The perilous 1,000-mile journey to save Africa’s endangered black rhinos
28 October 2022
Without impalas and hyenas, the lion cannot be the king of the jungle.African Proverb
Apex predators have serious status; the lion lies in first place in the mighty hierarchy of Africa’s food chain – a fair call given their magnificence, and top-down significance. But no species exists in isolation; survival hinges on the interplay between each species, however repellent or disposable some of them may seem.
Aspiring to this bigger picture, Maputo National Park in Mozambique is topping up its lowly – but high-net-worth – scavenger quota, beginning this month with five spotted hyena incoming from Sabie Game Park, situated on the eastern border of Kruger National Park. Not to oversell the underdogs, this represents another great, if unsuspecting, rewilding win for southern Africa; never underestimate what a hyena can bring to the party.
At this point, the park has very little scavenger pay-back to cash in on, largely due to natural tipping points passed in the past. For a time, wildlife seriously suffered across Mozambique’s protected areas and, as a result, so did ‘functionality’ – how well the environment was able to work, by and for itself. Re-building this rhythm at scale is a highly sensitive, strategic process since every living thing has its place and dependencies within the system. This includes spotted hyena, previously eradicated in the park but for a small leftover population. To fix this and restore the balance that comes with a vital scavenging role is exactly what Mozambique’s National Administration for Conservation Areas (ANAC) and Peace Parks have set out to do, beginning with a wild road-trip.
No Laughing Matter
Throughout history, few animals have enjoyed less sympathy or worse press than hyenas: at best underestimated, at worst seriously persecuted. With the ongoing challenges of living in harmony with wildlife, people have picked away at these three species’ range and abundance. Both the brown and the striped hyena are classified as “Near Threatened”, a status which reflects unfavourably on humans, who are undoubtedly the major threat to their survival.
Since ancient times, cultures have sustained their reputation for digging up corpses and attacking children and livestock. They are seen as cowardly and dirty creatures, associated with sinister myths, evil and witchcraft, and their body parts are used in traditional medicine and magical rituals. “Ku va ni matimaba ya mhisi” in Tsonga means “to have the strength of a hyena” – but really infers “to be strong and evil”.
Like many carnivores, hyenas come into conflict with humans when they prey on livestock. They are seen as a pest species, which often results in retaliatory killings – often poisoned – by farmers. Meantime, humans are encroaching on habitats and wildlife at large is no longer able to roam freely. An estimated 47,000 spotted hyenas live in sub-Saharan Africa; they do suffer persecution, but have thankfully fared better due to their ability to adapt to life cheek-by-jowl with people.
The Nuances and Nitty-Gritty of an Apex Scavenger
In the days before the struggle for coexistence, brown, striped and spotted hyena rose through the ecological ranks to become an indispensable force of nature. Hyena clearly resemble dogs, but are in fact more closely related to cats, and are considered to rival some primates in cleverness – even getting the knack of tool use. Their intelligence is thought to mimic the evolution of our own, with smart, successful social behaviours boosting brain evolution. Added to these admirable academics, their bright, inquisitive nature should be endearing. And yet these parallels with us have failed to stir much human kinship or empathy.
Amongst themselves, however, these animals are tight with their kind, and teamwork is key to success. Clan members have different roles, and hunt – as well as scavenge – cooperatively. Spotted hyenas are social animals that live in large complex ‘matrilineal’ social groups: matriarchs rule, and mothers ace their maternal role. Famously, their lives are filled with laughter, with communication ranging from crazy cries and yells to howls and growls.
So far, so intriguing. Even more so since, aside from this bizarre fact-file, hyenas have an air of the mysterious about them. In Setswana, they are known as “sephira” or “phiri”, meaning “the animal of the secret”, because for all their big presence, they’re an extremely sneaky species holding mysteries yet to be fully understood. They possess unique immune systems that allow them to withstand diseases that kill other animals – an innate strength which could hold medical promise for us. It’s a firm justification for protecting species both for their known benefits and their as-yet unappreciated ones.
This cast-iron immunity relates directly to the benefits to nature of the hardcore hyena, allowing them to get down and dirty – as the clean-up crew of the landscape. South African people know the hyena by its Zulu name “impisi”, whilst some Zimbabwean tribes call it “sisi”, literally translating as “’the purifier”, “’the one who makes things orderly”. Credit to them, they consume the unthinkable – decomposing animal carcasses – being one of the only predator species able to process large amounts of bone through their digestive system, and subsequently deposit concentrations of calcium back into the environment. With a little help, decomposition breeds revitalisation.
Much like vultures, if hyenas disappeared from the landscape, more than the mighty scavengers would fall. Unprocessed-turned-rotting meat would fall prey to disease-causing agents, becoming a serious health risk to other animals as well as to humans. Natural checks and balances linking dead matter, plant life, prey and predators would tip, upending roles and processes across the ecosystem.
A New Age and Status for Maputo National Park
Maputo National Park was proclaimed in 2021 after the merging of Maputo Special Reserve and Ponta do Ouro Marine Reserve. It forms an integral 1 700 km² component of the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation and Resource Area. Remarkably, the park falls within the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Biodiversity Hotspot, one of 36 hotspots that are regarded as being amongstthe most biologically diverse and endangered ecoregions on Earth. This has been a powerful motivation in presenting it to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for assessment and approval as a World Heritage Site, an extension of the adjoining iSimangaliso Wetland Park in South Africa which already carries World Heritage status.
ANAC, which directs the management of Mozambique’s National Parks and Reserves, and Peace Parks Foundation signed a 15-year agreement in 2018 to restore, develop and manage the park – taking joint responsibility for the health and wealth of its supernature in the wake of a civil war. Amongst this region’s remaining bank of biodiversity were many species in need of rehab – and not just the iconic ones.
The Art of Revival: Go Big to Go Wild
And so began an ambitious wildlife translocation programme to Maputo National Park. The aim: to bring back nature by reintroducing animals that were historically found in the area. Boosting the recovery of their populations is essential to developing the park as a tourist destination but, far and beyond the acclaim of re-building the Big Five and friends, it is vital to restoring balance and abundance.
Rewilding began with kudu, impala, giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, eland, zebra and other plains game species – AKA prey – being trucked in. By 2022, 5 101 animals had been successfully translocated into the park from wildlife-plentiful parks and reserves, including 11 species that had become locally extinct. Many are now bouncing back naturally under the renewed protection of the park’s rangers, and thanks to the natural animal ‘walkways’ restoring connectivity between historical ranges.
The park’s 2021 aerial census counted more than 12 000 animals, a remarkable marker of richness and progress, but not necessarily completeness. Re-enter the crucial role of the scavenger: five hand-picked hyena from Sabie Game Park, a protected area in western Mozambique which shares its borders with South Africa’s iconic Kruger National Park. Sabie is happily and healthily able to spare a small clan thanks to its own wildlife revival.
No rewilding operation is a basic case of shifting species X from A to B; there is an expertly coordinated and carefully executed plan tailored to each translocation, with often multiple teams and partners involved. The Mozambique Wildlife Alliance, an organisation key to the success of this move and many gone before, makes the vastly complex process of relocating animals a safely and smoothly orchestrated one; its vets have seen many a species land successfully in their new homes and go on to flourish. With a quarter of Mozambique declared conservation space, and equipped with a visionary rewilding outlook and great motivation, their services will be valued here for many years to come.
When moving hyena, micro-management is required from the start given the complex structure of any given clan, and the rule that females outrank males. Family ties and hierarchy must be respected for the founder population to get along with each other, and with their neighbouring kin. The capture is equally complex; successful baiting in the dark depends on duping and doping the suspicious scavengers. Once caught, they are loaded onto vehicles and translocated directly to bomas in Maputo National Park. Resting and refuelling in these holding pens allows them time to build reserves and get new bearings, until they’re declared good to go by the vigilant vets and the Maputo National Park conservation team.
Bad-turned-Good Friends with Benefits
With plains game thriving and a prey stockpile mounting nicely, it is now the predators’ time to shine in the park; supper is served, and needs eating to keep things in check. The spotted scavengers have a vital role to play in paving the way for the much-anticipated big cats, and in helping things run smoothly, and cleanly.
The new clan will act in a supporting predation role to the cheetah that are hoped to be introduced soon – and all eyes will be on them as they do. Some of them will have satellite collars fitted pre-release; this data feed, along with the park’s considerable camera trap network, will allow teams to monitor group composition and condition, and to understand each individual’s patterns of movement and behaviour.
Their new home is full of hope and opportunity, which is long overdue for a species with a history of coexisting on the edge. It is also a new era richly deserved by a park where dedicated efforts to rewild, protect, connect and sustain are already influencing entire landscapes and communities within and beyond its bounds. It is a promising prospect for hyena as they gradually re-establish and extend their range to benefit the entire transboundary tree of life.
Gifted this species which, for its own survival, values kinship so highly, Maputo National Park can be proud to be forging this ecological friends-with-benefits relationship between hyenas, humans and ecosystems. It is testament to the will to revive great spaces and their many wild assets… and to uplift the underdog, once and for all.
Declare kinship with the hyena, and all hyenas are your friend.African Proverb