The Mystery of the Madikwe Contact Call | A Chance Encounter

As the sun sets over the Madikwe plains, the silence is shattered by a loud cry. It’s a low sound, that moves higher into a howl, the unmistakable call of a spotted hyena, and its symphony speaks volumes about the complex social structure of these often-misunderstood creatures. 

I’ve witnessed countless hyena interactions in the Madikwe, each etched in my memory, but this encounter was special and a true testament to the intricate communication system that binds a clan together. 

It was an exciting day out on safari with our guests. We had incredible sightings on the other side of the western sector of the reserve and the spotting of two male cheetahs. We stopped for drinks and snacks near a herd of zebra before calling it a day to head back to the lodge for dinner. Little did we know, we were about to drive up over the edge of Tlou dam to a cacophony of sounds and sights.

First to catch our eye was a herd of elephants with young calves, playing in the water. Nearby, a brown hyena appeared over the dam wall just as a herd of wildebeest appeared to get their drink before the sun set and they would have to retreat into the sanctity of the bush. A giraffe in the distance; it couldn’t get better than this. I was so excited to have stumbled on such a picturesque scene for our guests. 

One of my guests had a particular fascination with the spotted hyena and I had hoped we would find one for her, however they had been elusive in the thickets. Then, without a beat – we saw one, two, three spotted hyenas emerge from the bush. They made their way around the dam, making sure to avoid the elephants and other mammals nearby. My guests were in awe, watching as they moved past the vehicle to the water for a drink. There was silence, apart from the elephants frolicking in the water on the other side of the dam. 

And that’s when we heard it. A deliberate call from a hyena to our right, that our guests had not noticed as they were fixated on the happenings at the dam. Instinctively, the other members of the clan perked up, their gazes fixed on the young female.  

Different to the hyena ‘laugh’, which is associated with excitement or submission, but rather a series of yelps, urgent and inquisitive in search of connection. This encounter held a unique charm, offering a glimpse into the world of a young hyena navigating the intricate social tapestry of her clan, her need for reassurance of familiar voices and the comfort of belonging. 

Within moments, there was a flurry of activity within the clan as more hyenas emerged from the bush. Ears swiveled and heads turned. The young female continued her call, disappearing next to the vehicle deep into the Madikwe bush, calling as she went. Some hyenas, as many as 6 or 7 now, trotted closer to us and the direction the female had gone, reaffirming their hearing of her call. 

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Young female hyena

Spotted hyenas have an intricate communication system, built on various vocalisations of whoops, growls and giggles. This system allows hyenas to coordinate hunts, raise their young and navigate the complexities of their social hierarchy. In this case, the young female was looking to make contact with her clan, find where they were and let them know where she was going. 

Watching this reunion of the clan was a reminder of the power of connection. It shatters the myths of ruthless scavengers that we have all heard of and revealed a social structure of cooperation and communication of these fascinating animals.  

So, the next time you hear the haunting call of a hyena, remember, it’s not just a sound. It is a window into their world where survival relies on unity and communication is the key to their success. When visiting the Madikwe Game Reserve, keep your ears open. You might be lucky enough to witness the hyena’s powerful sound and their language coming alive: a reminder of the interconnectedness of life in the wild. 

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