This is an updated version of a post I did back in 2014:
During my first visit with Sandi and Doug, I heard about the thieving hyenas of Stanley’s Camp when its manager pointed to the banks of a nearby lagoon. “Hyenas dragged our sofa out there and ripped it apart.”
The leather sofa never had a chance. A pack of hyenas can devour a four- hundred-pound zebra in less than half an hour, eating its bones, skull, hair, even its hooves, leaving only a smear of blood on the ground. With a bite pressure of over a thousand pounds, hyenas pulverize and consume enough bone their scat is chalk-white.
They eat almost anything that moves: wildebeests, warthogs, rodents, hares, snakes, crocodiles, turtles, lizards, birds, caterpillars, termites, and every species of antelope in Africa. They eat things that don’t move – such as dung – or flesh so putrefied and full of maggots it’s the consistency of cottage cheese. They eat anything not locked up: boots, toothpaste, shaving cream, soap, even bottles of hot sauce. What’s glass to a creature that can snack on a zebra’s hoof?
At Stanley’s the hyenas climbed into the dining lounge in the dead of night, shoved aside several tables and chairs, pulled the sofa down a set of wooden steps and tugged it four hundred feet to the banks of the nearby lagoon. They ate its leather and left a gnawed wooden frame.
I asked the manager, “Why the sofa?”
“Just the oil from human hands.” He rubbed a palm across the sofa’s replacement. It was leather, too. Doomed, I thought.
Last night, I remembered the sofa and mentioned it to Sandi, asking her many sofas had been destroyed over the years.
She thought for a moment. “One or two,” she said. “And a couple of chairs.”
Then she told me the story of the hyenas who killed an eleven-year-old American boy at the Xakanaxa Campground, thirty miles to the northeast.
A mother and son on an overland camping safari stopped at Xakanaxa with their guide. The mother allowed her son to sleep by himself, against the guide’s wishes. According to some accounts, the boy left the zipper of his tent open, hoping to photograph the hyenas circling their campsite earlier in the evening. According to others, he may have even brought food into his tent to lure the hyenas closer.
Awakened by shrieks and crazed laughter, the guide saw a huge female hyena dragging the boy into the bush. Men from nearby campsites helped locate his body, drove away the hyenas, and guarded his remains until daylight.
Last night, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a clatter. Something was rearranging everything in the kitchen shelter. Aluminum chairs scooted across the concrete floor. Silverware rained. A large enamel pot crashed. A long, long silence followed.
I replayed what I’d just heard. Yes, that had to be the enamel pot we cook in, stored near the sink.
I reached under my cot, retrieved my glasses, grabbed my flashlight, rose and tiptoed to the rear end of my tent. Lying flat on my belly, I unzipped the mesh, then the canvas, just enough to allow out a beam of light. The sound of the zippers ripped through the darkness.
The light barely made it to the end of the kitchen shelter. Nothing. I flicked it around as best I could. Nothing. No reflected eyes, no movement, nothing. The silence was deafening.
I zipped the tent shut, went back to my cot, and, oddly enough, fell asleep.
We found the pot today on our morning walk. They tried to eat that, too.
The sky turns orange and the clouds turn yellow. Sunsets like this one have hung in galleries for centuries. A slight breeze rises – the lungs of the earth inhaling warmth, exhaling coolness. The breeze brings a faintly watery smell, even though the sun still warms the tops of trees. Beneath the trees, in cool green-black shadows, night begins, spreading a transitory stillness that will soon fill with the Invisibles – hyenas, leopards, lions – beginning their nightly rounds.
After posting about hyenas last week, I received a message from a Facebook friend about our similar experiences. Adrian and Ellen Kingi (from New Zealand) were managers at Stanley’s Camp from 2006-2007. I met them in 2007 and was delighted to reconnect with Ellen this year. (Unfortunately, Adrian died from leukemia in April). I asked Ellen if I could use her messages as a follow-up post.
“Loved reading this excerpt. During our term of management at Stanley’s from 2006 to 2007 I became fascinated with hyenas. Despite their ugly reputation I had huge respect for them, for their physical size and power as you described, but also for their social structure and the way the packs interacted. There was a den about 200 meters away from camp and on an evening off our favorite pastime was to take a vehicle, nose out quietly into the entrance of the den, turn off the engine and sit quietly to watch the pups play and harass their babysitter while mother was out hunting. Babies were very young, still black as pitch with very first signs of color only just starting to appear on eyebrows and chest. Tolerance and love of nanny was beautiful to witness.
When we arrived at Stanley’s there was a damaged sofa stored in our management house that had been attacked in the lodge you described. Don’t know whether this was the second sofa out whether the attacks had gone on and on and this may have been yet another!!! Anyway, a replacement for this one duly arrived, and we challenged ourselves to guess how long it would stay untouched. A week later, one seat cushion was gone. Next night, the second. And not long after the two back cushions. After that, guardrails were erected around the perimeter of the lodge deck and barriers propped up at the tops of the stairs each night. The barriers had to be remodeled when the hyenas learned they could be dragged away to give them access to the dining chairs.
Adrian was so frustrated, but he could have been a dreadful statistic when he woke to an almighty bang one night about 2 am, thought it was a hyena attacking the latest new sofa, and so went to investigate. He found SEVEN hyenas on the deck. He had a large stick with him and had the presence of mind to slam it so hard on the deck that the animals didn’t have time to even think of attacking him and took off. Adrian realized his foolishness and returned shaking.
My closest encounter with hyenas was in the Stanley’s kitchen. After dinner one evening I was stepping out of the kitchen door after checking that the rubbish bins were inside. As I put my foot out the door the front feet of a large hyena stepped up towards me as she was deciding to try her luck for some easy food. I reacted with loud shout and jump, and she raced away. They did get into the kitchen one night when door wasn’t properly secured. The mess was incredible next morning.
It was so funny reading your post and thinking we had experienced exactly the same things. Dining chairs eventually became non=leather models, but I wonder how many leather sofas became hyena fodder, and whether they too were changed to another medium. It was a major lesson for Adrian, and to think it could have been any other animal roaming around the camp at that hour of the morning that could have taken him out. Shudder!!!!!”
Many thanks to Ellen for letting me share her experiences at Stanley’s.
an excerpt from my book:
The first time I stayed with Doug and Sandi, Stanley’s Camp manager met me in the lounge, handed me a cold beer and pointed to the banks of a nearby lagoon.
“Last year hyenas dragged our sofa out there and ripped it apart.”
The leather sofa never had a chance. A pack of frenzied hyenas can devour a four- hundred-pound zebra in less than half an hour, eating its bones, skull, hair and horns, even its hooves, leaving only a smear of blood on the ground. With a bite pressure of over a thousand pounds, hyenas pulverize and swallow enough bone their scat is chalk-white.
They will chase, kill and eat almost anything that moves: zebras, wildebeests, warthogs, rodents, hares, snakes, baby crocodiles, turtles, lizards, birds, caterpillars, termites, and every species of antelope in Africa. They will eat things that don’t move – such as dung – or flesh so putrefied and full of maggots it’s the consistency of cottage cheese. They will filch and eat anything not locked up: boots, toothpaste, shaving cream, underwear, soap, even bottles of hot sauce. What’s glass to a creature that can eat a zebra’s hoof?
At Stanley’s the hyenas climbed a set of wooden steps into the dining lounge in the dead of night, shoved aside several tables and chairs, pulled the sofa down the steps and dragged it the length of a football field, depositing it at the lagoon. They ate its leather and left a gnawed wooden frame.
I asked the manager, “Why the sofa?”
“Just the oil from human hands.” He rubbed a palm across the sofa’s replacement. It’s leather, too. This sofa must also be doomed.
“There’s a den near the main road,” he added. “A game drive’s going out soon, if you want to go.”
We parked near the entrance of the den, motor off. The guide cautioned us to be very quiet. After a few minutes, a lone Spotted Hyena tentatively emerged. She had the slouched profile typical of hyenas: massive head, thick neck, and shoulders tapering to small hindquarters – a hybrid creature’s odd profile, half fearsome predator, half coward.
The second largest carnivore in Africa (after the lion), and the most numerous of the large predators, the Spotted Hyena is both opportunistic and aggressive. A single adult, weighing at most one hundred and forty pounds, is capable of taking down a six-hundred-pound wildebeest. Although hyenas kill ninety-five percent of what they eat, they steal at every opportunity, chasing leopards, lions and cheetahs from their own kills. Everything a hyena eats is digested within twenty-four hours. Even the sofa.
Grinning her famous false smile, the hyena sat on the bare slope near the entrance of the den and turned black, empty eyes toward us. Her ruff and the tip of her brushy tail had a reddish tinge, but the rest of her coat was a dingy, grayish-tan. Her round ears and bear-like muzzle were lined with black. Spots on a hyena appear when they’re a year old and then fade over time. The irregular splotches on this female’s fur were still sharp, so she’s most likely a subordinate younger sister to the clan’s dominant female.
Less than a moment after the babysitter sat down, unspotted black fuzz-balls erupted behind her. Each time she took a pup down into the den, another escaped and then another. The grinning, panting, anxious nanny seemed to be having a nervous breakdown. I would have considered the pups cute, except for the hyena’s awful reputation.
Yesterday evening, when I mentioned the sofa to Sandi, she told me that in 2000 hyenas had killed an eleven-year-old American boy at the Xakanaxa (Kah-khan-a-kah) Campground, thirty miles northeast of here. Despite the young age of her son, his mother allowed him to sleep by himself. Apparently he left the zipper of his tent open, hoping to photograph the hyenas circling their campsite earlier in the evening. According to some accounts, he may have even brought food into his tent.
Awakened by shrieks and crazed laughter, their guide saw a huge female hyena dragging the boy into the bush. People from nearby campsites helped locate the decapitated body, drove away the hyenas and guarded the boy’s remains until daylight.
One rescuer reported hitting the dominant female hyena – identifiable by the scar on her forehead – with his Maglite flashlight. “Guns aren’t allowed in the game park . . . so I hit the hyena on the head, and then she let go of the body and ran off.”
In the parks and game reserves of Africa, you never, never sleep with your food or leave the zipper open on your tent – if they’re around, hyenas will walk right in. At Doug and Sandi’s kitchen shelter anything even remotely edible is secured in heavy metal lockers or inside a propane-powered refrigerator. Over at Stanley’s, food is kept behind the heavy doors of a wood-frame kitchen. Watchmen now patrol the camp after dark.
But I bet someday hyenas will manage to steal the new sofa. They faithfully patrol the camps, too.