The conflict with lions
The diet of spotted hyenas overlaps with that of lions. Spotted hyenas successfully hunt almost any prey species that they encounter, from rabbits and gazelles to 800 kg heavy buffaloes and elands. But spotted hyenas are not the only large predator living in the Ngorongoro Crater. Spotted hyenas and lions compete over prey almost every day, especially when they kill large prey.
Against common belief, lions steal more kills from hyenas than vice versa in the Ngorongoro Crater and hyenas hunt most of their food themselves. This should not come as a surprise because the up to 550 spotted hyenas in the Crater cannot possibly live of the remains of kills of 25 to 40 adult lions.
When hyenas compete over a kill with adult male lions, the lions will always dominate or take over the kill, no matter how many hyenas are recruited. The hyenas may nevertheless harass feeding lion males to make them abandon the kill or distract them by taking scraps of meat and bones. In most cases though, the hyenas will simply lie down in the vicinity and patiently wait for the lions to become too hot or full and leave the carcass.
Lions are the main cause of death for hyenas in the Ngorongoro Crater. Male lions are twice the size of a spotted hyena and three to four times as heavy, and one single paw stroke can kill an adult hyena. Lions may stalk hyenas at their resting places and try to surprise hyenas approaching kills. At night, lions also frequently attack hyena cubs at the communal den in an attempt to kill them. Hyenas killed by lions often have their spine broken and/or skull perforated. Hyenas therefore are careful during encounters with adult lions for good reason.
Spotted hyenas stand a chance against lionesses. Hyenas can keep or take over kills if the group of lions they encounter consists of females and young males and if they manage to recruit at least six times more members than the lions. In the Ngorongoro Crater, it is quite common to see a group of hyenas hold their ground against lionesses or ‘sharing’ a large kill with a lioness.
Höner OP, Wachter B, East ML, Hofer H (2002) The response of spotted hyaenas to long-term changes in prey populations: functional response and interspecific kleptoparasitism. Journal of Animal Ecology 71: 236-246.