Predators - Africa's top 5 ruthless hunters

July 20, 2015

Some hunt by stealth, some hunt using war-like co-ordination, some depend upon their superior speed, and some rely on strength in numbers, while still others depend on their remarkable endurance to run their victims to exhaustion. Each and every one of Africa’s top five alpha-predators has perfected a unique way of hunting and killing their prey, but which of them is at the top of the food chain? Which one is the most feared predator in the African wilderness?

You may be surprised to find that the answer is not as clear-cut as you may imagine. Africa’s top five predators are lions, leopards, cheetah, wild dogs and hyenas, and most people believe that the title clearly belongs to the traditional king of the jungle, the lion. While that is the case in some regions, there is increasing evidence that it is in fact the spotted hyena who deserves the place at the top of the list as Africa’s most ruthless killer in many parts of Africa. Let’s have a closer look at how each of these animals differ in their hunting abilities and skills, and the distinct problems they all face from other predators.

African Lion

Lions are remarkably social animals which live in family groupings called prides, made up of several related female lions, their off spring of both sexes and one or two adult male lions.

It is a fallacy that male lions cannot hunt; they are very adept at taking down larger animals due to their superior strength, but their greater bulk makes them less agile than the females, and they are hampered by their heavy manes which cause them to over-heat quickly on the chase. They generally leave the hunting to the females, to conserve their strength for fighting off other male lions, but they do assist in the hunt when larger animals such as buffalo are targeted.

In a regular pride the females, usually around five or six adults, hunt together in an extremely efficient co-ordinated way with each lioness regularly performing the same role in the stalk and kill, which is why they are such efficient hunters.

It is a fallacy that male Lions cannot hunt; they are very adept at taking down larger animals due to their superior strength, but their greater bulk makes them less agile than the females, and they are hampered by their heavy manes which cause them to over-heat quickly on the chase.

In some instances in the Okavango Delta in Botswana they have even been observed swimming and hiding among the reeds in the shallows, waiting for prey to come to the water's edge to drink, before they explode out of the water and attack. In particular parts of East Africa lions have learnt to climb trees and use this skill to great advantage; they simply lie in wait for an unsuspecting animal to walk under the tree and then drop down for the kill.

Death is quick, usually by suffocation and unless the females are some distance away from the pride (when they will often eat the kill on their own to keep up their strength), the males definitely get the "lions share" and the females and cubs only get to feed after the males have satisfied their hunger.

Although their numbers have decreased drastically in the last 40 years, lions are still found in just about all the national parks in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya, and particularly good sightings occur in the Maasai Mara National Park, especially during the Great Migration. In South Africa the place to see the magnificent Black-maned Kalahari lion is in the Kgalagadi National Park, while you can try and catch a glimpse of the fabled white lions at Timbavati National Park on the border of the Kruger National Park.

Spotted Hyena

The hyena could well be Africa’s most ruthless killer. Many people think that hyenas are simply scavengers, but in fact they hunt and kill over 90% of their own prey, although they are also very good at stealing prey from nearly all the other predators, including lions. They don’t try this with adult male lions, but they will certainly try and chase smaller groups of lionesses off their kill and depending on the size of the pack of hyenas, they can be very successful indeed. They are very social animals and live in large co-operative packs which can number over 30 animals. Interestingly, although they look a lot like dogs, they are more closely related to the cat family.

The best places to see these alpha predators in Africa is the Kruger National Park in South Africa and the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. They are a great threat to lion, cheetah and leopard cubs.

What makes them such successful hunters? Basically it is all about their build and technique. Hyenas are actually one of the smallest of the carnivorous predators in Africa, but they are built for stamina. Their hearts are nearly twice the size of that of an adult male lion, even though they weigh less than half, and their front legs are longer than their back legs, which gives them a most peculiar gait. However, these two characteristics together ensure that they can keep up a relentless loping pace for literally hours. Their prey is mostly small antelope, although they will sometime pursue larger grazers such as wildebeest. They simply surround the animal and chase it until the unfortunate creature collapses from exhaustion. The pack then pounces and a feeding frenzy ensues while the animal is still alive, without any actual attack having occurred.

Hyenas seldom attack humans, but there have been instances of them eating villagers who were sleeping out in the open. Hyenas are found in just about every national park and game reserve throughout Africa, wherever there are wide open plains, their preferred hunting grounds. They are a great threat to lion, cheetah and leopard cubs and their superior hearing (have you noticed their enormous ears?) means that they can pick up small sounds from as far away as a kilometre enabling them to easily locate dens and grab the cubs when the adults are off hunting.

Although they are ferocious and ruthless hunters, hyenas make very good parents and are fiercely protective of their own young. The best places to see these alpha predators in Africa is the Kruger National Park in South Africa and the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.

Leopard

The elusive leopard is a very successful solitary hunter and manages to thrive in many areas very close to human occupation without being detected. In the wilds they are particularly fond of smaller antelope and baboons. Leopards do not chase their prey; they prefer to stalk their prey with feline stealth and then pounce at the right moment. The actual kill is quick and clean - they suffocate their prey by holding their mouth and nose closed.

In South Africa the best place to see leopard is in the Sabi Sands Reserve near the Kruger National Park, where the leopards are so habituated to the game-viewing vehicles that they completely ignore them.

Because they are solitary animals they face a lot of opposition from other predators and are frequently driven off their kill by hyenas and lions. However, they have learnt to overcome this threat by dragging their prey up into a tree where they can consume it at their leisure. Their impressive strength means that they can successfully hoist animals that are larger than themselves up into the canopy, away from marauding scavengers.

Many people on a safari really battle to spot leopard in the bush as they are so skilled at camouflaging themselves. In South Africa the best place to see leopard is in the Sabi Sands Reserve near the Kruger National Park, where the leopards are so habituated to the game-viewing vehicles that they completely ignore them and wonderful up-close sightings are common.

In other national parks and reserves they are most often spotted resting in the large trees (especially Acacia Trees) alongside river beds. Leopards will also generally be more relaxed and easier to spot in areas that have few or no lions, and the Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya is a good place to look for them. There are also good sightings reporting in the North and South Luangwa National Parks in Zambia and the Maasai Mara in Kenya.

Wild Dog (aka African Painted Dog)

The wild dog was a much maligned animal that has been persecuted by humans to the brink of extinction in many parts of Africa. Whole packs have been poisoned or shot as they were considered to be a threat to domestic live stock, as well as due to their reputation as relentless and marauding hunters in the wilds. However, the wild dog simply hunts to eat, which is a lot more than can be said about their greatest enemy, Man! In more recent decades the animal has been better understood but the realization has come rather late and they are now extremely endangered everywhere in Africa.

The Wild Dogs instinctively hunt with chilling military-like precision. Their modus operandi is to settle on a particular unfortunate animal and then commence the chase.

Wild dogs live in sociable packs of between 6 and 30 animals - apparently their prowess as hunters becomes less efficient when the pack numbers less than 6 adults. They instinctively hunt with chilling military-like precision. Their modus operandi is to settle on a particular unfortunate animal and then commence the chase. Half the pack will be on the heels of their prey, while the other half hang back, conserving their energy so that they can replace the front-runners when they get tired. They also fan out around their prey which enables them to attack from the flanks, as well as the rear. Once prey has been identified, wild dogs very seldom fail in executing the hunt.

When the prey is exhausted from running the kill ensues; they usually dispatch the animal by disembowelling it, and the kill can be spectacularly bloody and disturbing to watch. The animals devour their prey as quickly as possible, before they get chased off the kill by other predators which will have picked up the blood-scent. Pups are fed regurgitated food by their mothers when they return to the den, and are kept far away from the kill.

Wild dogs are found in small numbers in several national parks around Southern and East Africa, but since their range is huge, it is very difficult to get accurate sightings; they tend to suddenly appear in areas where they have been absent for years, and then just as quickly they disappear again for months on end. The best places to see them are the Kruger National Park in South Africa, Kwando and Linyati in Botswana and the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania.

Cheetah

The cheetah may well be Africa’s fastest land animal, but it lacks strength and stamina. It has to rely on short sharp bursts of phenomenal speed to rapidly catch its prey as it is not able to maintain this speed for long distances. So, the cheetah has become a master of camouflage, enabling it to get really close to its prey before starting the chase; since they prefer to hunt out in the open, there is seldom much natural cover to hide in, so cheetah will keep a very low profile, belly-crawling below the most modest ant-hills or slight depressions in the bush. When they do break cover their speed is quite incredible, and they can go from stationery to 100kph in just a few seconds

The cheetah may well be Africa’s fastest land animal, but it lacks strength and stamina.

Once the cheetah catches its prey they suffocate it by a bite to the neck. Their favourite meal is a small antelope, but they are also adept at hunting hares and other small mammals, and will also help themselves to small live stock, which regularly brings them into conflict with humans, and has led to greatly reduced numbers of this beautiful and elegant member of the big cats. Once the cheetah has made a kill it needs to eat very quickly indeed as it is not strong enough to protect its kill from the advances of all the other predators that get of whiff of the blood scent.

Cheetah are very good mothers, but it is a sad fact that almost 70% of cheetah cubs born in the wilds will be killed by other predators. Because cheetah are solitary animals, they find it very difficult to protect their cubs and hunt at the same time; other predators will quickly sniff-out the youngsters in their den and kill them while the mother is out hunting. Even if she is close to the den, she lacks the physical strength to take on larger cats like lions and leopards, while hyena and wild dogs outnumber her completely. Cheetah are found in most of Africa’s national parks, albeit in small numbers, wherever there are wide open plains; they tend to do better in areas where there are fewer lions. A few of the best places to see them are Kwando in Botswana, Tswalu in the Kalahari, Phinda in South Africa and the Serengeti in Tanzania

Important roles of predators

There are several other small predators out there such as jackal, mongoose, and fox, but none of them are in the same league as the top five.

Predators may be ruthless and fearsome, but they play a very important role in nature by keeping population numbers stable and removing old, sick and injured animals. In addition, they may actually pay a pivotal role in the eco-systems of the world by keeping the numbers of grass-eating animals in check, and thus protected entire species of inter-reliant plants. Unfortunately, man is their greatest enemy, and still has to learn that wherever he intervenes in nature, the normal balance is upset and there are almost always some serious repercussions.

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