Still think hyenas are just dumb scavengers?

Hyenas have a very poor rep. Often depicted as the merciless villain, shown on TV chomping a pretty young fawn or attacking ‘beautiful and fluffy’ big cats. OK, the adults might not win any ‘best looking animal’ awards, but their cubs are damn cute! And there is one other extremely important aspect to a hyena’s character that rarely makes it to the screen. The reason they are so numerous and widespread. The reason they are such successful hunters… They are very smart!

After three days, my time was running out. My personal mission for this leg of the safari had been to photograph the hyenas that were known to prey on the lesser flamingos around the Rift Valley soda lakes. I was in Kenya’s stunning Lake Nakuru National Park, probably the most accessible of the soda lakes. It had been an incredible safari with breath-taking sightings of the flamingo flocks huddling in the shallow waters, lions, rhinos, and leopards lounging in the boughs of yellow-fever acacia trees.

Lake Nakuru National Park
View over Lake Nakuru soda lake from Baboon Cliff Lookout point. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF16-35 mm ƒ/2.8L lens at ¹⁄₁₆₀ sec at ƒ / 8.0 on ISO 200

I’d come close to reaching my goal for the trip several times. Having spotted hyenas patrolling the lake shore, I’d taken up position and waited. For whatever reason, the hyenas decided to scavenge on the rancid carcasses of ‘ex-flamingos’ instead.

This was now my last day. In fact, these were my last four hours, as I was due to fly out for the Masai Mara at 11:00am. With my guide Joseph, we drove down to the lake shore to see what was happening. The skies were heavy and overcast. The light was still very dull with the sun only just rising over the lake’s high rim. The flamingos were preening and grooming close to the mouth of an inflowing river.

There are only a few locations in the lake where freshwater flows in. Here, the flamingos can preen their feathers and drink. However, it’s at these hotspots that they’re most vulnerable. At the mouth of the freshwater inflows, the water is shallow and an easy target for the opportunistic hyenas, leopards, and jackals.

Just a few hundred metres away, I could see a pair of hyenas ambling towards us. They scampered about on the beach, chasing and tap-tackling. Was it a ploy? Did this behaviour lull the birds into a false sense of security? The hyenas continued to approach and slowly veered towards the water’s edge.

Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)
Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) surveying flock of lesser flamingos. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF600 mm ƒ/4.0L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

They sniffed the air, but carried on walking. Eventually they reached the sand bar at the mouth of the freshwater river. They glanced around at us and then at the flamingos. With a collective unease ruffling through their number, the flock was edging away. A nervous chorus rose from the flock. The hyenas entered into the freshwater, but just took a long drink.

Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)
Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) edging toward flock of lesser flamingos. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF600 mm ƒ/4.0L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

One hyena started to walk out toward the flamingos. It looked like it had a force-field in front as the flamingos maintained their distance. A few flamingos closest to the hyena began to run and took flight. The hyena stopped walking and just scanned the lines of flamingos. It was looking for weakness, frailty, injured birds that would be easier prey. The hyena turned around and returned to its mate on the shore.

The flamingos maintained their distance for about fifteen-minutes, but thousands still had to drink and preen, so gradually they returned to the shallows. Again, the hyenas entered the water to test the lines and again a few flamingos took flight. The hyenas repeated this twice more.

Time was ticking away. I now had only 30-minutes before I had to leave! We had stayed and watched this mesmerising cat-and-mouse behaviour for the entire morning. I was nervous, hot, and sweaty. My camera lens had been trained on the hyenas since they’d arrived.

Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)
Breaking from the shore, Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) charged into water right at the flamingos. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF600 mm ƒ/4.0L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 400

One hyena now stood watching from the shore. It was staring like your dog does when he sees a cat or squirrel. You can tell there is intent. The hyena exploded across the sand bar and ploughed into the water. I had no idea these animals could move so fast. The flamingos panicked and broke into an ungainly leggy run, beating their wings as hard as possible. They had drifted too close to the shore.

Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)
Aiming for a lame bird, Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) powers through the shallow water. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF600 mm ƒ/4.0L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 400

I started photographing from the moment the hyena entered the water. I couldn’t tell who would win here. The hyena had the power to run through the water, but many of the flamingos were already airborne. The entire flock launched into the air but in the melee I’d lost sight of the hyena.

Then its head popped out the water. From its jaws, a bedraggled flamingo was still beating its wings uselessly. In a few seconds it was dead. Crushed by some of the most powerful jaws in the animal kingdom.

Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)
A successful hunt. Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) returns with dead flamingo. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF600 mm ƒ/4.0L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 200

Like a triumphant retriever, the hyena padded back to the shore with the flamingo swaying sadly from its jaws. The other hyena seemed to realise this was a take-away meal for one and did not approach. The successful predator passed our vehicle and headed for a patch of lush green grass behind us.

Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)
Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) feeding on its flamingo prey with Marabou Stork landing in background. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF600 mm ƒ/4.0L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₁₂₅ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 200

There, it devoured the flamingo in just a few mouthfuls, before heading back to its mate. I just marvelled at their cunning. Making those mock charges to suss out the weak and lame. Feigning that nonchalant appearance on the shore so the flamingos relaxed their guard and drifted back to the shallows. The experience completely transformed my perception of the hyena.