Our little Toyota Corolla was not tall enough to see over the grass, and I knew I wasn’t getting good shots of it.

The trucks stopped in the middle of the road. We stopped. I barely got my camera up again, still watching for it off to the right, when it emerged from the bush in front of us, crossing the road in front of the truck and disappearing into the tall grass again.

“What was that?” We both looked at each other, laughing happily.

Kruger travel Africa hyena

We finished our drive out of the park uneventfully and spent a few days comparing our own blurry photographs with online images of both brown hyenas and aardwolves. According to the description, brown hyenas definitely have pointy ears, but this animal looked to me more like regular hyena ears, though it was undeniably brown. The aardwolf is too small to have been this animal, although it has the shape and ears of a hyena.

Maybe it wasn’t anything new after all. Maybe it was just a really dark, spotted hyena. And that’s okay, too.

Where are my Africa experts out there? Care to weigh in and help us resolve this mystery if my photos are good enough for you to do so?

Love, Marla

4 thoughts on “What Kind of Hyena?

  1. Fascinating story with great pictures Marla! It definitely is a spotted hyena, probably with a coat dirtied by its den or from rolling in a muddy puddle.

    (If you want a reasonable chance at seeing a brown hyena in the wild, head for the Pilanesberg or Kgalagadi 😉 )

  2. Wow – this is SO interesting! I’m not a hyena specialist either…one thing I know is that spotted hyenas do not have manes on the backs of their necks. I can’t really tell from the photo but it almost looks like this guy does? It is true that brown hyenas have shaggy coats. That would be a rare sighting! Thanks for posting this! Great – as always! 🙂

  3. Not that I’m an expert but think it may indeed have been a rather dark (read dirty!) spotted hyena as brown hyenas tend to have longer shaggy hair and stripy legs. x

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