Wildlife TV

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Spotted Hyenas: Lions’ friends or foes?

on July 5, 2013

If you’ve been following this blog you might have noticed by now how much I like to talk about Disney’s almost 20 year old film, The Lion King. It presents numerous African species throughout its story, some well portrayed, some not so well, but overall a great starting point to introduce interesting facts and curiosities about the amazing African wildlife.

Today I would like to focus on the hyenas from The Lion King, how they are portrayed in the film and how they are in real life. Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), also known as “laughing hyenas” are a very interesting species to study and learn more about; just like African Elephants, they form matriarchal societies in which females are above males in terms of rank and in charge of the group. They are bigger and more aggressive and, as I discussed previously, newborns are even capable of killing their siblings to rise up in rank. Unlike what many people think they are not hermaphrodites, however, because of the “strange” female genitalia, their lack of sexual dimorphism and the female aggressiveness, it gets quite hard for us to tell males and females apart.

Take a look at the hyenas from the Lion King pictured below. They are called Banzai, Shenzi and Ed, and the only way anyone would know that the middle one is a female is because Whoopi Goldberg lent her voice to the character (in English-speaking countries).


The Lion King hyenas: Banzai, Shenzi and Ed

The Lion King hyenas: Banzai, Shenzi and Ed


In the Lion King, Scar refers to them as “idiots” and they are widely portrayed as lions’ natural enemies, however, even though they are indeed lions’ competitors in the wild, they are far from being stupid.

Spotted hyenas are, what we call, opportunistic feeders, if the opportunity presents itself they will go for it without warning; this might mean that they will kill an animal that they have the opportunity to or steal meals from other predators who will run away from them to avoid a confrontation. Lions are the exception.

Lions are the only gregarious feline species, this means that if hyenas want the prey they just killed they must be ready to face an entire pride of lions instead of a single apex predator like a cheetah or a leopard. The odds of getting hurt increase dramatically so they must ponder if it’s worth it or not.

In the Lion King however, we are presented with a different type of situation; Scar is in control of the hyena “army” which he uses to take charge of the realm. This, as you can imagine, would never happen; spotted hyenas and lions are natural enemies and Scar would die as soon as he approached a group of wild hyenas. On top of that, spotted hyenas form societies ruled by females and Scar’s mane make it quite obvious that he is a male lion, but somehow Disney saw fit for a character of a “wrong” species and “wrong” gender to be the leader of the entire group of fierce hyenas.


Disney, The Liong King: Scar with hyena army

I bet the lions did nazi them coming.


The hyenas are so misportrayed in the Lion King that as a response, when the film was released, a hyena researcher sued Disney for defamation of character!

So what exactly wrong is wrong with Shenzi, Banzai and Ed?

  • Spotted hyenas are not “evil”, they are apex predators just like lions. If they can catch it, they will kill it and eat it. That’s just what predators do.
  • Spotted hyenas do not live in eery places like elephant graveyards nor are they banned from their habitat by lions. Both species are more than capable of co-existing in the same area although in constant direct competition over food resources.
  • Spotted hyenas would never take orders from a male (or female) lion. They are fierce and have no problem facing lions, mobbing them out of their territory and even steal their last kill.

Take a look at the following video that shows a male lion trying to protect his latest kill from a group of hyenas.



In this case we see a lone male lion clearly outnumbered by the hyenas. His best chance was to just let them have the meal.

Throughout the video we can hear them vocalising with each other. Spotted hyenas are one of the most vocal mammals of Africa and they have a wide range of sounds which they use to communicate with members of their own group from afar. In the video we notice how they are using those vocalisations to call out more members of the group and to alert them of the presence of food and the lion.

So what happens in the wild every time both species are close to each other?

That’s the beauty of nature, animals adapt very easily and the ones that don’t will just die and leave space for the ones that do.

In areas where many lion prides occur, spotted hyenas scavenge more than they prey; in areas where there are more hyenas than lions it’s the other way around, hyenas will hunt as a group and eat prey more than relying on stolen food and scavenging.

Overall I hope you learned something interesting today. Spotted hyenas are amazing animals; they always sound so happy due to their vast number of vocalisations but they are also quite fierce and capable of facing a pride of lions to defend their territory or steal their food.

However sometimes they will be found just resting next to each other like it’s no big deal.


Lion (Panthera leo) and spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) next to each other

Lion (Panthera leo) and Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) next to each other.
Photo Credit


Até à próxima!


If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Disney category.
Previous Disney entries:
Mystery of the Elephant Graveyard
Scar: The black maned lion
Pumbaa: What Disney didn’t tell you

2 responses to “Spotted Hyenas: Lions’ friends or foes?


    There is a wonderful documentary about this enmity between lion and hyena, called Eternal Enemies. You can see parts of it on YouTube. It’s not personal, it’s competition for food, but really fascinating.

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