I was in Satara Camp, a fenced camp in the Kruger National Park; my hut number 179 was right at the fence. As dusk slipped in, predators began to patrol the outside fence boundary seeking handouts from rule breaking guests. Inside the fence tourists patrol, torch in hand, to see what’s on the other side; fence walkers I call them.
My first night the on patrol were hyena; a large awkward looking animal equipped with one of the strongest jaws of the African land. A couple of jackal were on patrol as well. The animals walked the fence-line head down smelling for any prize that might have been tossed over.
On my second night, I sat by the fire having just finished a delicious meal; cocktail in hand when a grandfather and grandson duo from a hut two doors down came back from fence walking. They stopped to say hello and told me of a hyena down the way with a broken leg who was being harassed and bitten by other hyenas. I walked down to see the action, but the animals had already dispersed by the time I got there.
Ten minutes passed when I heard a noise. Shining the torch at the fence I watched a hyena walk close to me then lay down. I was a bit stunned as this seemed like odd behavior. Shining the torch into the distance around her I saw more eyes and assumed this to be the hyena our neighbor mentioned. I got closer to the fence. The hyena looked up at me but didn’t move; the rest of the hyena disappeared from my lights view. I shined the light on this laying hyena’s legs and back end to see any signs of trauma; bones protruding, cuts or blood but saw nothing. Just as I was about to think this was just a tired hyena, and not the one mentioned being harassed earlier, she stood up and with only her front legs - both back legs drawn up, dangling, never touching the ground - she “walked” to a new spot and laid down again.
In her new position I again looked for blood, cuts, bite marks or any sign that her back legs were broken but found none. In a bit of shock at what I just witnessed I sat back down at my fire and thought about the situation, occasionally shining the light on her. Eventually, when I shined the light she was gone.
Below is the only picture we got of her as she laid by the fence.
I went to bed that night thinking – like the neighbor said – she was a hyena with a broken leg or legs. But every time the sounds of the Africa bush awoke me that night, I thought about her and what had transpired. There was no sign of trauma at all on her body and I got a good look at both sides. There was no blood at all. And when she got up and “walked’ on her two front legs she did so with no visible or audible signs of pain. Not to mention it is a feat for a four legged animal to walk on only her two front legs and this hyena did so with no stumbling, as if she had perfected the art; not like she had just broken her legs and was trying to figure it out.
I concluded that she was born deformed; her two back legs not fully formed. If that were the case, I would assume she would have been rejected by her own clan and therefore would be on her own scavenging others’ kills and patrolling a camp fence for handouts.
That night, another clan must have come upon her and harassed her which our neighbor witnessed. After her harassers moved, on she came to my quiet part of the fence to rest before continuing her patrol.
I will never know the truth. The story will remain filled with holes and speculation unless someone out there also saw this hyena and can shed any light. Until then, I choose to believe she is still patrolling Satara; lonely but surviving as best she can.
As a footnote, the one time game ranger, now a cinematographer and producer Kim Wolhuter read this story and contacted me via messenger. He had been following a hyena in Botswana with the same infliction and he too thinks it was a birth defect. Until he read my story, Kim had not heard of another with the same deformity.